Write Great Screenplays by Reading All Screenplays

By Eric Owusu · August 24, 2014

In order to become well versed at a craft, one must do more than practice. Athletes, comedians, even surgeons have to watch footage of themselves and others doing what they do. They learn by watching, then by doing. And writers can learn to write well by reading screenplays. English writer and critic Samuel Johnson once said “The greatest part of a writer’s time is spent in reading, in order to write; a man will turn over half a library to make one book.” It takes time and study to become good enough to create a great piece of writing. Writers have to constantly be reading screenplays to learn how to create them, but also to know what exactly makes them fly or flop.

To write a good screenplay, a writer has to know what’s good in other screenplays. We can’t know why Chewy and Han Solo’s friendship is so relatable, why it’s so easy to cheer for Forrest Gump, or exactly why Hitchcock’s Psycho is so gripping if we don’t familiarize ourselves with their screenplays. A writer has to be a student of writing, gorging themselves on great screenplays and bad screenplays alike. When I read screenplays and break them plot point by plot point, I see what elements work and which ones don’t. I do my best to emulate successful plot development, twists, and dialogue I see in professional scripts.

It’s good to see what screenplays are currently being professionally produced, too. They give insight into what studios are buying and how successful writers are at crafting scripts. So in addition to reading good screenplays, writers should also watch their resulting films. Even though movies don’t always come out exactly as written, it’s good for writers to see what from the screenplays were kept in the movie. It’s a visual representation of what the studio, director, and to some extent the writer came together and decided to translate from page to projection. A studious writer can see what made it through the pipeline of moving a screenplay through to becoming a feature film.

To write well in general, one has to see it done and mimic it. Artists learning calligraphy have to watch instructors demonstrate proper execution in order to emulate the skill and learn to create their own work. The same is true for writing a good screenplay. After a writer reads good scripts, it’s time to dissect. Once a writer understands the mechanics of laying out a good screenplay structure from observing plot done well in someone else’s screenplay, they can do the same in their own screenplays. Sometimes while I watch great movies, I write a detailed account of what happens in every scene. Then when I go to write my own script, I refer to those notes when I’m stuck trying to decide on a direction to take my protagonist or how to develop a relationship within ninety-plus pages. If I have accompanying written material like that movie’s script, my exercise is all the more effective. 

It’s important to always read scripts. Then reread them. The same way people who do research and practice medicine read medical journals to keep their knowledge and skills sharp, we writers have to read our professional literature all the time. These scripts have great stories and illustrate how said stories come together, so it’s in our best interest to be as familiar with them as possible. Here's a great starting point. And remember to write a lot. Come up with story ideas, interesting characters, and inventive settings and mimic the techniques of captivating storytelling you’ve gleaned from examining all of those screenplays. Then rewrite. A lot. Do it until you're so excited that you're wondering why no one has made that screenplay you're holding onto.