Avoid This Common Mistake When Reading Scripts

By John Finnegan |

I get asked from time to time if it's a good idea to read scripts from existing films. On the surface this might seem like an obvious one - of course you should read other screenplays. It's a great way to learn about story structure, formatting, dialogue and even just how to write visually (something that so many people struggle with).


But along with these benefits comes the trap that many aspiring screenwriters and those starting out in their screenwriting journey fall into when they start reading the scripts to their favourite films; they start imitating the presentation of those scripts without realising that it could be hurting their prospects in the industry.


If you read many scripts available online, particularly those from mainstream films by the big studios, you'll find a whole host of elements in the script that should not be employed by aspiring screenwriters working on their first spec project. These can include camera angels, directors notes, transitions and all sorts of other inclusions that are reserved for the shooting script; the draft of the script prepared by the director prior to going out on set.


Writers assume that because these screenplays are from the big studios that this is what constitutes an exemplar script. They then mimic this style of writing in their own work in an attempt to make a good impression. However, because formatting plays such a big role in determining the skill of a screenwriter (something I take issue with but best left for another post), scripts are rejected outright because the writer dared to include a camera angle or a note that could be construed as an attempt to do the director's job.


So, let's backtrack a little before we continue. You might be asking yourself why it's wrong to include such things. After all, a script is a blueprint for a film so what's the big deal in including a camera reference or a transition? Well, the simple answer is - you're not a cinematographer or an editor. You're not the director (assuming you're plan is to just be a screenwriter). Producers see this as a sign of inexperience, because, surely, an experienced screenwriter would know better. Not always the case, but again, best left for another post.


There's another reason you shouldn't include these elements. Simply put, it looks silly. People write 'Close on' or 'Wide-angle' as though they were mapping out the shot list for the film to come, but they only do this from time to time. If you're going to include a camera angle reference in a scene, why not include one for EVERY shot in the script? Why only these specific ones? Why only include 'cut to:' or "fade to:" at the end of the scenes when there are surely going to be edits mid-scene (probably a dozen "cuts" will take place before the scene is finished).


For me, this is a pointless inclusion in a script that will already heavily suggest how this story is going to be adapted to the screen - as an example: 'a tear rolls down his face' implies that we are going to need a mid-shot or close up. How else will we see this information?


At the end of the day, no one ever lost a screenwriting competition because they didn't put in a camera reference. However, plenty of people have missed out on having their work being taken seriously because they decided it was important to tell us that this beat of action here is a 'close up'.


Okay, so the point you should take from this article is simple; read as many scripts as you can and learn from them. But keep in mind that you don't know the context of how this script was written. It could have been rushed through in order to start production. The writer might have had enough credibility with the studios that they felt they could skirt the unspoken rules of screenwriting. This might also just be a unique in-house style of a bunch of producers or filmmakers who know they don't have to answer to anyone and will write how they want to write.


Don't blindly mimic the style and presentation of the scripts you read. Let common sense and logic prevail.

Bonus Tip: If you want to find screenplays online to read, simply type in the name of the film/tv show in question, followed by 'screenplay pdf' (e.g. 'The Matrix Screenplay Pdf'). You'll quickly find what you're looking for.


And if you don't fancy reading screenplays, you can always listen to them. Our podcast, The Script Department, has over 40 episodes of original script readings accompanied by atmospheric sound and cinematic music. Listen wherever you get your podcasts!

John Finnegan is an Executive Producer at The Script Department and a Senior Lecturer in screenwriting at Falmouth University. Find him @johnfinnegan247

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