It’s safe to say that I’ve always been a fan of television and movies. According to my mom, I had The Wizard of Oz on repeat when I was a child. When I got older and smarter (and a lot more devious), I would sneak out after bedtime to catch as much of The Sopranos as I could before my parents caught me.
It’s no surprise that two decades later, I’m living in the movie and television capital of the world, attending one of its top film schools, and working my butt off to write movies and television that measure up to those that inspired me as a child.
When Sarah Ramsey published her article on how watching television can make you a better writer, I beat myself up over not thinking of the idea first. And damn, she wrote a good article.
But as I read it, I realized that I’ve grown as a writer not just from watching television but also from reading the screenplays and teleplays that give those shows a baseline.
I probably read more screenplays in a year than I do books and articles, and all that reading has contributed to my writing in all genres.
Not Just a Film Thing
If you’re reading this, and you’re not a screenwriter, you may be thinking “I don’t see how reading screenplays will help me write that article or blog post.”Well, bear with me here.
My philosophy on writing, and basically any creative field, is that you write to make people feel and/or understand. If you’re not doing it for one of these two reasons—or both!— you’re not doing it right.
The Social Network, a film written by Aaron Sorkin, is an adaptation of a book, which is a nonfiction account of the creation of Facebook. I could have learned about the creation of Facebook from either of these formats. I could have also read an article about it. I could have learned about Mark Zuckerberg in so many different ways, but it was the particular narrative depicted in the film that I connected with. For someone else, the book might have been what they connected with.
Each one of these mediums was able to accomplish the same thing, but through a different creative format. So, why not become a better writer by exploring one of those different formats?
With that in mind, I’ve come up with five things you can learn about writing from reading screenplays.
Interpretation Can’t Always Be Controlled
The biggest lesson I’ve learned from both reading and writing scripts is that interpretation is everything … and it’s really damn hard to control someone else’s interpretation.
But you can certainly try.
There have been bad films with good scripts and good films with bad scripts (plus the good/good, bad/bad combos). That’s all because of how the scripts were interpreted. Not just by the director, but by the producers, actors, editors, set designers, composers, and any other crew member who had any creative say in the final product.
They all interpreted the script in some way, but was it the way the writer intended? That’s the deciding factor.
Take, for instance, Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The movie, not the TV series. (Joss Whedon has been a huge influence on my writing, and I’ll get into more detail on that below.) He’s written great film and TV, like Cabin in the Woods and Firefly. And he made Buffy the Vampire Slayer into one of the best shows of all time.
But the movie is one big pile of garbage.
How come? It still has that spark that Whedon infuses into all of his scripts, and the movie came out only five years before the show, so it’s not like the idea changed or even the writing.
However, the interpretation was all wrong. The director and producers dumbed down scenes and concepts, the actors changed lines right before the camera started rolling, and the set was so out of control that Whedon left when he realized it couldn’t be saved.
But when he found people who could interpret the story as he intended, in the form of a series, magic happened.
When it comes to writing blog posts, articles, and books, however, the interpretation ends there. Unless someone decides to adapt your writing into a movie or series, you have full control over your product.
Or do you?
Even if you think you have full control over your content, people are going to interpret it the way they see it. Editors, publishers, and readers will all have something to say about what you’ve written. Some of it will be helpful, and some of it won’t. Unfortunately, you can’t always dictate what people will or won’t understand, feel, or learn from your writing.
The Reader’s Experience Matters
While film and television are primarily visual media, as I’ve studied more and more screenplays, I’ve realized that the experience you give the reader always matters. No matter what you’re writing.
Length is a great example.
If you’re writing a film, you want to aim for 100–120 pages. If you’re writing a TV show, you aim for anywhere between 30 and 70 pages.
The person reading the script expects it, and you should deliver.
When I volunteered for a script competition, we received a 183-page screenplay that was supposed to be sent out to a group of prestigious judges (who also volunteered their time for the competition).
It didn’t matter if 183 pages was what that writer needed to tell the story perfectly. It was still 183 pages, and pushing the limits of that unlucky reader’s experience.
But this is the same issue we deal with as writers and editors in the online world.
I could go on for 10,000 more words about Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but you’re not reading an article about Buffy. Craft Your Content doesn’t want an article about Buffy. And our articles run between 1,500 and 3,000 words. In this instance, the reader’s experience, and what they’ve come here to learn, matters more than everything I want to say about Buffy.
Furthermore, most of the scripts that sell are simple reads, not just because oftheirlength.
Here’s what a script looks like:
It’s mostly dialogue, which takes up a small amount of space in the center of the page. The action lines are left justified and read longer from left to right.
When someone is reading a script, the more action lines there are, the more times their eyes have to move left to right and back to left. So, many screenwriters avoid writing action unless absolutely necessary so that their readers’ eyes don’t get fatigued.
We do the same in online content, except instead of avoiding action lines, we avoid large paragraphs, which can be overwhelming to the reader.
Even if I could combine several paragraphs into one, I want my reader to have a positive reading experience and to focus on the good … not the bad.
Having Fun Is Crucial
In my experience, I’ve seen writers have the most fun on the page in screenplay format. Which is strange because the screenplays that get made have to abide by a budget.
Have I written an episode of supposedly “low budget” television where a shipping container rolls off a truck in the middle of an icy road? Yes.
Will that ever happen on screen? Hell no. I said low budget.
However, pushing the budget isn’t the only way to have fun in your writing.
One of my favorite lines I’ve ever read in a script is from Season 3 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, “Graduation Day Part 1” (I promise this is the last time I talk about Buffy … in this article).
It’s an action line that goes:
“Oz is examining the arrow amidst science paraphernalia. (Swabbing blood off the tip and putting it on a slide. That sounds real sciencey! Did I mention I was an English major?) Willow is giving a list to Xander.”
One of the best elements of Joss Whedon’s writing is his ability to make jokes on the page, even in the most mundane moments or bland descriptions.
And while we don’t see this funny aside on the screen, Whedon had fun writing it, and I had fun reading it. So did, I’m sure, every member of the crew too, and they were able to produce a scene that does what Joss intended.
Wow. Writing. Incredible.
Ever since I realized that I could have fun directly on the page, I’ve learned to let loose, enjoy the process, and infuse my writing with so much personality that someone reading it will know exactly who’s written it.
Which brings me to my next point …
Your Voice Is Important
We know this, we’ve written about it, we have a whole course dedicated to it.
What you write, the language you use, your experiences, your intentions, your interpretations. All of these things contribute to your voice and your personality as a writer.
Reading screenplays has taught me how important establishing a voice is in this industry, because the most popular filmmakers and creators have such strong voices.
Joss Whedon, Aaron Sorkin, Quentin Tarantino, and Darren Aronofsky (though I hate his voice) are all well-known filmmakers who have a distinct style.
Whedon writes quippy dialogue and action, finding light in the darkest situations. Sorkin’s writing is snappy and fast-paced, mirroring the worlds he writes in. Tarantino fetishizes violence to present his subject matter in a satirical light. Aronofsky tests the limits of reality and perception.
They rarely deviate from their established voices, and if they do, they succeed because people know they’ve done it deliberately. Much Ado About Nothing is still so obviously a Whedon film, but Shakespeare wrote it.
I don’t take myself seriously on the page; I like writing intense, often depressing situations, and I like humor when humor isn’t appropriate. I do all three in every piece I write, no matter the subject, and the only way those three things work is because it’s my voice. I can’t write any other way, and I’m not going to change.
Don’t change your voice. Whedon hasn’t.
Take Risks and Break Rules
As I said at the beginning of this article, I read more scripts in a year than I do books. So I’ve read a ton of scripts.
The ones I have loved most are the ones that have taken risks. Get Out won best original screenplay at the Oscars because it was brilliant and risky.
And it was so good. And it broke so many of the “rules” many people thought dictated film.
In 2016, America’s dirty laundry got majorly exposed. Making a satirical horror film about race relations? Bold. Making white supremacy the societal antagonist? Bolder. Making a suburban white family the villains? Holy Moly Boldy.
While I do believe there are rules to writing, I also believe there aren’t.
Screenplay format is the way it is because it’s universally understood by everyone who works in the industry. Grammar rules exist because they create a universal standard for a language that everyone can understand.
Except we’re not robots. If you tweak something, our brains won’t shut down.
On the show United States of Tara, Diablo Cody uses multiple names for the protagonist, based on her multiple personalities. Usually, if you used two names for your main character, you’d have two entirely different characters in the eyes of anyone reading it. But Diablo Cody justifies her breaking of the rules. And we get it. And it’s acceptable.
What I’ve learned from reading screenplays, teleplays, books, and articles alike is this: If you have a reason for breaking the rules, then break the damn rules!
And even if you’re unsure, take the risk. It may just win you an Oscar.
Diversify What You Read
If you haven’t read a screenplay yet, then I hope I’ve convinced you to do so. You can learn about writing in so many different ways, from watching television, to listening to podcasts, to doing improv.
Why not diversify your reading a bit more? I’ve certainly learned a few things from it.
My assignment for you is to pick your favorite movie or television show, find its script, and then read it. Then, take stock of what you’ve learned. Even if it doesn’t contain the secret to great writing (which it won’t), I’m willing to bet you’ll learn, understand, and feel something.
That’s the point of it all, right?