I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while, since one of the most often asked questions I get is “What script can I read that will help me improve as a writer?”
My answer? There is NO one script that will help you improve as a writer, for no script is perfect. Also, our ability to obtain scripts – whether it’s a transcript, the “right” draft (ie. the one that made it to the screen), etc – is limited largely to the internet. Then there’s your personal preferences, from genre right through to whether you like/dislike certain elements like the camera being referenced, etc etc. Also, how it is on the page often differs wildly from how it actually ends up on screen. As I always say: it’s a minefield.
However I do think there are scripts out there, readily available, that we can learn from if we’re willing to accept that they’re not a “fix all ailments” cure to writing problems we’re having. I’ve gone for some obvious screenplays here, but by all means add your thoughts on others you think offer up some useful tips in the comment section.
1. For a good example of character being set up as the same time as plot, read Sideways By Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor. Of the many scripts I read, often character is set up ahead of plot, when it’s often more desirable to have them go hand in hand. Sideways doesn’t start with a bone-shaking hook, just a sad, hungover man who has to move his car for a neighbour, but it illustrates how put-upon he is and how he lies to himself: he didn’t get ratted last night, he was wine tasting. Yeah. Whatever.
2. For a good example of dialogue that presents characters’ differing world views, read Tremors by S.S. Wilson and Brent Maddock. Val and Earl might be brothers, but their dialogue illustrates their differences not only in age but personality too without ever overstating the case I think.
3. For an example of a great adaptation, read American Psycho by Mary Harron and Guinevere Turner. Regular Readers of the blog will remember this conversation thread that we’ve already debated regarding this movie, but whatever you think of it, I think it’s a shining example of book to film with regard to appreciating they are NOT the same, whilst still retaining that original seed of the story.
4. For a good example of “hitting the ground running” and presenting a protagonist’s problem from the outset, read The Bourne Identity by Tony Gilroy. Another adaptation and quite different to the book if I recall correctly, but still a great start with an interesting hook.
5. For a good example of structure and how the subplot can feed into the main plot, read Pitch Black by Ken and Jim Wheat. What I like about Pitch Black is its main problem – the fact that all of them could be eaten by aliens – is not their only problem: Johns and Riddicks’ struggle for supremacy over each other and thus the group is an admirable subplot (if a little reminsicent of Burke’s treachery in ALIENS!). But subplots can’t last forever and when it ends and Riddick wins over Johns with the fight in front of the sled, the Resolution kicks off. Nice work. This script’s not quite the same as the DVD, but it’s very close.
Got any others? Let us know – and if you have any links, then all the better…
I have trouble reading scripts of made films because I import elements (good acting, special effects, etc.) from the finished film back to the script where they can fill gaps that I’d otherwise have noticed. Any suggestions as to how to circumvent this?
Strangely, I don’t find this with novels that have been filmed: they still become their own imagination-movies.
Just posted a comment on the previous post while this post was going up… and now nobody will ever read it…
Don’t sweat it Jon, I think Chip’s replied and I’m going to when I can. Besides, I get comments on posts months after they go out sometimes.
That’s a strange problem to have for me, since I find reading the script of a produced film positively illuminating: seeing where an actor has made a line work (or not!), seeing where effects have made a difference (or not!) really helps me focus on trying to get the best out of my own work.
But if unproduced scripts are more your thing, perhaps there are some that help you Jon? If so, let us kow what they are and why. I can think of a couple – there were many incarnations of ALIEN 3 doing the rounds in the early 90s that really made me appreciate the notions of differing interpretations and financial constraints: the Walter Hill draft was my fave.
I’ve read all the Alien 3’s and my favourite was the one with the petting zoo that turned into aliens though which draft that was I can’t remember.
I recall reading one early version of Blade Runner many, many years ago (when I still watched the film to steal, er, be inspired by as an art student) which was far longer, with digressions aplenty (all the major characters were Replicants- Deckard, Tyrell, etc., and all explained in pointless detail) and poor pacing. Even back then, purely as an intrigued outsider, I could tell that the film would have gone very wrong had they used it as was.
I couldn’t tell you what draft it was or where it originated as it was bought at a movie-fair by a friend then inherited by me: those were the days when the internet only came in book form. 😉
As they say, we learn from mistakes more than successes.
Sideways is great, but it’s Alexander Payne/Jim Taylor’s fifth/sixth script. By the time they came to write it, and Payne direct, they were already a known quantity.
Wouldn’t it be better to check out writers’ first sales* before they were given latitude?
[First scripts by Shane Black and that Tarantino (Filming Casino Royale was my idea) Twat are null and void]
I wasn’t holding these scripts up for inspiration so much as just elements that I felt were crafted well and *could* help some writers avoid certain pitfalls I see quite frequently, but sure – we could do writers’ first sales too. Any in mind, GD? Or anyone else for that matter?
SPOILERS PRESENT – Usual Suspects.
I really like The Third Man. Got it free on the front of Sight and Sound about 3 years’ back and have read it loads. Think tghe structure is cool and it’s dateless. Got The Usual Suspects too but think that’s arse – weakest is the strongest? How many times have we seen that! Whoops, am I spoilering?? Have put it at top of comment, don’t go nuclear on me anyone.
This’ll obviously sound completely out of context to all and sundry, but, wasn’t it somewhere in deepest darkest Nevada? You were working as a waitress, but it weren’t a coktail bar, more a roadside diner. I thought you’d been slane until I found that aol blog! DM fan, big thumbs up to ya!
(Gothika it’s a top script and the scripts ending is better than the actual film version)
I’ve a stockpile of Sight & Sound freebies but have had concerns about their part in the process. While some are pre-shooting many seem to be based purely on the shooting script or edit script complete with ‘scene deleted’ mark-up. On the other hand, they’re free!
Mike – you’ve done it now!!
Paul – that’s right. Now I recall where we met, how silly of me. The fact that I have never been to Nevada or indeed actually met you shouldn’t spoil a good yarn! ; )
Jon – free is my favourite price. I think as long as we remember that pretty much nothing and no one is a total authority on this screenwriting lark, it’s sorted!
I posted about something similar last year – my picks then were American Beauty, Sex, Lies & Videotape, The Piano and Taxi Driver. I would also probably add Lantana. They’re just scripts that have helped me a lot, so I think others would take something from them too. Anyway, here’s that old post:
Tremors is bloody fantastic. Love that film!