The WGF Blog:

Dispatches from the far reaches of the WGF.

5 Tips for Studying Scripts

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If you’re aspiring to become a writer (or perhaps aspiring to become a better one), some of the most helpful advice you’ll ever receive sits in plain sight at the WGF Library. You just have to know where to look.

Hint: Look at the cork board directly to the right of the glass door when you exit. Tacked there, is a three-page document entitled “Notes on Writing by Gene Roddenberry.” In it, Mr. Star Trek himself lays out a simple, personal manifesto on what it takes to learn the craft and persist as a screen storyteller.

Here’s a passage:

In the early stage of my career, I began outlining every television play or motion picture or novel I had seen. In the outlines, I would try to analyze what caught my interest, why I identified with a certain person, why that person became important to me, what needs kept me intrigued, how the story built to a climax, and so on. While doing this, I continued to write my thousand words a day… and more of it crap than I care to remember. One day, some of it began to come together, and I found myself becoming able to read my own work and criticize it as if it were someone else’s.

I share this because Mr. Roddenberry has a point. That’s why we keep his wise words posted to the wall.

The Billy Wilder Reading Room reminds me of a high school dissection lab. Except here, people aren’t cutting into rats or cats, they’re dissecting scripts. They’re hunched over our Grant Tinker / MTM Writers’ Room Table reading everything from Casablanca to episodes of Atlanta, trying to catch a glimpse of the inner workings, trying to figure out what makes it tick, trying to find inspiration.

To know how to create a blueprint for what will become a movie or TV show, a screenwriter must become intimately familiar with such blueprints. A screenwriter must study scripts.

And just like there’s no wrong way to eat a Reese’s, there’s not really a wrong way to study a script. There are, however, a few practices you can abide by to respect the work of fellow writers, to respect the integrity of the profession and to really ensure that you gain something from the experience. When you find yourself lucky enough to get your hands on a script that speaks to you (either in our library or someplace else), here are a few tips to help you get the most out of it.

1. FOCUS ON YOUR FEELINGS RATHER THAN OBSESSING OVER FORMAT

When you sit down with a script, focus on how the writer uses words and technique to make you experience the full range of emotions in the story along with the character. Why do you feel for the protagonist or another character? What is the writer doing to make you feel that way? How does the writer construct the character’s arc, step by step? How does the writer evoke a sense of atmosphere and movement with limited words? How does the writer ramp up tension to keep you fascinated as you read? What’s the obligatory scene in the movie or the emotional promise of the show that keeps you turning the page?

In the library, I sometimes notice that patrons who are writing spec scripts for certain series feel the urgent need to read the most recent season or look at scripts for very specific episodes. They feel they must emulate the format, style and wording to a T for their spec to be deemed successful. My advice is: Don’t fret so much about crossing your t’s and dotting your i’s. Remember to focus on how the writing of the show makes you feel (giving attention to structure and tone). You can get all the information you need from actually sitting down and watching the show and taking notes. Having access to the scripts then becomes a great bonus to get your spec looking and sounding as true to the original as possible. Your objective, above all else, should be to tell the kind of story that they tell on that series—and to tell it so well, readers feel the same way they feel when they watch the show. Your feelings (and how the writer elicits them) are the most important things to extrapolate.

2. TAKE NOTES BY HAND

Bring a notebook and pen to the library or to your couch when you sit down to watch something. When you write by hand, you slow down and retain more information. Taking notes by hand also ensures that you’re in your own thoughts rather than copying someone else’s. You’re paying attention to your gut and jotting down what grabs your attention and why.

It might sound obvious, but it needs to be said: Copying is detrimental to the craft of writing. The age-old adage is true: Immature artists copy while mature artists steal. Most of us aren’t even cognizant of doing it. When an amazing writer hands us a perfect line of action or character description, we’re sometimes apt to use the exact same words in our own scripts. Earlier in the year, I wrote a blog post about how a lack of original word choice can perpetuate cliches, stereotypes and harmful behaviors in the wider entertainment industry. Using someone else’s exact words dumbs writing down to the point that lots of scripts can start to feel very similar to each other. Your own words are valuable in that they are unique. Use them.

Type when you’re writing your own script. Write by hand when you’re taking notes on somebody else’s. In fact, write by hand as often as you can. It just encourages more thoughtfulness.

3. ATTRIBUTE! ATTRIBUTE! ATTRIBUTE!

Recently, there’s been a surge in online articles that focus on descriptions in screen and teleplays. If you’re going to quote someone else’s (by the way, unpublished) work for the fair purpose of critique, the absolute least you can do is credit the writer. This is like copying the text of a tweet rather than just re-tweeting it. Failing to acknowledge the author, completely disrespects the original thought as well as the very hard work of the person who wrote it.

Even if you don’t mean to, it seems like you’re trying to pass the thought off as your own. While this sort of behavior is rampant in our all-access, online culture, you’d hate it if somebody did this to you. It lessens the very value of thoughts and ideas. Historian Danielle McGuire puts it in better terms than I ever could in this great article for the Columbia Journalism Review.

4. DON’T EVER STOP READING AND DON’T BE AFRAID TO READ OUTSIDE YOUR COMFORT ZONE

Read a ton. Don’t ever stop reading. The more you read, the more stories, styles and information will have an impact on you. Read scripts outside your wheelhouse and aspirations. Your genre of choice might be romantic comedy, but you can still become better at writing description by reading the Alien screenplay. Your style might be more atmosphere or action-oriented. That doesn’t mean you can’t strengthen your understanding of dialogue by reading screwball comedies or The West Wing. If you regularly read all sorts of scripts, you’ll have more tactics to draw on when you sit down to write and, as a result, you’ll have a richer voice.

5. IF YOU’RE SUCCESSFUL, SHARE

Remember that writers learn from reading and if you’re in the enviable position of having written a film or TV show that has an effect on people, share what you know. A very simple way to give mentorship to aspiring writers is, of course, to provide access to your scripts by donating them to a script library. (Wink wink.)

And if you’re eager to see the rest of Gene Roddenberry’s thoughts on writing, come visit the WGF script library sometime soon.