How to Learn Screenwriting by Reading Screenplays


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As Seen On

A lot of people talk about how important it is for aspiring screenwriters to read screenplays.

Good advice, but incomplete. Reading passively won’t teach you much. That’s right – reading just for enjoyment won’t seed screenwriting skills into your brain.

If you really want to learn by reading, you have to read to learn. That means reading analytically, examining and processing what you’re consuming. Always asking yourself, “Does it work? If so, how? If not, why not – what’s missing?

In this series we’re going to try to cover tips for reading screenplays in search of screenwriting lessons.

And, just to make it fun, this week I’m offering a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure selection of horror-ish screenplays for you to practice on. But before you download and dive in, let’s talk about what to look for this week.

As you know, there are a million interlocking things a good screenplay gets right. One of the challenges of reading to learn is seeing only the seamless finished product. We need to take that complete whole and look at the parts that make it up, examine how they work together. How do they do what they do.

So even though this may feel basic, it’s the perfect place to start.

In this first installment of the series, let’s look at how the screenplay establishes the foundation pieces and how the structure creates a journey for the reader.

The screenplay foundation

The first layer of story elements creates the foundation for the story, and for the audience’s experience of the story.

It works both ways. We need to think about the parts we need in order to build an effective story. But we can also look at it from the other direction, as in – what does the audience need to be able to identify in the story in order to have the desired experience.

The foundation of the story really comes down to: who wants what, why do they want it, and what’s stopping them?

When you’re reading, ask yourself if you can identify who the main character is. And more importantly – how do you know? What clues and evidence are presented in order to place your focus there?

What is the protagonist pursuing? What is the goal that drives the main conflict? When do you have a sense of that main conflict, the main thrust of the story?

Why does the protagonist embark on this pursuit? What does he/she stand to lose? What does it mean to him/her?

What’s opposing that goal? Where is the conflict coming from?

And, as always – how do you draw each of these conclusions? What do you see in the script that creates that understanding?

How structure creates a journey for the reader

The major plot points create a spine for the story. The reader follows this spine, tracking the story along the way. These major turns also create the basis for the audience’s emotional experience of the story.

When any of the major plot points isn’t connected or aligned, the reader senses something is off.

Keeping in mind we’re reading to learn, we don’t want to stop at that nagging feeling that something’s not quite right. We want to identify why it’s not working.

So to analyze whether the major plot points work or not, we want to think about:

1) Whether they fulfill the story function, and
2) Whether they create the desired effect on the reader

Major plot points – functions and effects

The Inciting Incident creates a disruption in the protagonist’s status quo that must be dealt with. In this way it kicks the story into motion. This plot point makes the reader think, “Now what is he going to do??”

The Break into Act 2 launches us into the Act 2 Adventure – the main thrust of the story, the attempt to resolve the main conflict. At this plot point the turn in the story makes the reader think, “Ah! That’s what he’s going to do.” And hopefully we’re also engaged and invested in whether the protagonist will succeed.

The Midpoint is a big escalation in the main conflict and/or the stakes for the protagonist. It makes the audience anticipate or dread a little more, care a little (or a lot) more, and lean in to find out what will happen next, how this will all shake out for the protagonist.

The Break into Act 3 launches us into the true resolution of the main conflict. At this plot point, the audience understands what a long, difficult, and hopefully meaningful experience this has been for the protagonist and we’re rooting for him to succeed in the climax of the story.

And then the Climax resolves the main conflict. It answers the question the audience has been tracking since the Break into Act 2. It satisfies our brains, gives us peace of mind by closing the open loop.

Keep in mind that if you’re just starting out it may be easier to identify these turns in the story after you’ve read the entire script, rather than trying to pick them out as you go. You can see the shape of it and how the parts work together when you step back and look at the whole.

Your “learn screenwriting by reading screenplays” homework assignment

Choose a screenplay and start analyzing! To get you started, I’ve selected a few horror-ish scripts. But feel free to do this exercise with any screenplay – maybe one that’s relevant to your current work in progress, or the screenplay for a movie you love. Or even a screenplay you know is flawed, and you want to figure out what’s going on there.

Next week I’ll be back with the next installment, plus an “answer key” for a couple of the scripts linked below.

Optional screenplays to read and analyze

The Autopsy of Jane Doe written by Ian Goldberg & Richard Naing
Orphan written by David Leslie Johnson
Hereditary written by Ari Aster
Get Out written by Jordan Peele


Start with my 3-part email series: "The 3 Essential, Fundamental, Don't-Mess-These-Up Screenwriting Rules." After that, you'll get a weekly dose of pro screenwriting tips and industry insights that'll help you get an edge over the competition.