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How to Get the Most out of Reading Screenplays

(If You Want to Be a Screenwriter)

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If you’re trying to improve your screenwriting skills, you probably read a fair number of screenplays. (And if you don’t, let’s change that!)

You learn a lot just by reading a lot. You start to get a feel for the shape of a good story. You sense rhythm and pacing. You notice how some scripts pull you in and don’t let go and others are a slog to get through. If you read enough scripts, you will observe these things.

But are you really getting the most out of what you’re reading?

Why screenwriters should analyze screenplays

As screenwriters, our job is to be problem solvers. The first step in solving a problem is being able to identify it. Then you have to understand what’s at the root of it. Seeing and understanding what’s not working is a key part of the skillset necessary to be a working writer.

Which brings us back to the importance of reading a lot of screenplays. Except it goes beyond reading. We’re talking about reading to learn. Analyzing. And through that practice, developing a sense for how a story works and how to fix it if it doesn’t.

How to read screenplays

So what should you pay attention to when reading screenplays? Start with what you’re feeling.

Personally, I think everything boils down to the two reader red flags: boredom and frustration. When you’re reading and you notice yourself getting bored, frustrated, or even restless or distracted – something isn’t working as well as it could.

When you sense a red flag, begin to look more closely at it. What’s the nature of that red flag?

Common signs that something’s not working are:

  • You’re confused, and you don’t think it’s intentional.
  • You don’t know what the main character is trying to do.
  • You’re not sure why the character is doing what they’re doing.
  • You don’t care what happens.

Reader red flags have many root causes. Start to notice when you’re feeling bored or frustrated as you read, and then get in the habit of figuring out why.

And, of course, when the script is working:

  • You’re leaning in.
  • You can’t read fast enough.
  • You can’t put it down.

Those good feelings are worth noting too. When something is working, take the opportunity to examine how it’s put together. Can you see the moving parts? What can you learn from the example?

Questions you can ask to help you understand how a story works:

  • Who’s the protagonist? Where did that become clear?
  • Are you rooting for the protagonist and why?
  • What’s at stake? Bonus points: Where and how do the stakes escalate?
  • What’s the main force of antagonism?
  • Is there a clear throughline in the story?
  • What are the key relationships and how do those supporting characters help or hinder the main character’s pursuit of the goal?
  • Does this series of events cause the protagonist to change? If so, how?
  • What’s the thematic takeaway?

That’s a good starting point, and you can also reference this list of story analysis questions to help you get the most out of what you’re reading. The key is to look at how the screenplay answers each question, if what it does works or not – and why. (And these questions are just as good to apply to a screenplay you’re reading as to one you’re writing!)

ADVANCE YOUR STORY

Write that screenplay - and make it great! Sign up to get a weekly dose of screenwriting info sent straight to your inbox, starting with my 15-page logline guide.

Subscribe