The best way to learn to write a screenplay is to read the movies you love.
Trying to get better at writing screenplays?
One of the easiest and cheapest ways is to get free scripts online!
After years and years of telling myself there is no correct way to write a screenplay, I may be ready to finally give up the fantasy. In undergrad, as a theater major, I was constantly taught that there were many outlets for creative writing, thus no formula for what makes a successful screen or stage play. Once released from the bonds of academia, I embarked on a long and exhausting journey to create some wholly original "experimental work."
That was four years ago, and I still don't have a finished piece of writing to show for it. To me, this outcome (or lack thereof) seems a harsh price to pay for unbridled originality. The "no rules" approach may make you feel like some sort of nonconformist—a true artist?—but what I've come to find after reviewing a few master classes for No Film School is that it's the rules that make art beautiful.
In one of the lessons from Aaron Sorkin's MasterClass, entitled Rules of Story, he suggests an incredibly useful exercise that any screenwriter can practice to hone their story structure skills. It's best if you have read Poetics, but even if you haven't, reading screenplays is a surefire way to learn the hallmarks of successful screenwriting.
Start with your five favorite films. (Look for the scripts in any of the free databases I've provided below.) Watch the movie with the screenplay on your lap. In each film, look for where plot points and character arcs hit in each act—and compare.
The common wisdom is that feature screenplays should generally contain three acts, with a final page count of around 120. There's less certainty about how long each act should be, but it's safe to assume most follow a structure in which the first makes up 25%, the second 50%, and the third 25%.
The basic rules for these acts, according to Sorkin:
- Act One: Chase hero up tree
- Acto Two: Throw rocks at them
- Act Three: Get them down from the tree or let them die trying
According to Sorkin, originality comes from variations on the structure, not from trying to screw around with screenplay structure itself. For those that do have a deep understanding of Poetics, you can further this exercise by becoming what Sorkin likes to calls a "diagnostician." Learn from what other people do; when you see something that doesn’t work, figure out why. Diagnose the problem by evaluating how it breaks Aristotle's rules.
Here are 10 great resources you can use to find your favorite screenplays online (compiled by New York Film Academy):
- IMSDB – Internet Movie Screenplay Database
- Go Into the Story
- Drew’s Script-o-Rama
- Simply Scripts
- Screenplays For You
- The Daily Script
- The Screenplay Database
- The Script Lab
- Movie Scripts and Screenplays
If you thought this was an interesting exercise and are interested in Sorkin's MasterClass, you can read more about it here.