Many thanks to Wendy Jane Cohen who flagged these Amazon scripts. I began posting script download sites made available by studio and production companies 8 years ago, and Wendy has been a huge help in tracking them, even as she has been getting her MFA in screenwriting from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. So once again… thanks, Wendy!
Reading movie screenplays is absolutely critical to your development as a screenwriter. Along with watching movies and writing pages, it is a fundamental practice you should put into place. Make it a goal to read at least one movie script per week.
Where can you go to get access to many of the top movie scripts from 2017? Right here at Go Into The Story! And to learn when they first come online, follow me on Twitter: @GoIntoTheStory.
Reminder: These scripts are for educational purposes only.
NOTE: These links are temporary so my advice: Download the scripts NOW!!!
If your script just isn’t hitting the mark, here are a handful of things you can try in order to get it there.
Writing a screenplay is kind of like trying to carry too many things at once. At first, you think you’ve got a pretty good grip, but pretty soon you feel that grip start to loosen. So, you adjust your arms to accommodate the shifting weight only to realize that some items on the other side are now starting to slip. Then it happens: something falls. So you pick it up, but as you do, something else falls. So, you pick that up, but then another thing falls and so on and so forth until you’re just the jackass out in a grocery store parking lot dropping shit and picking shit up ad infinitum.
Yeah, so screenwriting’s like that. It can get frustrating at times trying to keep everything together (and off the ground), but the more you know about what works and what doesn’t work may help you put your narrative elements in places where they have a better chance of staying put.
From Michael Traven, a two-part question. Here is part one:
Hey Scott. Using the breakout Cannes film of last year, DRIVE, as an example, how do you write a 110-page script when portions of it (sometimes large, sometimes small) are just “silences” or hesitations, or quiet, thoughtful moments with a character driving down the road.
And if you know you want a music/driving montage to go on for a minute or two, how do you convey that? You don’t have to answer these specific questions, but I’d love to hear your thoughts on “writing the unwritable moments of film.”
Let me take on the second question first. Montages have been around a long time. You probably remember this one from Casablanca:
Seeing as WGA members voted Casablanca the #1 screenplay of all time, I’m no dummy: I went to the script to see how it handled this montage.
Rick just stares ahead as orchestra MUSIC slowly join Sam's playing.
MONTAGE - PARIS IN THE SPRING
A) The Arc de Triomphe from a distance.
B) Rick drives a small, open car slowly along the boulevard. He puts his arm around Ilsa. The background scenery changes to a country road as she snuggles close to him and puts her head on his shoulder.
C) An excursion boat on the Seine. Rick and Ilsa stand at the rail of the boat. They seem to be transported by each other as Ilsa laughs.
Then it cuts to Rick’s Paris apartment where Rick offers the famous line, “Here’s looking at you, kid.”
This format has been around more or less like this for decades. Personally I prefer not to use A, B, C, or 1, 2, 3, as it looks like a damn outline to my eyes. And why would we want a reader who is involved in our story suddenly conjuring up images of their mean-spirited, cross-eyed English teacher Mrs. Bratwurst jamming the rules of outlining down their throats. Me? I prefer to use double dashes:
-- The Arc de Triomphe [etc]
-- Rick drives a small [etc]
-- An excursion boat [etc]
Here’s the thing about a montage or a series of shots: They almost never read as well as they come off on screen. On the page… well, even the montage from Casablanca is flat. You and I can envision Bogart and Bergman, so it looks great in our minds. But in a spec script without specific stars attached, you can’t rely on your characters and some generic travelogue to be entertaining.
So what to do? Two things: (1) Make something sharp and specific happen in each beat. Provide some punch, something with a point to it, not just generic. (2) Give the entire montage or series of shots a beginning, middle and end. In effect, you are telling a story, albeit a little one, but it should have a narrative flow to it.
Here is an example from one of my scripts Snowbirds. Some RVers have just alighted in a campsite and I wanted to convey them setting up
A SERIES OF QUICK SHOTS (HANDS/FEET IN ACTION)
-- GENERATORS crank into action (loud!) -
-- HYDRAULIC LEVELING SYSTEM hisses and settles coach -
-- Yanking open BUILT-IN STORAGE COMPARTMENTS -
-- Removing LUGGAGE and GEAR -
-- THUMB pushing down electric BUTTONS -
-- SLIDE-OUTS sliding out -
-- SOLAR PANELS tilt up -
-- Automatic AWNING whirs into place -
-- POWER BLINDS rise letting in sunshine -
-- Atop Ed's roof a SATELLITE DISH automatically adjusts -
-- Ed's 42" TV drops into place from INTERIOR CEILING -
-- FRONT DOORS jerk opened and FEET step outside -
And the group emerges outside into the next scene. Quick images, lots of action, fast pace.
So whatever you do with a montage or series of shots, make each image specific and interesting, and convey a mini-story with a beginning, middle, and end.
As to your first question referencing the script to Drive? You’re talking about what sound like more ‘novelistic’ moments in a script. Again let’s go to the source. Here is a short set of scenes involving no dialogue, but comprises a plot point:
INT. SUPERMARKET/ ECHO PARK — DAY. 34
Tinny supermarket music plays in the background. Driver walks past the vast selection of instant coffee brands, bemused by the choice. Suddenly he notices something out of the corner of his eye. At the far end of the aisle his pretty neighbor, Irene, is browsing through the confectionery section. Standing next to her is a young boy of six or seven, (BENICIO). He grabs a multi-pack of snickers and puts it in Irene’s shopping basket. Irene calmly picks it out, replaces it on the shelf, and takes a single snicker bar for him instead. As Driver watches them, the boy turns around and notices him. Driver heads down another aisle before Irene sees him too, keeping to himself to himself.
EXT. CAR PARK/ SUPERMARKET — DAY. 35 Driver heads out of the supermarket with a small bag of groceries when he spots Irene and Benicio again in the car park. Irene sits in a battered Oldsmobile, trying to start the engine. She tries several times then gets out in frustration, opening the hood and peering at the engine she has no idea how to fix. Benicio peers in too, trying to be helpful.
Driver hesitates, all his instincts telling him to continue to his car and drive away, but as he feels Irene’s increasing frustration he can’t help himself, finally heading over to help.
Irene looks over and sees him coming, surprised at first, then smiling. We watch from a distance as they talk now.
INT. ELEVATOR/ APARTMENT BLOCK/ ECHO PARK — DAY. 35a
Driver, Irene and Benicio stand in silence in the elevator, Driver clutching some of Irene’s grocery bags.
What do you do? You describe the action. And even if it’s subtle, there should be some action in it. In this set of scenes, we can almost see the wheels turning in Driver’s head. He does not want to get involved with this woman and her son, but he gets lured in by two things: (1) A human moment of a child and mother dealing with a Snickers bar. (2) Their car having mechanical issues.
You can write “unwritable moments” if there is something happening, if there is some action, some conflict, some drama, some humor, and perhaps most importantly something advancing the plot.
Note to script format literalists: Notice how the screenwriter of Drive Hossein Amini completely breaks the ‘rule’ about no more than a few lines of scene description per paragraph? Scene 34 = 11 lines. Moreover he didn’t opt for the current stylistic fashion of breaking the paragraph up into several lines like this:
Tinny supermarket music plays in the background.
Driver walks past the vast selection of instant coffee brands, bemused by the choice. Suddenly he notices something out of the corner of his eye.
At the far end of the aisle his pretty neighbor, Irene, is browsing through the confectionery section. Standing next to her is a young boy of six or seven, (BENICIO).
He grabs a multi-pack of snickers and puts it in Irene’s shopping basket.
Irene calmly picks it out, replaces it on the shelf, and takes a single snicker bar for him instead.
As Driver watches them, the boy turns around and notices him.
Driver heads down another aisle before Irene sees him too, keeping to himself.
I think most of us would agree that this latter approach is easier to read. Moreover each paragraph suggests a camera shot, which allows the writer to ‘direct’ the action.
But the fact is Amini opted for the former approach. And evidently it worked. How do I know? Because they made the movie!
Is my point that we should all be writing paragraphs of scene description 11 lines long? No. My point is that there are no rules! There is this amorphous sense of conventional wisdom and we are smart to be aware of it when we write. But if for whatever reason the story requires us to write a paragraph of scene description with 11 lines in it, then we are free to make that choice.
But make sure your story requires it because any professional reader flipping through your script and seeing page after page of long paragraphs of scene description would immediately come to this conclusion: “Amateur.”
So there you have it: Perhaps the single most convoluted GITS post ever! But hey, I was trying to answer two disparate questions, one of which led me back to this whole screenwriting rule canard.
Anyhow whatever thoughts you have on any of this, see you in comments!
Navigating the monomyth is a tedious, arduous, and confusing endeavor for any hero on their journey, but it’s even more so for screenwriters.
One seemingly straightforward but surprisingly complicated things about writing a screenplay is story structure. Plenty of screenwriting gurus have offered their two cents on what a well-structured script should look like, but Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, or monomyth, is perhaps the most widely known and template for crafting stories, and is arguably one of the most accessible for new writers. If you want to get a real handle on story structure, Film Riot has shared an excerpt from Seth Worley’s Writing 101 online screenwriting course that will really help you out.
Even though the excerpt is just an introduction to screenwriting basics, it breaks down the most important and fundamental elements of the craft. Not nailing down your story’s structure is like dropping your audience in the middle of nowhere without a map and expecting them to make it all the way home. It can be done, but 1.) it probably won’t, and 2.) if it is, your audience will be super pissed when they get there.
Over time, screenplays have become less ‘scripty’ and more ‘literary’.
Question from Erik Rolfsen:
Scott: I’d be interested in reading an elaboration on something you posted recently:
“…the shift the last two decades has been away from using directing / editing lingo in screenplays toward more of what may be called a literary approach to style,…”
Or do you have a previous blog post on this you could point me toward?
Keep up the great work!
Let me preface my comments by making a distinction between a selling script and a shooting script. A shooting script is a production draft and style considerations pretty much go out the window. A selling script is any script we write, whether on spec or assignment, in which the goal is to set up the project initially or get the project green lit. For a selling script, there is one golden rule in terms of style:
Write the story in the best, most entertaining fashion possible.
In terms of a selling script when I say literary approach, you can see it quite clearly by comparing older scripts to newer ones. For example, here is a Scene Description Spotlight post I did with an excerpt from the 1951 movie The African Queen:
EXT. A NATIVE VILLAGE IN A CLEARING BETWEEN THE JUNGLE AND THE RIVER. LATE MORNING
LONG SHOT — A CHAPEL
Intense light and heat, a stifling silence. Then the SOUND of a reedy organ, of two voices which make the words distinct, and of miscellaneous shy, muffled, dragging voices, beginning a hymn:
VOICES (singing) “Guide me O Thou Great Jehovah…”
INT. CHAPEL — LONG SHOT — THE LENGTH OF THE BLEAK CHAPEL
PAST THE CONGREGATION, ON BROTHER, AT THE LECTERN, AND ROSE, AT THE ORGAN
BROTHER, a missionary, faces CAMERA near center; ROSE, his sister, is at side, her face averted. Everybody is singing.
“Pilgrim through this barren land…”
MEDIUM SHOT — BROTHER:
middle-aged, rock-featured, bald, sweating painfully, very much in earnest. He is very watchful of his flock. He sings as loud as he can, rather nasally, and tries to drive the meaning of each word home as if it were a nail. He is beating with his hand, and trying hard to whip up the dragging tempo:
“I am weak, but Thou art mighty…”
CLOSER SHOT — ROSE
early thirties, tight-featured and tight-haired, very hot but sweating less than Brother.
She is pumping the pedals vigorously, spreading with her knees the wings of wood which control the loudness, utilizing various stops for expressiveness of special phrases, and rather desperately studying the open hymnal, just managing to play the right notes — a very busy woman. She, too, is singing her best and loudest, an innocent, arid, reedy soprano; and she, too, is very attentive to the meanings of words:
“Hold me with Thy powerful hand.”
INSERT — HALF-WAY THROUGH THE FOREGOING LINE, AN EXOTIC AND HORRIBLE CENTIPEDE-LIKE CREATURE SLITHERS INTO VIEW BETWEEN TWO OF THE ORGAN KEYS. WITHOUT INTERRUPTING HER PLAYING, AS METHODICALLY AS SHE WOULD PULL OUT A NEW STOP, ROSE SWIPES IT AWAY.
Compare that to this excerpt from The Matrix (1999):
She bursts out of the room as Agent Brown enters the hall, leading another unit of police. Trinity races to the opposite end, exiting through a broken window onto the fire escape.
EXT. FIRE ESCAPE
In the alley below, Trinity sees Agent Smith staring at her. She can only go up.
On the roof, Trinity is running as Agent Brown rises over the parapet, leading the cops in pursuit.
Trinity begins to jump from one roof to the next, her movements so clean, gliding in and out of each jump, contrasted to the wild jumps of the cops.
Agent Brown, however, has the same unnatural grace.
The metal SCREAM of an elevated TRAIN is heard and Trinity turns to it, racing for the back of the building.
The edge falls away into a wide back alley. The next building is over 40 feet away but Trinity’s face is perfectly calm, staring at some point beyond the other roof.
The cops slow, realizing they are about to see something ugly as Trinity drives at the edge, launching herself into the air.
From above, the ground seems to flow beneath her as she hangs in flight —
Then hitting, somersaulting up, still running hard.
COP Mutherfucker — that’s impossible!
They stare, slack-jawed, as Agent Brown duplicates the move exactly, landing, rolling over a shoulder up onto one knee.
What can we learn from such a comparison:
Contemporary selling scripts do not include camera shots anymore, so gone are the days of LONG SHOT, MEDIUM SHOT, CLOSE UP.
Contemporary selling scripts don’t have long blocks of scene description, but rather break them up into smaller paragraphs (2–4 lines).
Contemporary selling scripts don’t have primary slug lines that extend over one line.
Contemporary selling scripts don’t include directing jargon.
In fact, we can see screenwriting style change even since the time of The Matrix. Check out the opening scene from The Black Swan (2010):
INT. DARK STAGE — NIGHT
A SPOTLIGHT slices black space.
In its beam, a DANCER in a white dress materializes. She is fair-skinned. Beautiful and pure.
She twirls on pointe, a smile on her face, light as air and carefree.
Suddenly, her face grows worried. Sensing someone watching.
Scared, she peers into the darkness.
She moves now, looking, growing more frantic.
But she can’t see anything. She pauses, relaxes. Convincing herself it was just her imagination…
Then, a SINISTER MAN emerges out of the darkness behind her. She stumbles backwards, frightened.
She tries to escape, twirling away, but he pursues.
He flings his open hand towards her, casting the spell.
She wants to scream, but nothing comes out. She looks at her body, sensing something happening to her. Something terrifying.
She spins, panicking, clawing at her body with her hands, trying to stop it. But it’s too late.
As she turns, she morphs into the WHITE SWAN, the iconic protagonist of SWAN LAKE.
See how much white space there is? How much easier on the eyes that is? How each line suggests a camera shot? To me it reads more like a story than something you use to produce a movie. And that’s what I mean by literary where the emphasis on style is about story, not script.
My theory is this is a natural evolution as screenplays become their own literary form. There are companies such as Newmarket Press who publish screenplays in book form. I suspect we’ll see a lot more of that in the future where people will sit down to read a screenplay with a similar expectation as they do with a book — to read a story.
What does that mean for us practically as screenwriters?
First read screenplays of movies that are being released this year so you can track style trends.
But most important we have to think about how we approach screenwriting style because it is a reflection of our writer’s voice — and when you’re in competition with a zillion other scripts, if you have a distinctive voice and an appealing writing style, that can make the difference between a sale or no sale, representation or no representation.
Gee, if there was only someone who taught a course on screenwriting style. Something online so it was easy to take. A class that went beyond format and really talked about how to develop one’s sense of style as part of their writer’s voice.
Wait. There is a course like that? Oh yeah, right here.
Is AI the future of screenwriting? Not if screenwriters can help it.
“Subjective decisions lead to box office failure,” reads a tagline from the new algorithmic service ScriptBook, which claims to predict a screenplay’s critical and box office success.
For a price of $ 100 a pop, ScriptBook users upload their screenplay to be analyzed by ScriptBook’s patented software, Script2Screen, which generates an AI-based assessment indicating the commercial and critical success of a project, along with “insights on the storyline, target demographics, market positioning, distribution parameters,” and more. ScriptBook trained its algorithms to detect patterns that compelling storylines have in common based on a dataset of scripts which have had a theatrical release between 1970 and 2016.
“The added value of our technology,” the website further reads, “lies in the improvement on the current, human decision-making process throughout the spectrum from script to screen, limiting false decision-making while maximizing the potential.”
In this video from Film Courage, writer Karl Iglesias explains the three things that every new screenwriter should do with their finished script.
Congratulations! You’ve got a finished script. What a huge achievement. Now, don’t let it become a paperweight. Karl Iglesias, who’s been a screenwriter, script-doctor, consultant, and, recently, author of 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, has a lot to say to you in this video from Film Courage. Although Iglesias argues that “a screenplay is never finished,” we’ve put three of his top tips below for what you should be doing with your newly finished masterpiece. (And here are a few recent posts about screenwriting you might find helpful.)
This is—quite literally—a screenwriter’s paradise.
Screencrafting fellowships are never run-of-the-mill opportunities. In the past, the screenwriting organization has hosted opportunities for horror screenwriters, web series creators, comedy writers, and budding sci-fi auteurs in locations all around the world.
Now, Screencrafting has announced the new location for its annual Screenwriters Residency Program: a remote beach in Jamaica. The 5-day program will provide 14 emerging screenwriters the opportunity to develop their screenplays in St. Bess, a rural Jamaican seaside town, under the supervision of accomplished Hollywood screenwriters.
Reading and assessing 10 screenplays in 5 days drove home some points.
Recently I served on a panelfor the Independent Filmmaker Project Minnesota Screenwriting Residency competition. They announced the winner yesterday:
March 21, 2017, St. Paul — Independent Filmmaker Project Minnesota, a St. Paul-based media arts center, has announced the winner of the IFP Minnesota Screenwriting Residency, an annual competition for Minnesota screenwriters. Matthew Dressel, of Duluth, MN, has won the $ 10,000 residency out of a field of 56 applicants. His screenplay, THE OTHER MAN, is a taut thriller: a weekend in the country turns deadly when an inebriated hunter accidentally shoots a passing motorist and discovers a man bound-and-gagged in his trunk. The St. Paul-based residency is funded by the Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge with matching funds by IFP Minnesota, as an annual competition through 2018.
THE OTHER MAN was selected by a national panel consisting of key influencers in the film industry: Los Angeles-based script consultant and story editor, Ruth Atkinson, who is also a story analyst for the Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Screenwriting and Directing Labs; Film Independent Spirit Award Nominee Angela C. Lee (SONGS MY BROTHER TAUGHT ME), who is also the Senior Manager of Artist Development at Film Independent; and veteran film and TV writer Scott Myers (K9, ALASKA, TROJAN WAR), who also hosts Go Into the Story, the official screenwriting blog of the influential Black List.
“This is a great opportunity for all 10 finalists,” said IFP MN’s Executive Director, AndrewPeterson. “As a result of the Residency competition, last year’s winner, Andy Froemke, secured industry representation and several finalists were championed by last year’s national panel for additional opportunities.” Peterson added, “This year’s panel was excited about THE OTHER MAN, feeling it would play well with both critics and audiences.”
Angela, Ruth, and I read the 10 finalist scripts on our own (each was an anonymous submission, we knew nothing about any of the writers), then did a teleconference in which we discussed the relative merits of all the screenplays. It was an interesting challenge because we were tasked with selecting the “most promising screenplay”.
So we talked about Voice. Concept. Characters. Plot. Dialogue. Execution. Commercial Viability. Professional Readiness. And a host of other qualities.
In the end, our consensus choice was The Other Man, written by Matthew Dressel:
Originally from West Michigan, Matthew Dressel moved to Duluth after spending six years out in Southern California working at a film advertising company.
Matthew has written and directed short films that have gone on to screen and win awards at festivals across the country.
His first feature length screenplay, the dark comedy Killing Daniel, is in development with Toronto-based Darius Films. Matthew also has two screenplays optioned by producer Don Schmeichel.
I learned a few things from this experience. For example, there are some good writers in Minnesota. Many of the stories featured local settings and all of us agreed it was refreshing to read scripts which had a distinctive cultural feel and atmosphere to them.
This drove home a point I’ve made on the blog before: Use what you know to your advantage. There are SO many scripts floating through Hollywood which feel JUST LIKE each other… same concepts, same set-ups, same characters, same settings. If you live in Maine or Louisiana or Utah or, yes, Minnesota, even a different country, guess what? Your actual life experience could very well provide you a story context which inherently sets itself apart from a more typical spec script.
I also learned that the Independent Film Project is more than just the outfit which sponsors the annual Spirit Awards. It’s got a whole host of resources and programs, such as the Minnesota Screenwriting Residency competition, which are there to provide opportunities for writers and filmmakers outside Hollywood.
Then there’s this: Do like Matthew Dressel does. He lives in Duluth, Minnesota. That is about as far north as you can go and still be in the continental United States. Right on Lake Superior, a typical scene in winter is something like this:
I mean, it’s about as big a contrast to Hollywood as one can imagine:
And yet check out what Matthew is doing in Duluth:
Matthew lives in Duluth with his wife and young daughter where he runs The Duluth Film Collective: an ever-growing group of filmmakers and film lovers who watch and discuss films, workshop projects, and program the film series Midnight Movies at 7 at Zinema 2. Matthew also runs The Duluth Film Directory: a growing list of active filmmakers working in Duluth.
He runs The Duluth Film Collective. He runs The Duluth Film Directory. He writes scripts. He makes movies.
Lesson: Wherever you are, you can make it happen there. That’s one of the beauties of screenwriting: You can write ANYWHERE. And if what you write pops on the page, all it takes is one set of eyeballs to change your life.
Which leads me to the last thing I learned. Well, more accurately, RE-learned. When I read a script, here are some things I’m looking for:
Does the writer display a distinctive voice?
Is the story concept a strong one / Does it feel like a movie?
Do the characters feel real and have compelling personalities?
Are the scenes well-constructed / Do they crackle with life?
Are scene transitions seamless?
Visual writing! Visual writing! Visual writing!
Conflict! Conflict ! Conflict!
Does the dialogue not only feel authentic, but have that ‘special sauce’?
Is there a narrative drive which propels the plot forward?
Does the story has to have a rich psychological life to it?
Does the story MEAN something / What is its central theme?
Does the story have significant stakes?
With rare exception, a “promising screenplay” has to have it all. Or at the very least, the potential within the story and the writer’s talent exhibited on the page to suggest it can happen in rewrites.
When you read 10 scripts back to back in a compressed time period, those qualifiers as listed above really stand out when they are present… and when they are not.
So congratulations to Matthew Dressel for winning this competition. To the other 9 finalists, I enjoyed reading your screenplays. Each of you has talent. My advice? Re-double your efforts. Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages.
Free downloadable Go Into The Story eBook by Scott Myers.
Why am I smiling? Because today I’m making available to the public the 3rd in a series of twelve monthly eBooks featuring some of my 21,000+ Go Into The Story posts. And it’s free! Just click on the link below to download a 30 page eBook titled: “Writing a Screenplay”.
Here are the twelve titles I will be releasing in 2017 (not necessarily in this order):
30 Things About Screenwriting
So-Called Screenwriting ‘Rules’
Everything You Wanted to Know About Specs
Guide to Aristotle’s “Poetics”
How To Read A Screenplay
Writing A Script
Rewriting a Script
Movie Story Types
The Theology of Screenwriting
Writing and the Creative Life
The Business of Screenwriting
The idea is that having the content available as an eBook will be another useful way for writers to digest ideas and information from the blog.
Think of it as a kind Go Into The Story Greatest Hits collection.
Each will be free. Download them. Read them. Pass them along.
A very special thanks to Trish Curtin and Clay Mitchell who are stepping up to handle the process turning blog posts into eBooks. I could not be doing this without the efforts of these two fine people.
A final note excerpted from the eBook’s foreword:
The collection contains my reflections and takes on basic tenets of the craft. If any of them resonate with you, great. If not, feel free to ignore them. Each writer needs to figure out their own approach to screenwriting. My hope is to help feed that process and provide writers with inspiration along the way.