The worlds of writing are as vast and as mysterious as the imaginations of those that work in them, whether they're writing novels, poems, journalism or screenplays. Which ever world you work in, if you're going to be a writer whose work any one is going to give a damn about, it’s important to know what kinds of stories you want to tell and to whom you want to tell them, and why.
A screenwriter is also a character, and, just like any dramatic character, is goaded into action by problems, interests and opportunities. Of course it helps to understand which particular stories are peculiar to you and where they are coming from. The best characters never act without cause, and neither do the best (i.e.: enduring) writers. Whatever sort of writer you choose to be, and I assume that you want to be a SCREEN storyteller otherwise you wouldn't be here, there are a number of challenges you will have to confront and work through if you're going to produce something that is both satisfying and meaningful.
For most screenwriters, the writing involves both the terror and the challenge commonly associated with dramatic action. It's not going to be pretty, and it will probably get very messy before it's all done, so don't hold on too tightly to your fastidious sense of respectability. You're going to have to get down in the metaphorical dirt where the real action is happening. You're on the trip of a lifetime, en-route to the unexpected, an odyssey fraught with danger and real stakes. Why are you going? Because you have to. You have to go where the drama is - and you have to go there because that is where the story is and if you're going to write it you have to experience it. It's visual - you write what you see... and what you hear. And to hear it and see it clearly and with the degree of emotional intensity with which it is occurring, you have to be as close to the action as possible. Remember : it's call motion PICTURES!
The images and sounds (which also evoke vision) work not only in terms of their literal meanings, but - and often more significantly - in terms of the contexts in which they are presented. Fundamentally, cinematic images and sounds provide a symbolic - or totemic - landscape that operates metaphorically to contextualise all of the important narrative events that are enacted by the characters. What is the symbol system that is being employed? What natural objects are operating as symbols, and how are these enhanced or illuminated by the vision and the choices of ALL the filmmaker/storytellers, whether they be writers, editors or even audiences?
The process starts with a concept and is developed by a screenwriter every time he/she drafts a version of the story in the form of a screenplay. And for those that are obsessed and made enough to want to develop some skills in the writing of screenplays, there is no substitute for learning this most difficult art than to read as many good screenplays as you get your hands on. Apprenticing oneself to the best writers often begins by reading what they have written. How else will you sharpen your instincts and develop the sort of taste necessary that will allow you to become ever more alert and sensitive to the way in which a good writer exploits and develops the emotional energies that reside within the characters? What you'll discover will surprise, if you persevere, that is.
Below you will find a selection of film and television scripts to get you started. As you read through, look and listen to the way in which the writer presents actions - notice how it is achieved. Pay special attention to the symbols and metaphors, and the underlying emotional logic that in concert provoke meaningful resonances between the characters and between the characters and their world.
THE THIRD MAN
COURTESY OF THE SCRIPT GUIDE
Spanning nine decades from classic Billy Wilder to the modern-day Coen Brothers, this comprehensive list will be the blueprint for your screenwriting study. The majority are final drafts, however, shooting scripts and earlier drafts are also contained when a final draft was not available. Non-English language screenplays translated into English are not listed here as I do not class them as an accurate version of the writers' work.
Adaptation. (2002) by Charlie & Donald Kaufman
All About Eve (1950) by Joseph L. Mankiewicz
American Beauty (1999) by Alan Ball
American Psycho (2000) by Mary Harron & Guinevere Turner
Animal Kingdom (2010) by David Michôd
Annie Hall (1977) by Woody Allen & Marshall Brickman
The Apartment (1960) by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond
Apocalypse Now (1979) by John Milius, Francis Coppola & Michael Herr
Bad Lieutenant (1992) by Abel Ferrara, Victor Argo, Paul Calderon & Zoe Lund
Badlands (1973) by Terrence Malick
Barton Fink (1991) by Joel & Ethan Coen
Being John Malkovich (1999) by Charlie Kaufman
The Big Lebowski (1998) by Joel & Ethan Coen
The Big Sleep (1946) by William Faulkner, Leigh Brackett & Jules Furthman
The Birds (1963) by Evan Hunter
Black Swan (2010) by Mark Heyman, Andrés Heinz & John McLaughlin
Blood Simple. (1984) by Joel & Ethan Coen
Blue Velvet (1986) by David Lynch
Body Heat (1981) by Lawrence Kasdan
Bringing Out the Dead (1999) by Paul Schrader
Carnage (2011) by Yasmina Reza & Roman Polanski
Casablanca (1942) by Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein & Howard Koch
Chinatown (1974) by Robert Towne & Roman Polanski
Citizen Kane (1941) by Herman J. Mankiewicz, Orson Welles, Roger Q. Denny, John Houseman & Mollie Kent
A Clockwork Orange (1971) by Stanley Kubrick
Collateral (2004) by Stuart Beattie
The Deer Hunter (1978) by Deric Washburn
Dog Day Afternoon (1975) by Frank Pierson
Double Indemnity (1944) by Billy Wilder & Raymond Chandler
Drive (2011) by Hossein Amini
Eastern Promises (2007) by Steven Knight
The Elephant Man (1980) by Christopher De Vore, Eric Bergren & David Lynch
Eyes Wide Shut (1999) by Stanley Kubrick & Frederic Raphael
Fargo (1996) by Joel & Ethan Coen
Glengarry Glen Ross (1992) by David Mamet
The Godfather (1972) by Mario Puzo & Francis Ford Coppola
The Godfather: Part II (1974) by Francis Ford Coppola & Mario Puzo
Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) by George Clooney & Grant Heslov
Heat (1995) by Michael Mann
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) by Ethan Coen, Joel Coen & Sam Raimi
In the Heat of the Night (1967) by Stirling Silliphant
The Insider (1999) by Eric Roth & Michael Mann
Jackie Brown (1997) by Quentin Tarantino
The King of Comedy (1983) by Paul D. Zimmerman
Klute (1971) by Andy Lewis & David P. Lewis
Leaving Las Vegas (1995) by Mike Figgis
Lost Highway (1997) by David Lynch & Barry Gifford
Lost in Translation (2003) by Sofia Coppola
The Maltese Falcon (1941) by John Huston
The Man Who Wasn't There (2001) by Joel & Ethan Coen
Manhunter (1986) by Michael Mann
Martha Marcy May Marlene (2011) by Sean Durkin
Match Point (2005) by Woody Allen
Mean Streets (1973) by Martin Scorsese & Mardik Martin
Memento (2000) by Christopher Nolan
Miller's Crossing (1990) by Joel & Ethan Coen
Mulholland Dr. (2001) by David Lynch
Mystic River (2003) by Brian Helgeland
Network (1976) by Paddy Chayefsky
The Night of the Hunter (1955) by James Agee & Charles Laughton
No Country for Old Men (2007) by Joel & Ethan Coen
North by Northwest (1959) by Ernest Lehman
Notorious (1946) by Ben Hecht, Alfred Hitchcock & Clifford Odets
O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) by Joel & Ethan Coen
On the Waterfront (1954) by Budd Schulberg
One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest (1975) by Lawrence Hauben & Bo Goldman
Peeping Tom (1960) by Leo Marks
The Piano (1993) by Jane Campion
Psycho (1960) by Joseph Stefano
Pulp Fiction (1994) by Quentin Tarantino
Raging Bull (1980) by Paul Schrader & Mardik Martin
Raising Arizona (1987) by Joel & Ethan Coen
Rear Window (1954) by John Michael Hayes
Rebel Without a Cause (1955) by Stewart Stern & Irving Shulman
Requiem for a Dream (2000) by Herbert Selby Jr. & Darren Aronofsky
Reservoir Dogs (1992) by Quentin Tarantino
Revolutionary Road (2008) by Justin Haythe
Rosemary's Baby (1968) by Roman Polanski
A Serious Man (2009) by Joel & Ethan Coen
Shame (2011) by Steve McQueen & Abi Morgan
The Shining (1980) by Stanley Kubrick & Diane Johnson
The Silence of the Lambs (1991) by Ted Tally
Sling Blade (1996) by Billy Bob Thornton
Some Like it Hot (1959) by Billy Wilder & I.A.L. Diamond
Strangers on a Train (1951) by Raymond Chandler, Czenzi Ormonde, Whitfield Cook & Ben Hecht
Sunset Blvd. (1950) by Charles Brackett, Billy Wilder & D.M. Marshman Jr.
Taxi Driver (1976) by Paul Schrader
There Will Be Blood (2007) by Paul Thomas Anderson
The Thin Man (1934) by Albert Hackett & Frances Goodrich
The Third Man (1949) by Graham Greene, Alexander Korda, Carol Reed & Orson Welles
To Kill a Mockingbird (1962) by Horton Foote
Trainspotting (1996) by John Hodge
The Truman Show (1998) by Andrew Niccol
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) by David Lynch & Robert Engels
The Usual Suspects (1995) by Christopher McQuarrie
Vertigo (1958) by Alec Coppel, Samuel A. Taylor & Maxwell Anderson
Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008) by Woody Allen
Wild at Heart (1990) by David Lynch
The Wrestler (2008) by Robert D. Siegel
Zodiac (2007) by James Vanderbilt
Always Write For Your Audience
Though this may not seem like a difficult challenge, it always amazes me how many writers never even think to ask themselves WHO they are writing for. To think about your AUDIENCE isn't difficult. We do it all the time when we write a letter or an email. No one would write an email to nobody, so why would you write a screenplay for nobody. Train yourself to imagine the person to whom your story is addressed, and then from time to time become that person and read what you have written from their perspective. Unlike the novelist, who is free to wander and explore the world she creates both mentally and visually, the screenwriter is limited to the latter. Exploring the world of story in a visual manner, because even though both the novelist and the screenwriter share the same audience in the beginning (a reader), the screenwriter’s story will eventually evolve into a visual rendition for a different audience — an audience that is watching actions on a screen.
Because the audience of the screenwriter is different than that of the novelist or poet, the screenwriter needs to approach the telling of her story differently.
In order to tell a story visually, you need to train yourself to see the world visually. Instead of going through your day as you have up to this point, watch how it works, watch as events unfold, see how people treat each other, look for moments normally hidden away or lost and take note. If you have an interest in screenwriting, it’s probably because you have an interest in both movies and writing. You might even be passionate about both. But interest, and even passion, don't automatically guarantee that you have a clear idea of how to tell a dramatic story visually, so you should always be exercising your skills as an observer. Pay attention to what people do, the ways in which body language reveals unspoken attitudes and beliefs, the little idiosyncratic habits of behavior that may provide clues as to the inner attitudes, fears, and needs of a person. Tune in to the non-verbal communication that is always present and readable if one allows oneself to become sensitive to it. If you're not used to looking at people and the world around you in this way, and are wondering how you might begin to transform yourself into a creative observer, here are a few pointers to get you get started. — one trick I’ve picked up on personally is to spend a little too much time observing your subject … this will enable you to really see it as opposed to what others might see at a glance:
While observing, imagine how you might frame the scene and present it to audiences.
Once you start looking at the world as an observer, you can then show what YOU see as you imagine your story. If you’re still having trouble, think of it like this:
You’re always the director when you dream — you pick the angles and control how the story pans out, — telling a story visually is no different. You simply need to show (in visual language) what you see and hear from the vantage point from which you see and hear it.
If there’s a lot of camera movement, be sure to imply it by the shots you are showing us and the rhythm and pace at which they are coming to us. Good BIG PRINT conducts us into the world by approximating the speed of thought, or rather the speed of perception at which we take in what is there to be seen and heard and experienced. If little happens (say "you’re" in a meadow and "you’re" enjoying the sound of the wind and feel of the breeze), then you can imply little camera movement.
Before I digress into whether or not to include camera direction in your screenplay, let’s focus on the idea at hand — telling your story visually.
Remember, your task as a screenwriter is to tell your story visually — the best way to do that is to describe what you see in your mind as you imagine your story.