How To Read A Screenplay (Part 7): Style and Language

There are multiple layers to any story. The more you dig, the deeper your understanding.

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James Stewart reading a screenplay.

I can’t remember exactly how this subject came up on the blog, but it did, and when I asked whether people would like to explore how to read and analyze a screenplay, the response was quite positive. So here we are with yet another GITS series on screenwriting.

Let me be clear up front: I am not suggesting you have to read scripts precisely this way. Nor am I saying if you choose to use this overall approach that you do so in the order presented. These are not steps so much as they are analytical tools which you can use any way you see fit.

I begin with this supposition: There are multiple layers to any story. The more you dig, the deeper your understanding. Moreover there is a special kind of learning you can experience only by cracking open a story and exploring its many moving parts, a knowledge that settles into your gut where you start to develop an innate sense of what works and what doesn’t. From the standpoint of being a professional screenwriter, when often you are working against a ticking clock, either to assess a story and come up with a take to pitch, or do a writing assignment, having that internal sense of story is critical to your success as it can help you feel your way through the process.

So at the very least, I would encourage you to try out these approaches I will be detailing in this series to see if and how they fit with your own writing sensibilities. Look at each as a different ‘lens’ through which you can examine a story, providing a unique perspective and insight into the overall narrative.

Note: This series is not in any way, shape or form an attempt to train people how to be a professional script reader. They have their own approach and I am almost positive would not have nearly the time to go through as many steps as I’m suggesting here. Rather this is for writers who want to learn their craft better.

Today, Part 7: This one is easy. And you need go no further than this quote from Shane Black:

I studied William Goldman’s writing style [emphasis added].

Point made. Hopefully point taken.

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In the past, I’ve mentioned how I immersed myself in scripts when I first broke into Hollywood, reading everything I could get my hands on. In fact, that’s where I came up with many of the ideas about script analysis I’ve laid out in this series. Here’s another one: Go through a script and excerpt all the good, strong visual writing.

In a nice bit of synergy, here is what I did what Shane Black’s script for The Last Boy Scout about 20 years ago:

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See, I wasn’t lying when I said I did all that script analysis! And check out that action writing and scene description. It’s taut and efficient, yet visual and cinematic. Clearly Black is a writer who loves language and understands the power of words. That is something to which we should all aspire.

You should feel free to play around with your writing style. Read a bunch of scripts, pick up some ideas, then test them out. Eventually you will settle into a style that suits you.

Plus don’t forget the importance of considering your story’s Narrative Voice. You must make choices about style within the context of your story’s genre.

So yet another lens through which to read a screenplay: style and language.

Reminder: This is just one approach to analyzing a screenplay. Everyone is different and has different needs, either personally or per project. If you resonate with any ideas here, feel free to use. If not, feel free to lose.

For Part 1: The First Pass, go here.

For Part 2: The Scene-By-Scene Breakdown, go here.

For Part 3: Plotline Points and Sequences, go here.

For Part 4: Subplots, Relationships and Character Functions, go here.

For Part 5: Metamorphosis, go here.

For Part 6: Themes, go here.

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