Get Good By Reading Bad

Ask any accomplished writer or English professor and they will tell you that the secret to good writing is reading a lot. Needless to say this is good advice. Most of the greats in literature often built upon the works of previous literary giants. The same goes for screenwriting. Although the vast majority of people will only consume the contents of a script in its final iteration (the screen), budding screenwriters can learn much from reading a film in script form rather than going to your local theater. There are great resources online for this such as Script-O-Rama, Simply Scripts and sometimes from the very companies that produce them.

As useful as it can be reading Oscar nominated pieces of work, I’ve found that immersing yourself in the works of geniuses is only half of the journey. What I’m going to suggest will sound counterproductive, but has helped me immensely in my writing.

Read shitty scripts.

I’m being serious here. Get out there and spend some time reading scripts that could not, should not, ever make it to a screen.

If you’re wondering how reading absolute crap could possibly make you a better writer, your skepticism isn’t unwarranted. It’s not like universities assign copies US Weekly to their students along with Catcher In The Rye, but allow me to explain. The truth is it’s easier to find a turd than a truffle, or to be less analogous, bad writing is easier to detect than a rare work of genius.

Actually, a truffle kinda looks like a turd. Photo by dabblelicious / CC 2.0

Actually, a truffle kinda looks like a turd.
Photo by dabblelicious / CC 2.0

So, how can this help you in your own writing?

I’ve found that one of the hardest things for writers to do is catch their own mistakes. That’s why many great writers hand their work to their peers to look over. Like it or not, you’re biased of your own work. Handing it to a pair of fresh, trustworthy eyes can reveal errors that were originally invisible to you. But wouldn’t it also be nice to pick up on those errors before handing it over to a friend? This is where reading bad scripts come in to play.

Once you begin to recognize common issues in bad writing (and believe me you’ll notice them), it’s easier to recognize them in your own scripts. If you notice that a script fails to introduce a character thoroughly or doesn’t effectively solve the protagonist’s core dilemma (I find this to be a common one), you can then actually see the result of not doing so. This is something that you most likely won’t encounter if you spend time only reading good scripts. Just like a seasoned quarterback who can seemingly sense a blitz coming, recognizing bad writing will become second nature, allowing you to sidestep it within your own writing.

That sucks! Photo by Keith Allison / CC 2.0

“That sucks!”
Photo by Keith Allison / CC 2.0

So where do you find bad scripts?

If you’re active in your local film community, they’re probably all around you, at house parties, festivals, etc. Almost everybody has a script or is writing one that they plan to make into a film. All you have to do is ask to read it. Although early filmmakers can be a paranoid bunch, sometimes constantly in fear of having their work stolen, many others will be pleased you’re taking an interest in their screenplay. By taking an interest in reading amateur screenplays, you’ll come across a wide spectrum of good and bad scripts.

Another good way to read a multitude of good and bad scripts is by volunteering to be a judge at a local screenplay competition. Film festivals receive a slew of submissions and are always looking for volunteers to help them separate the wheat from the chaff, so to speak.

Finally, there are also local meetup groups for amateur screenwriters that you can find online. This is not only a good place to read a wide range of scripts of varying quality, but also a place where you can receive feedback on your own screenplays.

Now comes the word of warning.

As the spirit animal of my blog would say, “With great power comes great responsibility.” In your endeavor to read more bad scripts, one rule you must always follow is DON’T BE A DICK.

Unless it's this Dick. Be like this Dick. Photo by Alan Light / CC 2.0

Unless it’s this Dick. Be like this Dick.
Photo by Alan Light / CC 2.0

The people who share their work with you will most likely want constructive feedback so they can also improve on their writing. Even if the script is absolutely atrocious, this is not an opportunity to ridicule someone or share their work with your friends so you can all laugh at their expense. No matter what your skill level is, there is one thing that always will be true, everyone writes shit. I write shit, you write shit, even Paul Haggis probably has bottles of shit he hides from the world like Howard Hughes. The goal is for everyone to bask in everyone else’s shit so we can all produce less shit for the world. Keep that in mind. This is not an opportunity to be an elitist or to make yourself feel better about your own shit by finding something shittier.

Now that I’ve broken my record for how many times I can plug the word “shit” into one paragraph; reading bad scripts is a wonderful way to see common writing mistakes in action. By building an instinctive recognition for these mistakes you can better bypass them in your own writing.

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