Many, many years ago, I attended an abbreviated version of Robert McKee’s seminar on screenwriting. While they usually run an entire weekend, this one was a merciful two hours long.
Of all the things he talked about, of which there were many, there’s only one point I still remember to this day:
If you want to really understand how to write a screenplay, watch a movie while following along with the script. Do this every day (I’m assuming with a different script each time) for a year. Apparently this will instill in you how a screenplay works, the understanding of structure, etc.
I’m split on this. On one hand, the only way you’re going to really learn is to just sit down and write.
But there is at least some merit to the idea. The more you watch and read, the more you’ll (hopefully) come to understand all the inner workings, nuances and intricacies that go into these things.
Say you’ve come up with an idea for your next spec. A comedy. You’ve got the basic story idea down, but there’s something missing.
Chances are you were influenced by other comedies. Compare your story to some of your favorites. What is it about them that you like? Is your story similar? What do they have that yours doesn’t, and vice versa?
Take the time to watch them again, but don’t just watch. Study them. View them through a writer’s eyes.
Can you see the elements at work? Are you able to look beyond the jokes and follow how the characters and storylines develop? Do the jokes and comic set pieces come naturally or do they feel forced?
Over time, identifying story components will become easier for you, and you’ll be able to put that knowledge into play on the page.