The Samuel French Theater & Film Bookshop is a very dangerous place for me. Partly because I can never leave without buying something. But also because of the very extensive section of tempting screenwriting books that are close to the entrance.
I’ve written a fair number of screenplays, and I’ve seen the majority of them realized on screen. That experience is invaluable and has taught me a lot about my craft. But I’ve never written “professionally” in “The Biz,” and the rules are very different. There are gatekeepers. You have to sell somebody in the first five pages. Most of what you write is never going to get made.
So when I see books with titles like How to Write a Movie in 21 Days, Hook ‘Em With Your First Ten Pages, Crafty TV Writing, Successful Television Writing, etcetera etcetera, it’s hard not to wonder “maybe the answer’s in this one…”
Most are familiar with the likes of Syd Field and Robert McKee, screenwriting gurus who purport to have sure-fire formulas to writing a successful screenplay. (The latter famously lampooned in Charlie Kaufman’s Adaptation.) Many writers will bristle at the mention of their names, and the notion that their craft can be boiled down to some kind of equation where all you’re required to do is fill in the blanks.
Thing is, gurus like Field and McKee aren’t not totally wrong. They’re not totally right either, but they’re not totally wrong. Because how-to systems like that are picking up on things that are recurring elements of successful screenplays. The question is whether or not you need a set of codified rules to write something good, or if writing something good will naturally appear to follow some or all of these rules.
It’s a balancing act. As someone who’s picked up his life and moved to Los Angeles to make it as a writer, books and gurus and systems that promise you all the answers, or at least some helpful tips, can be very appealing. I took a class on story structure back in September, where the lecturer made his points, but always with the caveat that his wasn’t the only way to write. It’s not gospel. Use it as a jumping off point or as a system to fall back on when you get stuck.
That’s how I treat how-to classes and books and systems. Good if you’re stuck, and good to take in for other perspectives on the craft. If you find something that works for you, use it. Advice is good advice only if it helps you. But there is no one panacea.
Ronald D. Moore of DS9 and Battlestar fame recently did an AMA on reddit. One of the things he said struck a chord:
I’ve never been a big fan of writing classes, to be honest. I think either you’re a writer or you’re not, just keep doing it, get criticism, listen to it or reject it, and keep writing until someone says “I love that” and then they buy it.
Of course, he was able to hone his craft on the job at Star Trek TNG and DS9 with Michael Piller and Ira Steven Behr as teachers. But I’d tend to agree.
(By the way, I have a pretty cool story about meeting Ronald D. Moore that I should write about some time.)
The best screenwriting advice I’ve come across recently also happened to come from reddit, in a post in /r/screenwriting:
1. Most amateur screenwriters write movies they wouldn’t see. I read a lot of loglines that are poorly written, but even if they were snappy and sharp, they’re for what could be generously described as character dramas and more accurately as tedious faux-deep nonsense. Write rad shit. Write things people want to see.
2. You shouldn’t smoke while you write. You shouldn’t drink while you write. You shouldn’t do anything while you write that you wouldn’t do at your job, because writing IS a job.
3. The problem isn’t that Hollywood doesn’t want new voices. The problem is that most scripts are terrible. Every agent, manager, development person, assistant, delivery guy I know is looking desperately for the next great script. The truth is that great scripts are really really few and far between. Most of you guys read shit off the Black List. Those are the well-loved ones. Imagine what the ones that AREN’T well loved are like? And those are the PRO scripts. Write something great. It’ll cut through the noise.
4. The Gold Room in Echo Park is the best bar in Los Angeles.
5. There is no pro conspiracy to keep amateur writers out. I want your script to be great. I want it to be better than my script. I want movies to be great. I want TV to be great. I want Broadway musicals to be great. It profits me nothing to be better than someone else. I just want rad shit out in the world.
6. Way too many scripts about white guys learning to love y’all. Way too many.
7. On that note, way too many scripts about white guys period. I get it. I’m white. I’m a dude. I like white dudes. But when EVERY script is white dude does X it’s a little tiring.
8. Kale seems made up. It seems like a slow rollout of soylent green.
9. Controversy is a poor substitute for craft.
10. “Faggot” is not an acceptable insult in the living breathing actual world, and ESPECIALLY not in Hollywood.
11. No one owes you anything. Not a thorough read, not a second look, not a phone call, nothing. This is not a charity. This is not about your dreams. In this business you are worth what you can do for other people. Full stop. Don’t pretend any different.
12. Don’t mistake watching movies for research. Reading is research. Talking to relevant people is research.
13. Final Draft sucks. I hope WriterDuet kills it.
14. 1776 was an amazing, underrated musical.
15. If you can’t spell your Reddit comments right, I have strong doubts on your ability to write a hundred page document that I’m going to want to read.
16. Save The Cat is a great introduction to basic structure and terms. It is not gospel. At all. Please stop treating it as such.
17. No one ever wants to steal your script. Ever.
18. Also, someone else will come up with the same idea independently of you and it will break your heart. It’s happened to me. It sucks.
19. The reason you aren’t Quentin Tarantino is because Quentin Tarantino is Quentin Tarantino. He already did that thing. He owns it. Find your thing. Do that.
20. If you want to be a working American screenwriter, you will have to live in LA for several years. After you are a success you can live in NYC or Idaho or Taiwan. But to make your career you gotta be in LA.
21. Making a great movie is really really hard. Don’t shit on movies you don’t like. You weren’t there. You don’t know what went wrong. You might have made the same mistakes. Be gracious to the people trying to do the thing you’re trying to do.
22. Yasiel Puig is a national treasure and should be celebrated with fireworks and standing ovations.
23. The secret to writing is to write more and do everything else less.
Haven’t been to #4 yet, haven’t seen #14 in a while, and had to google #22. Other than that, I find everything said here to be completely on-point and useful. So much so that I may actually use this list as the basis for future On Writing posts.