Wednesday, 22 November 2017

Screenwriting Advice for BA Students... From a Masters Grad (Part One: Reading Time)

All right then, ye student screenwriters, let's start with the basics: learning the craft.

Your course has, doubtless, provided you with a reading list, as well as some scans of specific book chapters on Moodle (or whatever your school's upload platform of choice is). Here's my two pence on the matter: a good screenwriting manual should be an informative and simple guide to screenplay construction. It should cover all the key elements (Character, structure, plot, theme, genre, drafting, outlines/treatments) with recognisable examples (Fellini and Bergman are geniuses, but I think a newbie will get more out of a comparison to Spider-Man 2 than Fanny & Alexander when first introduced to writing concepts) but never drowned in arcane or flowery language that's not useful when you're in trouble. Everything you learn must have a practical application; otherwise, it's a waste of time.

A key phrase that'll crop up again and again in these posts is Be A Discerning Shopper: You should definitely be using the reading list, though look up the books in the library first, peep in the bookshop or use the 'Look Inside' feature on Amazon. See how they read and if you can understand them before you put down cash. Some are easy and user-friendly, but not very informative, while others are very profound and detailed, but only useful at a very advanced level.

If you're flying blind, the amount of screenwriting books out there is astronomical, and seperating the wheat from the chaff can be very hard, especially if you're also on a budget (even on Kindle, the costs can add up fairly quickly if you need several for a course). The most common, and the ones that'll most likely be assigned to you, are:
  • Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field: the grandaddy of all screenwriting books and teachings, everyone's copied or borrowed from this book in some way. Three act structure, characters and their motivations, dialogue and its subtext, it's all here.
  • Save The Cat! The Last Book On Screenwriting You'll Ever Need by Blake Snyder: the book that is alternately thanked and blamed for modern Hollywood practices, Disney scribe Snyder created a durable 'beat sheet' to help one structure and plot out a movie that would be A) commercial and B) keep the interest of cynical readers and jaded audiences.
  • Story: Substance, Structure, Style and The Principles of Screenwriting by Robert McKee: Possibly the most famous screenwriting book (thanks to its simulateanous lampooning and exhultation in Spike Jonze's Adaptation), the notoriously blunt McKee drills you like a cinematic sergeant in digging for 'the truth' in your story and characters, while battling the terrible scourges of cliche and hackneyed psychology.
  • Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces and Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey: these cover the old chestnut of 'The Hero's Journey', first coined by anthropologist Campbell in the 1940s as a common pattern of storytelling tropes in classical mythology, and then popularised by George Lucas via Star Wars. Vogler's book more specifically contextualises it in film terms, with references to Star Wars as well as Wizard of Oz and other film fantasies.
  • Writing The Short Film by Pat Cooper and Ken Dancyger: Most likely the first book you'll get assigned. Basically, same gist as the first three, but applied to short films. Also, Aristotle's Poetics will be referenced A LOT by these books and your teachers, as it's basically the foundation of most dramatic writing theory.
Some others that may pop up, though slightly less well known or popular, include:
Head spinning yet?
And these are just the common ones.

For writing normal films...

What your course uses will vary, depending on your tutors. Be sure to ask what one they mainly use, as that's the one you may have to shell out cash for, just to keep up with classes. If your tutor's not too strict on using a specific tome, that gives you some wiggle room to use the one that's easiest to understand (If you're not already from a Literature or Psychology background, Poetics and Thousand Faces can be a slog to get through due to their language, and McKee is geared more towards an experienced writer than a newcomer, given how much he leans on dramatic theory and psycho-babble, some of it ripped straight from Aristotle).

Remember: everything must be practical. No one will give you a prize if you know some obscure Latin or French word if you can't write a halfway interesting story. Conversely, you're not original if you shriek, 'I hate formulas! I don't read! I wanna be rule-breaking!': everyone has said this. EVERYONE. Plus, how in the nine realms of Asgard can you break the rules if you can't be arsed to learn them? Yeah, sounds stupid now, doesn't it?

And then, as you get closer to graduation and want to open your options further, what else could you look up? Well first, here's one that, I think, should be mandatory for screenwriting graduates  and, to any film teachers and tutors reading this, ADD THIS TO YOUR READING LIST FOR THIRD YEARS:
  • The UK Scriptwriter's Survival Guide: Veteran film and TV scribes Tim Clague and Danny Stack (Eastenders, Doctors, Thunderbirds Are Go) give a practical, no B.S. guide on what you can do to help yourself get a foothold in the industry. It only came out in 2014, but I honestly believe this should be compulsory reading for all new screenwriters, as it will open your eyes to many possibilities, as well as give you useful tips and tricks to navigate the business.
And that's not all:
  • The Insider's Guide to Writing Television by Julian Friedmann: like Clague and Stack, it's a practical guide to British television writing. However, it is more geared towards business over the craft: The next three are more about the American system, but have more actual craft advice that is crosstransferrable to British shows.
  • Writing the Pilot by William Rabkin and Crafty Television Writing: Thinking Inside The Box by Alex Epstein are two popular staples, as well as newcomer Write To TV by Martie Cook. The market of TV gurus is a lot smaller than film, so being overwhelmed by choice is not as big a danger. These cover all you need to know about writing effective pilots, crafting shows with long term story potential, and what seperates a film from a TV character.
  • The Creative Essentials series of books cover different types of film and television writing, including comedy, thrillers and soaps, as well as other roles/elements such as script editing, reading and pitching. Contributing authors include Robin Mukherjee, Lucy V. Hay (more on her next time) and Charles Harris, among many others.
  • Of course, no matter if you go for film or TV, you still need to make sure your work is presentable. Your Screenplay Sucks: 100 Ways to Make It Great by William M. Akers and How Not To Write A Screenplay: 101 Common Mistakes by Denny Martin Flinn are good smack-across-head reminders of rookie blunders that can cost you dearly.
Now, you can use any of the titles above, but if you're more adventurous and want to give a go at a newer book, what should you look out for?
  • Author's credentials: make sure the writer is/was a working screenwriter, producer or development person, and has a decent amount of credits. They may not have worked on Breaking Bad or be BAFTA winners, but they've been where you've been, know your struggles and will be living proof of the effectiveness of their methods. People who are solely teachers will have less awareness of the demands of the industry, and may not be as helpful in giving you a realistic outlook or proper tools.
  • Gimmicks and cheats: I'm highly suspicious of any 'quack' miracle cures and formulas in these 'secret'-style books. 'Write a Great Movie in 10 Days', 'Write An Awesome Screenplay in 30 Days Or Less', 'The Secret Hollywood Formula: How you can write a blockbuster that sells', you'll know it when you see it in shops and on Amazon. It's snake oil: Good craft takes time and being able to write well, not to mention consistently, has to be learnt and earnt. There are no shortcuts and searching for them is the hallmark of a unready screenwriter.
  • Date: If it's focused solely on writing craft, then it's not a huge concern. If it also touts the business side, however, then aim for a book released/revised within the last 5-10 years, as the industry changes faster than ever before. Also, CreateSpace allows lazy authors a means to upload ancient books in sleek new packages, filled with outdated advice and terminology that won't help you, so beware anything that looks cheap or too new.
Returning to budget concerns, how many books should you own? Well, having a library card can be very helpful in balancing things, but I feel you should own a few, just to refresh yourself during breaks or holidays abroad, or to consult during writing. Minimum should be at least three or four: two on film, one/two on television, and then Clague and Stack's book as your job manual. 
Of course, you'll only get so far without knowing what a screenplay actually looks and reads like. There are printed screenplays available, usually for really acclaimed works like Pulp Fiction, Chinatown and Big Lebowski, but the format is often truncated to fit the smaller page size of a book, meaning a script that's actually 100 pages runs to 150. So, where can you read proper sized ones?

Join me in Part Two, when I look over how to find them, and what your free online resources are.

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