Thursday, 12 April 2018

In Defense of Screenwriting Gurus and Guides

Back in 2013, future Arrival and Your Name remake screenwriter Eric Heisserer put out a little ebook called 150 Screenwriting Challenges. It's what it says on the tin: a bunch of helpful tips and tricks. Nothing particularly notable or controversial, but what caught my eye was his little introduction:

And just a year before, the man, myth, legend Frank Darabont said this in an interview with

“The whole industry of ‘we can make you a screenwriter.’ I have ambivalent feelings because, ultimately, even though there is some benefit to be gained by those things — I stress the word ‘some’ benefit, minimal benefit — ultimately you know what it all boils down to? You’re sitting at your desk, all by yourself for years, trying to figure out your craft and applying the effort necessary. And that’s what nobody wants to hear. Everybody wants to hear, ‘I can teach you a three-act structure, I can give you a formula, and you’ll be selling screenplays within six months.’ Bullshit.''

I bring all this up, as anyone with a modicum of familiarity with screenwriting discussion in both academia and the internet will know, to discuss one of the old punching bags within the community: the gurus. Snyder, McKee, Field, Hauge, Vogler and pretty much anyone who has written a book or dabbles in screenwriting education. More than once, they're treated like the racist cousin at your sister's wedding: he's there, he exists, but you don't want to be near him, lest you endure 'three act structure', 'Aristotle' and 'climaxes'.

However, for whatever the opinion of this lowly reader and writer is worth, I'd like to throw my hat in the guru ring. I contend this animosity has been, somewhat, misguided and how that, arguably, is more harmful than any hackneyed formula or beat sheet could ever be to green scribes. I don't pretend to change minds, just encourage discussion.

To begin, some criticisms og gurus/books I DO agree with:
  1. There exists A LOT of repetition of reference points and topics. Frankly, how many times can you repackage discussion about Casablanca or Poetics or Shakespeare's mastery of character and tension? This I blame more on the advent of online/self-publishing, allowing really anybody, regardless of merit or skill level, to crank out undercooked new manuals or republish old tomes filled with the same old, same old, rather than try to find new spins on the topic. As a result, many tomes just blend together into a grey mush with the exact tricks.
  2. There's quite an imbalance between books for writing films versus television, webseries or shorts. The difference between mediums, as well as these books usually being geared towards bigger American/Hollywood-friendly projects, often does limit their usefulness if you're not writing some snazzy romcom or high-octance explosion fest. Not helped further by the intense skewing towards the States, homegrown books get overshadowed or pushed off of shelves and recommendations and thus not painting an accurate picture of content creation here in the UK.
  3. I am also not fond of books that very heavily taut their 'unique time-saving formula', or supposed power to generate large amounts of money in no time (like 10-30 days): it's cynical, lazy and treats creativity with wanton disrespect to the craft. These kinds of books perpetuate nonsense like 'Stallone wrote Rocky in three days', ignoring how long the film actually took to get made or what was changed during development, production and post. It's harmful and disencourages writers from experimenting.
So, if I think there's some big problems, why am I defending them? 

First, while the advice is familiar, it's still very valid: like it or not, film does not have the luxuries of a novel. It's a performed and timed medium, so being efficient yet emotionally resonant is vital. Casablanca and its ilk are wonderfully written films that perfectly illustrate how to do this, and in studying them, one can begin to understand how to do so as well. Plus, it can introduce you to works you'd might never have read or watched otherwise.

Next, I believe these books provide a useful frame of reference: too often, new writers get lost in abstracts of what they're trying to achieve, usually linked back to whatever they can remember from boring English classes at school. Alone, words like 'theme' or 'character' or 'story' are not actually that helpful in being able to explain what you're trying to do. They're too broad and vague for a medium where everything has to count. 'Character' is not 'ooh, look how quippy and quirky they are!' and theme is not 'big info-dump speech at the end that spells out everything', to demonstrate.

Like it or not, beat sheets and dramatic structures give a writer those frames of reference where, when something isn't working, they can look at their script and quickly realize 'oh, I haven't been raising the stakes enough in Act Two, hence why my Act Three climax feels so flaccid' or 'My screenplay is running short because I haven't got subplots for my supporting cast'.

It's also important to state that many of the big names have never, ever, said their model is the only way to write a film: even McKee, contrary to his iconic and shouty portrayal in Adaptation, never says you can't write any other way, or use flashbacks or voice over or any other talking points. Re-read the intro to Story, Save The Cat, or any other of the big books: these guys never said theirs was the only way. Like any teacher, they're just showing you their way, and letting you decide if it's right for you or not. If one model doesn't work, try someone elses.

And before I hear the old chestnut of, 'Actually, most of 'top screenwriters' advise against reading the How-To screenplay books so don't buy them', citing x podcast or y interview, well, yes: you can certainly write a great script without them. However, as a counterpoint, let me pull up  a list of successful writers who DO endorse them, either a specific guru or the form as a whole:

William Goldman, Lawrence Kasdan, John Cleese, Tony Jordan, Larry Karazewski, Jimmy McGovern, Shane Black, Julian Fellowes, Jim Kouf, Larry Wilson, Sam Hamm, Chris Chibnall, Bruce Joel Rubin, Ted Tally, Frank Pierson, James L. Brooks, C. Robert Cargill, Stephen Sommers, Emma Frost, Jeffrey Boam, Peter Bowker, Marc Norman, Debbie Moon, Tom Schulman, William Kelley, Travis Beacham, Anna Hamilton Phelan, Robert Mark Kamen, Christopher Murphey, Jim Uhls, Brad Siberling, Jeff Arch, Darren Aronofosky (yes, that one.)

Oh, and the makers of How To Train Your Dragon credit Blake Snyder with helping them to turn the books into a movie. The first film's even dedicated to him. But hey, what do THEY know?

So, if I don't think gurus are the problem, then what is it that I feel people like Darabont and Heisserer are talking about? (DISCLAIMER: I do not claim these are the actual thoughts of Darabont or Heisserer. This is merely speculation for the sake of discussion)

Simple: I think the frustration stems from personal insecurity and the dark side of 'new writers'.

Writers, like all artists, want to feel special. They want to be seen as masters of their craft, doing something few can do, and do as well as they can, at that. The idea that what they value and have striven hard to learn and master, can be so easily mass produced and replicated would likely be a bitter pill to swallow. How could anyone take my story, my blood, sweat and tears, and then mimic it with some stupid metaphor about a feline. Sounds degrading, no?

The other point refers to a problem of expectation and conduct: sadly, anyone who's been involved in either the industry or just the online community is all too aware of the arrogance and entitlement that come with newbies. The enthusiasm can be wonderful, but screenwriting comes with dizzying highs and crushing lows, and attracts individuals not always the most suited to the arts: People who are only interested in moneymaking, or worse, people with baggage. These are individuals who look for validation and approval from movies and series. If the likes of STC can make it seem so easy, then why not use film as basically 'revenge' on those who thought you were worthless? They work their dead-end jobs while you're ruling Hollywood.

This toxic combination of unrealistic expectation and lack of discipline leads to the stereotype of the frustrated writer, who is difficult, mouths off anyone in the business, and keeps hawking the same script for years, rewriting to the point of oblivion. Why would you want people like this in the industry, clogging up space and distracting producers and execs from your work? So, who do you blame for this behaviour? The easy answer is Snyder and his ilk for 'lowering the bar' with mass-produced literature, rather than on individual writers for being incompetent and selfish.

If for nothing else, I hope this piece will remind new writers that you need to find your own path, and don't be ashamed to use what you have to to get better. Darabont and Heisserer have their methods, you need to find yours. This isn't about fun and games, dark nights of the soul, three acts or twenty two steps: this about your finding your voice and not being too cocksure for your own good.

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