Screenplays . . . and “how to” write them

I think every “How To” book–about writing, specifically–should be read with at least one slice of steaming hot skepticism. And most of them amount to “How I Did It” instead of being a real “How To,” anyway. You’ll notice some overlap if you leaf through enough of these types of books, but it usually amounts to stuff like:

Read lots of books, especially ones that are like what you want to write

Write often enough to actually finish a manuscript

Good Luck

After that, things have a tendency to become pretty anecdotal and if you’re into wasting time that could be spent actually writing, then that’s super duper, I guess. But don’t be surprised when you finish your “How To” and you still don’t have a finished manuscript. At some point, you’ll realize that you’ve read enough of these things and that what you really need to do is the work. Buy enough “How To” books and you’ll find that you aren’t learning as much as you are . . . amassing a nice collection of anecdotes.

Or maybe you just really like “How To” books! Maybe that’s your thing! You should, maybe, write one. That plan has worked out for plenty of people, I assure you. The market for self-help/how-to nonsense is ripe.

(cue all the people who love “How To” and would never have finished whatever without one)

But, there are exceptions, as one would expect.

The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr and EB White, for example. It’s as good a book about writing as you’re apt to purchase. It is very slim, so it won’t hog your time. And it is nearly 100% bullshit-free. My copy sits right next to my other favorite “How To” books, Webster’s Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. I would go so far as to argue that Elements may be one of the only books you really ought to buy on the subject of writing, because when you’re done leafing through it, the book becomes an invaluable resource to have nearby. You can go to the library for all the rest. Save your money for some nice cover art.

BUT . . . and here’s where I’ll contradict myself a tiny bit: screenplays

Now, to preface this argument, I will note that you can absolutely write whatever it is your heart desires. No one in the world should dare tell you not to write a 300-page screenplay told in the first person. Go with your gut. Go with God.

However, if you have any hope of ever selling a screenplay, or having one optioned, or selling a film to a distribution company, then you must learn how to actually write a screenplay. Otherwise, you are writing for an audience of one and there isn’t a producer or production company (reputable, I should add, plenty of shitty companies out there if you’re into being taken advantage of) on the planet that will give you a contract for your work.

Writing a screenplay is a wholly different beast than writing a book. The formatting is rigid, though necessary, so that it accurately performs its function, which is ultimately to serve as a malleable blueprint for a much larger endeavor: film production.

Now, if you’re an auteur with a proven track record of profitable films, then you get some leeway. Those folks are few and far between, so it does you no good to point to them or their work. Again, and it is a point worth stressing, over the course of your creative life you can do as you please, but if that’s your plan then be ready to act as a one-man show, because that is what will be needed for you to see a project, like a film, to completion.

Though, if you are interested in trying to break into the world of professional screenwriting, then you are in luck, because there are roughly 800 billion books on writing screenplays. You could read “How To” screenwriting books from now until your death and you wouldn’t even come close to reading the lot of them. And if you were to attempt that kind of marathon reading, you would quickly realize that a great many of those books suffer the same problem as the other “How To” books: they are loaded to the brim with bullshit. Some of it is very entertaining bullshit, but bullshit nonetheless. Your mileage may vary.

I wrote my first screenplay when I was 25, and that got me my first option. I sold another screenplay a year later. I wrote a third screenplay, and it garnered some interest, but the party wanted to make too many changes, so I kept it. And that was totally fucking stupid of me to do, in hindsight. What the fuck was I going to do with it? Nothing, that’s what. I did a whole lot of work and got precious about it, which is not the frame of mind if you’re into screenwriting. Film is collaborative, so be that. Want to be precious about your work? Write a book, self-publish it.

But I digress.

In addition to writing the things, I was a “reader” for two different management companies and a production company. I’ve read more terrible screenplays than you can shake a stick at. And I don’t care how big the god damn stick is.

But, the really good screenplays (of which they were few) had two things going for them:

  1. They were well-written
  2. They were formatted correctly

Rarely did you have one without the other. Actually, scratch that, I can’t think of one that didn’t have both working in tandem.

Now, how to write well? You aren’t going to find a book that’ll teach you that. You nurture your talent to the best of your abilities. You can only get better by continually working on AND finishing projects, while challenging yourself to get better with each new project you tackle. Often, you don’t even get to decide if you are getting better. That’s up to those left reading your work. Sorry. Them’s the breaks.

On the other hand, you CAN and SHOULD learn the technical aspects of the craft.

As for screenwriting, I can’t think of a better “nuts and bolts” book than David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible. I mean, Final Draft is a nice program and all, but if you have any hope of understanding–ultimately–what the program is doing, then this is as good a book on the subject as you will ever buy. Right on the front cover it boasts, “A COMPLETE GUIDE TO WRITING, FORMATTING, AND SELLING YOUR SCRIPT” and I am here to tell you that it is no lie.

The Screenwriter’s Bible is entirely thorough, from concept to execution, from proper formatting to binding a physical copy of the finished work. You could, honestly, read this one book on the subject and skip the other 799 billion books. Well, give some thought to picking up Linda Seger’s Making A Good Script Great, but not until AFTER you’ve finished your screenplay.

As in all things, there is no guarantee. And while success can be as much about luck as it is determination, you should remember: all the luck in the world will do you no damn good if you aren’t doing the work.

DO THE WORK.

SIT AT THE DESK.

WRITE UNTIL THE WORK IS DONE.

There are loads of people that “read” for producers and production companies, and there are even more people writing screenplays. Know what you are getting into. Don’t give a reader an excuse to toss your work aside because you didn’t bother learning how to properly format. It doesn’t take much time, I promise. And if you can nail down the structure and formatting and have an ear for dialogue?

Well, you’ll be leaps and bounds ahead of the competition.

Now, get off my lawn.

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