So first of all, thanks to Anna for sending me the book to review. It's been terrific fun to read.
I must confess I was originally prejudiced against this book. Screenwriting is a Big, Important subject, I thought: I don't want to read a "Pocket Guide" to it! I want to read one of the "proper" books like Robert McKee's Story. Also the author insists on telling us early on how he likes to stay up late drinking Jack Daniels and that his favourite music is heavy metal... oh no I thought, here we go, this book's all about you is it ?
Well, I was wrong. The book is great, for what it is: a brief introduction to the complex art of screenwriting. By the end of it, I was left with two very strong impressions. Firstly, that I really want to go and write a screenplay now, and secondly that writing a screenplay properly is bloody hard work!
I suspect I come to screenwriting with a very similar mindset to many other writers on WW, one forged in the world of writing short stories and novels. The book does a great job of explaining that writing a screenplay ain't like that.
First of all, in the world of prose, you can take just about anything and turn it into a short story - Grandma goes shopping and forgets her hat. While that might be comedy gold in the hands of PG Wodehouse or Alan Bennett, it's not going to cut it as the basis of a two-hour film. Anything worth making a film about had better be "high concept": something so exciting that you can sell it to people with a single sentence. "There's a bomb on the bus which explodes if it slows down". OK that movie wasn't exactly Citizen Kane but the idea is there in a single line, it had never been done before, and there's a lot of mileage in the plot (if you'll forgive the pun). Immediately you think - "So who's on the bus ? why is there a bomb ? how did it get there ? how can a bus not slow down ? what happens when they run out of petrol ?" and the audience are intrigued. So, more importantly, are the script readers you're trying to sell to.
The biggest difference, however, is that screenplays are all about the structure. So what, you may say, don't novels have structure too ? Indeed they do. But novels do not mandate that the second act MUST begin at around page 30, ie 30 minutes in. They do not insist that your main character MUST have some kind of ghost or inner demon to conquer. If your artistic integrity bristles at being given these kinds of rules to follow, then screenwriting is not for you. I admit my initial response was horror - I don't want to be told that my protagonist must always be cursed by Demons From His Past! - but then I considered the task of trying to write a screenplay WITHOUT a structure and realised how daunting that would be. Much like the argument that formal schemes for rhyme and meter in poetry actually liberate the author by allowing them to concentrate on the important things, and perhaps tinker with the format at the edges if needed. Anyway, the book was very clear on this point. Break the rules of screenwriting, especially if you are a novice, unproven writer, and every script reader in the world is just going to throw your work in the bin. Your choice. Deal with it.
Like I said, the main point which comes across strongly in the book is that screenwriting is hard. It's going to take you between 6 to 12 months to finish your script, of which maybe only 2 months is what we would call the "writing" part. The rest is research, planning, structuring, rewriting, creating outlines, treatments, synopses and so on. But the good news is that nearly all amateurs give up before getting to a really well polished script, perhaps a seventh or so draft or so which might actually be marketable. So if you put the work in, you're going to be ahead of a lot of the competition. There are a lot of really bad scripts circulating out there. And the British film industry is in pretty poor shape. Most British films that get made completely suck (according to the author, but I would tend to agree). Yes, we made East Is East - but there were a lot more films like Shoreditch made. Don't remember Shoreditch ? It starred Shane Ritchie as a London gangster, cost a million quid to make, and brought in a total of 3,000 pounds on its cinema release. If there's one message in this book it is: work hard at screenwriting, and the opportunities are there for you, for there are precious few people who can do it well in the UK. In fact the book is very good on the commercial aspects: lots of good contacts are listed, and much attention is paid to how you hustle once the script is done.
The book is not without some annoying niggles. It uses terms which are not defined until several chapters later; some of the advice is apparently contradictory; and there are some shocking bits of film jargon: "Around fifteen minutes into Act 2, a pinch loops around the protagonist's problem and the plot and draws both lines taut". Or try "An overarching arc represents your protagonist's journey through the narrative, from and to equilibrium back in the normal world or a new one in the special world, with the turning point coming at the mid-point." But hey, that's Hollywood, or at least Pinewood. You gotta learn to talk the talk...! Also it feels like there is some cheating when the author attempts to demonstrate how all the great movies fit the screenwriting rules so precisely: I think in some cases he is just taking whatever event happens to be going on 30 mins in and calling it a "major turning point".
I'm definitely glad I read this. It only took a few hours, it's priced at just under a fiver, and it's definitely inspired me to find out more. And most importantly now I really want to write a script next year! (Hey, has there been a comedy about terrorism yet apart from Team America ? certainly not in the UK ?) But I'd be exaggerating if I said i thought this book was sufficient to get me to the script development stage - I'll definitely need to read one of the bigger books next. But this was a great starting point.
Oh, I like reviews like this- gives me a really great clear idea of what this book might be worth to me as a screenwriter, and more importantly, probably, to someone who's never actually attacked screenwriting yet. And funny. Recommendations for other screenwriting books might be useful here as well, maybe?
Griff. I'm off to the Arvon Foundation house at Craven Arms to do a scriptwriting course and what you have written has made me feel as if already I'm ahead of the rest! The one I'm going on is more about writing for TV - I hanker to write for Corrie or The Bill or one of those nice afternoon plays the Beeb sometimes do. From what you read and understood, would you say the same rules still apply to a TV drama? (Not a soap, obviously.)
Jem - Some of the same rules apply, but TV and Film are very different beasts. John Costello goes to great pains to point that out in the book. So, the notion of rigid adherence to structure is important: but the details of that structure will differ considerably. Also TV is typically more "talky" than film; and "high concept" is a disadvantage in TV. The audience tuning into EastEnders week after week want to be given a certain kind of story - anything too novel or original will be rejected by script editors. So if you want to write for TV, get a book which specialises in it.
Good luck on the Arvon course by the way! Let us know how it goes.
...And of course, buy yourself lots of books of collected TV scripts to study. There are hundreds of them on Amazon ranging from The Catherine Tate Show to Doctor Who.
Recommended screenwriting books:
The big two are Story
by Robert McKee
by Syd Field.
I had a go at the Syd Field once and didn't really get on with it, but that's just my personal experience: it's widely recommended though.
Thanks for this Griff. A good review is worth its weight in gold.
A nicely balanced review, Griff. I like the boldness of the words 'bloody hard work' for this is absolutely factual. The specific techniques demanded by the Film Industry mean that a writer's imagination and perception need to go far beyond the written words.
Thanks for doing this Griff. You say it only took a few hours but that's time given up all the same - both to read the book and to put it across clearly for the rest of us.
I went to Winchester Writers' Conference 2006 and sat in a class given by Screenwriter Bernard McKenna and he recommended this book. He said the Syd Field book is the most respected book on screenwriting, but that this pocket one tells you everything the Syd Field one does, but without the waffle.
I've read it, and found it very helpful. Though like most screenwriting books it's aimed at films, rather than TV.
I think this is the book (if my memory serves me) that states that Hollywood does mainly films aimed at 15 year old American boys because they buy the most confectionary in the cinema. Therefore if your film won't appeal to them, your chances of getting a script accepted are a lot lower. Explains a lot! (Though perhaps not "Becoming Jane" ;0)