Hollywood Safari: Navigating Screenwriting Books & Theory – John Fraim


Sergei Eisenstein / The First Film Theorist

“Stories are at the heart of humanity and are the repository of our diverse cultural heritage. They are told, retold and reinterpreted for new times by storytellers. Screenwriters are the storytellers of our time.”

European Screenwriters Manifesto (2006)

This is not another book on screenwriting. Rather, it is a about the books on screenwriting. There are a lot of them out there. And many more each year.

Recently, I inputed  “Screenwriting” into the Books section of Amazon and received 3,500 results. While many books made this category by the whims of algorithm patterns, there is no denying the fact that books on screenwriting education has become a substantial “cottage” industry today.

The books and the theories on screenwriting they can be viewed as “brands” within an industry. As such, screenwriting books possess elements of brands. A major element of brands is differentiation that posits brands within industries differentiate themselves from other industry brands in order to become unique, distinct brands that stand out from the rest of the brands. They attempt to stand out in order to be noticed and hopefully purchased by consumers in the industry.

Brand segmentation within industries s certainly one of the most observable phenomena of the contemporary world. We no longer have three major television networks but rather hundreds of cable channels. We no longer have black Model T Fords but dozens of car models. We no longer have a few brands of beer but hundreds of brands.

The upside of this segmentation is that consumers have more choice than ever before. The downside is that this choice can be confusing to these consumers. The same situation is true in the screenwriting industry that offers a plethora of methods, techniques and structures. In this scenario, there are few attempts at consolidation or finding commonalities among the various books and theories. Much of this seems similar to the world of academics where disciplines and departments within universities becomes more divided up into smaller and smaller niches of information for fewer and fewer specialists who know more and more about less and less.

In the end, one needs to ask from all of this, do all of these books advance the screenwriting art and craft or simply confuse it all the more by miring it in battling screenwriting brands?

* * *

Certainly reading the best books on screenwriting is not the only way to learn the craft of screenwriting. Working in the industry, reading screenplays and going to film school are other ways that immediately come to mind.  However, for many and especially those not in the Los Angeles area, books on screenwriting is their first (and often last) introduction to the field. Hopefully, this book helps them navigate this expanding landscape.

How does one navigate this growing landscape of screenwriting books and theory? And, how does one define the best books on screenwriting? By the advice from friends? By the books used at the leading film schools? By leading screenwriters? By readers of the books? For example, one can sort the Amazon “Screenplay” list by such pull-down menu criteria as “Relevance” or “Most Reviews” or “Publication Date” or “Average Review Ratings.” By online lists of these best screenwriting books such as “The 50 Best Books on Screenwriting” by Anish Bhatia published on the Amazon site?

One of the best ways to navigate the dense world of screenwriting books is to define the major segments of the screenwriting books industry. We provide this type of segmentation by calling these segments “schools” and defining ten major schools. This allows readers to see the proverbial “forest” for all the “trees.” The reader is provided with a type of map of the territory so to speak. With this information, they can navigate the area more intelligently.

But there are other ways of segmenting the screenwriting education market discussed in this book. A three-point pyramid structure is proposed by screenwriting guru Robert McKee based on the overall life perspectives screenwriters bring to screenwriting. These three major approaches are the following:

1. Classical Design and Archplot (Top of Pyramid)

Under this heading are causality. Closed Ending. Linear Time. External Conflict. Single Protagonist. Consistent Reality. Active Protagonist.

2.Minimalism and Mini Plot (Bottom left of Pyramid)

Under this heading Open Ending. Internal Conflict. Multi-Protagonists. Passive Protagonist.

3. Anti-Structure and Antiplot (Bottom right of Pyramid. Under this section are Coincidence. Nonlinear time. Inconsistent Realities.

McKee observes that a screenwriter writes the most powerful screenplays when they understand what perspective they bring to screenwriting and are able to figure ways to best write in this perspective. This can present an ethical challenge for many since he notes that the Classical Design approach is the one most film audiences understand and the most popular. Writing screenplays with this structure is not as much of a challenge for those who have a classical design perspective on life. However, writing screenplays with classical structure presents a far greater challenge to those who bring a minimalistic or anti-structure perspective to life.

One needs to keep McKee’s three-segments in mind during our discussion of the various schools as all schools possess elements of McKee’s three design structures. For example, the minimalism structure of internal conflict finds commonality with the Psychology School and the Personal School of screenplay writing books and theories. On the other hand, the classical design structure of external conflict and closed endings finds commonality with the Plot School and the Step School we define.

* * *

While we attempt to be comprehensive on overall screenwriting books, we do not cover here the growing number of screenwriting books directed at aspects of screenwriting such as particular film genres like comedy, thrillers, horror and science fiction. For example, the book The Hidden Tools of Comedy by Steve Kaplan is an excellent guide to writing comedy scripts. Also, we do not cover books offering advice on certain elements of screenwriting such as writing for alternative films and the excellent Alternative Scriptwriting by Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush, adaptations, making screenplays better such as Linda Seger’s excellent Making A Good Script Great and formatting such as Christopher Riley’s The Hollywood Standard. Nor do we cover so-called screenwriting bibles such as David Trottier’s excellent The Screenwriters Bible.

We also leave out books consisting of collections of articles on aspects of screenwriting such as the very worthwhile Cut to the Chase, edited by Linda Venis. More than a collection of “articles” on aspects of screenwriting, it consists of integrally linked chapters that mirror the famous UCLA Extension Writers’ Program feature film-writing curriculum. Its companion book is titled Inside the Room and focuses on television writing.  Professionals teaching at UCLA Extension Writers’ Program write all chapters in these books.

Also not considered in Hollywood Safari are books that analyze cinema (such as the excellent Film Art by David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson) or the excellent series of books published about the visual aspects of storytelling such as The Visual Story by Bruce Block or Cinematic Storytelling by Jennifer van Sijll.

While there are many excellent books directed at these elements of screenwriting, our purpose here is identifying and discussing major segments or “schools” of screenwriting books and theory.

* * *

Those familiar with the history of film would be hard-pressed to call the age we live in anything close to a “golden age” of cinema. The summer of 2013 saw some of the largest losses in the history of movies. Blame for the lackluster performance of many films today is spread around to a number of “villains.” Bad business decisions are offered as one excuse. Exaggerated egos are offered as another. Being out of touch with the general populace another. The failure to take risks with new films and continue building sequels under a “big tent” film another.

But perhaps the real failure of films today is something few talk about. This is the failure of the screenwriting industry to arrive at a type of agreed-upon commonality for structure, technique and method as screenwriting books and theories continue to segment modern storytelling into smaller and smaller niches that battle each other in brand warfare. In all of this, the sense of story becomes lost in more and more techniques and methods.

Legendary screenwriter Robert Towne might have identified the real reason for the continuing deluge of bad and boring movies. In an essay called “On Moving Pictures” at the beginning of my copy of the script for Chinatown, Towne observes:

“I think it is true that narrative skill in screenwriting may be at an all-time low. There was an undeniably greater story sense evidenced by the preceding generation of filmmakers. It may have been due in part to the fact that (they) … began their careers in silent pictures. Without sound, they were obliged to think carefully about making the story and motivation clear. This obsession with story and with clarity never abandoned them when they abandoned silent film. They knew how much image could convey and they knew the corollary, how much and how many ways the images could confuse and mislead, just about 24 times a second.”

* * *

The era of the silent pictures and the great natural storytellers is now far away. Since their time, the Hollywood storytelling industry has evolved much over the years and, as we suggest, has become another industry or discipline with the attendant segmentation it brings with it. Similar to many academic disciplines, screenwriting today knows more and more about less and less: more and more technique about smaller and smaller elements of stories. As Robert Towne might suggest, more knowledge of technique and methods but less sense of story.

Presented in the following pages is the current territory of screenwriting with all of its attendant techniques, methods, principles and theories. In this “wilderness” we move our “safari” into, it will become evident that some “schools” have much commonality with other schools. Perhaps some type of consolidation is in order? For example, screenplay teachers who provide close to the same number of steps in their story structure might be simply calling the same steps different names. Or sometimes one book states one element or principle much better than others. For example, the section on Premise in Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing has perhaps the best section on Premise ever written.

Before any type of consolidation from all the screenwriting books out there, it is first important to survey the field so that one can navigate through it with a type of roadmap. One can say that the glut of books and screenwriting education is simply a Hollywood problem. But it might go far beyond this if one agrees with the quote at the beginning of the Introduction that stories are the heart of humanity and screenwriters are the storytellers of our time. We might need better screenplays. What we really need, though, are better stories.

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