Saturday, September 03, 2005

Guru Gaga

The moment that fed my fascination with film, and screenwriting in particular, came when I was twelve years old. And funnily enough, this moment was inspired by William Goldman, but not in the way you’d expect. Like everyone else, the cinema was a source of escapism and delight from an early age, and I was also an avid TV addict. As my boyhood tastes were developing, I took an interest in the supernatural and all things that went bump in the night.

One day, browsing through books at home, I stumbled across a novel called ‘Magic’ by one William Goldman. It tells the story of a ventriloquist who becomes controlled by his own dummy to perform acts of murder. At my impressionist age, I loved every minute of it and (call it fate) when I finished the book, the film adaptation was going to be on telly that night. I couldn’t believe it. I felt that the TV broadcast was directly linked to me having just completed the book. Full of excitement, I persuaded my father to let me watch the film (it was after my bedtime and quite an adult story). Permission granted and young boy psyched, I sat down eagerly to watch the film with the book on my lap, ready for the story to unfold exactly as it transpired on the literary page.

Confusion. I was on page one of the book but the film was starting somewhere else entirely and I was scrambling to find where. After a couple of minutes elapsed in the same manner, I surrendered myself to the narrative of the film and gave up on the book being my personal guide. But I was still confused. William Goldman had written the script from his own book, so why was it so different? This is when I consciously became aware of a ‘script’ and what a ‘screenwriter’ did. Somewhat less enchanting - when I watched CHiPs on TV, I was always trying to figure out why the camera wasn’t visible on the reverse over the shoulder shots when Jon & Ponch were gassing.

Nowadays, of course, the screenwriting training market is in full force with various books, talks, expos and gurus at hand to dispense their pearly pearls. But with so many out there peddling their wares, it’s difficult to know where to start or who to turn to. Just who is the best? Or do they all say the same thing? Who should we follow, whose advice is most relevant/applicable? I’ve had experience of a few and of the main books, so let’s do a quick checklist of who’s who shall we…?

Robert McKee. The daddy. His ‘Story Seminar’ is probably the most revered and reputable of all the screenwriting gurus. But hold on a second, is a weekend in his presence listening to him speak for 30 hours over three days worth shelling a couple of hundred quid of your hard earned cashola? Well yes, if you haven’t read his book, but you could buy the book for something like a tenner and get the exact same info he imparts over the weekend (his seminar essentially being a well recited stand up routine of his book).

Christopher Vogler. The myth man. Talks about the powerful association of myths in storytelling and its never-ending hold over audiences. Very Joseph Campbell. When I attended his weekend seminar in London, he was jetlagged and improvised his lecture a bit but after reading his book, his seminar is also, basically, a ‘live’ version of his book. Which is certainly worth a read.

Syd Field. Three-Act structure be thy name. Haven’t seen his weekend whatsit but still an essential starting point to grasping the basics of screenplay structure. His paradigm may be broad knowledge by now but his fundamental theory still has the power to inspire and inform.

William Goldman. "Nobody knows anything". Well, this man does. His seminal 'Adventures in the Screen Trade' shared gossip and insight in equal measure while its sequel 'Which Lie Did I Tell?' followed through with Goldman's playful wit and knowledge.

Michael Hauge. Author of ‘Writing Screenplays That Sell’, the first screenwriting book I ever read back when I was very miserable working in the Irish Civil Service dreaming of a better life (I was only 18). It’s obviously a book with a commercial slant but covers the essential areas: concept, character, structure, etc; and is just the tonic for newbie writers who instinctively know these things already but weren’t aware of the terms or process. Apparently, there’s a DVD of Mr Hauge with Syd Field, or something, and he regularly attends Screenwriting Expos (that’s L.A. for seminars) but I’ve only read his book and have no clue what he looks like.

Linda Seger. Much respected script consultant and guru. Author of ‘Making a Good Script Great’ and ‘Creating Unforgettable Characters’. Don’t let the titles put you off - she rocks.

Lajos Egri. Who? “The Art of Dramatic Wr!t!ng” dummy. Despite the dodgy use of the exclamation marks in Wr!t!ng, this book is a more theatrical and learned affair, which gives the lowdown on what makes drama work and what’s required of the creative process. Not as accessible as the others but still damn fine stuff.

John Truby. Has 22 Steps to unbeatable structure, apparently. I’ve not yet indulged or read any of his work but he’s supposedly very good.

Jurgen Wolff. European/American scriptwriter/intellectual/hypnotherapist (eh?) who has great ways to stimulate creativity and avoid writer’s block.

Aristotle. Forget Field. Check out Aristotle’s “Poetics”. He started it. It’s all his fault.

Other screenwriting books I have:- Zen and the Art of Screenwriting by William Froug (interviews and insight with Hollywood screenwriters). The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters by Karl Iglesias (great advice and discipline). 500 Ways to Beat the Hollywood Script Reader by Jennifer Lerch (it does what it says on the tin).

I would link to all of the above but I’ve had too much red wine and you probably know where to locate them anyway…

There are many, many others. If anyone would like to recommend or share, do tell.


Anonymous said...

I just got back from Borders books and started reading Screenplay: Writing The Picture by Robin Russin (a student of Lew Hunter's 434 writing class at UCLA) and it has some good stuff in it

Piers said...

For my money the best screenwriting book is Dwight Swain's Film Scriptwriting: A Practical Manual. Proper nuts-and-bolts storytelling. Not in print in the UK, but here's Amazon US: It's the one I keep coming back to.

As for Linda Seger - BAH! Anyone that can so comprehensively misunderstand the theme of Unforgiven deserves neither your money nor your time.

Anonymous said...

I thought your list was pretty comprehensive. Having read nearly all of them, I would personally recommend McKee's 'Story' above the others, but only for those having done some prior reading on the basics of screenwriting. (Dave Trottier's 'Screenwriting Bible' is a good place to start.)

Another good book for a detailed concise read of the basics is 'Screenwriting' by Raymond Frensham. It is part of the 'Teach Yourself' series, which may sound all very Mickey Mouse, but forget that - it isn't, really.

Finally, I would also say there is no substitute for reading as much about narrative as possible. 'The Seven Basic Plots' by Christopher Booker is *a must*. '20 Master Plots' by Ronald Tobias is a handy reference book too. I am *not* prescribing writing by numbers here - merely that a knowledge of plot can often put you back on the road to a good story if you find you have lost your way.