WHERE ARE THE BOOKS FOR FOREST PEOPLE?
Review by Charles Deemer
Writing Your Screenplay
By Lisa Dethridge
Allen & Unwin, 2003
Could It Be A Movie?
By Christina Hamlett
Michael Wiese Productions, 2005
Screenwriting For The 21st Century
By Pat Silver-Lasky
Writing A Great Movie
By Jeff Kitchen
The great majority of screenwriting books are based on a false premise. The error has to do with how the creative process works for writers. These books assume that planning has to happen first, writing second, instead of happening together in a “sink or swim” process that finds concept-development and script writing happening side-by-side. In this widely accepted view, the screenwriter must structure the material, outline the scenes, understand the characters, all this and more before script writing actually begins.
But many successful screenwriters do not do this and are on record as “non-planners.”
Bruce Joel Rubin (“Ghost”) is quoted in American Screenwriters: “I’m never intentional. I’m totally intuitive….I just write from the gut, let it come out, and it tends to shape itself.”
The same book quotes Joe Eszterhas (“Basic Instinct”): “I just start writing. And sometimes I don’t know where it’s going to go.”
These aren’t isolated examples but there also are many screenwriters on record as planners, doing outlines and other left-brained activity to shape their story before they start writing it. But a significant number of screenwriters are far more messy than this.
The point I’m making is that screenwriting books almost always address the planners (whom I call “tree people”) but seldom the sink-or-swimmers (“forest people”). And so with the four books under consideration here. The problem, in part, is that it is easier to write a prescriptive book, telling student screenwriters how to plan, than an inspirational one, cheering them on as they wing it. Yet the more the latter is attempted, the closer to the reality of the creative process, which in truth is messy by nature, the book stands.
Let me consider them in the order of their emphasis of planning first, writing second. Most prescriptive is Jeff Kitchen’s apparently self-published book (no publisher info, no ISBN number, no barcode). Perhaps the most interesting thing about this book is Kitchen’s endorsement of and detailed reproduction of Georges Polti’s 1916 classic, The 36 Dramatic Situations. To Kitchen’s credit, he emphasizes its use not as dogma but as a brainstorming tool. Kitchen loves prescriptive lists, and the book is full of them, a planner’s dream book.
Silver-Lasky, too, emphasizes planning before writing, with a chapter dedicated to using cards to develop three-act structure. She is especially strong in emphasizing something most beginning screenwriters come to slowly, the way collaboration changes the writing task.
“A screenplay,” she writes, “is really a series of instructions to director and actors. You create the scenes and dialogue, suggest motivations, and then you must leave the rest in their capable hands.” This is top notch advice. And again: “Don’t be too explicit in your instructions – leave something to the actor’s imagination.” Most beginners direct how actors talk and move far too much and too explicitly. Silver-Lasky’s book is full of solid advice like this, though like most authors she ignores the special needs of “sink-or-swim” writers in developing their scripts.
Dethridge, an Australian writer, also has much to say about the collaborative nature of screenwriting. “We might compare the screenplay to the symphonic score,” she writes, “which is a set of instructions for a number of instruments or voices. Like the symphonic score, the screenplay is not written specifically for the audience . . . In this way, the screenplay is really a kind of alchemical formula; it is an instruction manual for the conjuring of human action and behaviour that a team of performers and craftspeople will make ‘real’ using the document as their guide.”
For planners, Dethridge is strong on structure, devoting separate chapters to the special structural needs of each of the three acts. She likes to structure stories with a seven-step outline. But she has nothing to say to “forest writers” who jump right in and figure out structure during, not before, the act of writing.
Hamlett’s book, like the others, emphasizes outlining and planning. He is especially strong in a chapter called “The Audience’s Mindset,” in which she discusses the important of stirring emotions in an audience, in making our stories personal for them.
So all these books have strengths, and all are useful additions to a screenwriter’s library. However, none are recommended as a stand-alone first book on screenwriting for the simple reason that books already exist that do this job better, such as the recent Cynthia Whicomb’s “The Writer’s Guide to Writing Your Screenplay.”
But these books tell only half the story. There are more than enough screenwriting books on the market that are written for “tree people,” the planners. They keep getting published nonetheless – but seldom do any of them do better what has already been done, despite the snippets of great advice you can find in them. What the screenwriting world needs, and needs badly, are books for the young Rubin and Eszterhas, “forest people” writers who begin with the heart, not the head, and start writing with only a vague concept in mind, letting the details get worked out in the actual process of writing. This is a far different process! It is virtually ignored by the cottage industry that has risen to address the needs of screenwriting students.
So I end this review with a plea. No more books about planning first, writing second. Let’s see some creative and adventurous books with advice for those writers – and there are many among us – who begin the storytelling adventure on a wing and a prayer, who type FADE IN and let her rip, who go for ten or twenty pages and stop against a brick wall. Don’t tell them to start over by planning. It’s not in their nature. Tell them something else. Tell them something useful for this more dynamic, more fragile adventure. Write them a book they can use.