Sunday, January 10, 2010

Screenwriting Theory ... in practice

It appears to me that the internet, through blogs, podcasts and other web 2.0 tools, has been the catalyst for an explosion in tips, theories, laws, rules, guidelines, encyclicals and arcane pagan rituals about the craft of writing for the big screen.

Type "screenwriting" into Google and you get 1,880,000 results! There's a bewildering array of information. That's before you even get to the books, manuals and lecture circuit (the most famous of which is Robert McKee's, pictured above).

Now, at the risk of being called a heretic, most of it seems to have very little to do with the actual art of writing. The more I read about what I'm supposed to be doing (according to the learned scribes) the less capable I am of doing it.

*diagram by Charles Deemer chosen at random from a google search of "screenwriting diagrams" and in no way meant to imply the information is incorrect but used as an example only.

I call it the Tin Cup principle. In that movie, Kevin Costner becomes totally bamboozled when he uses a 'training aid' to correct his golf swing to calamitous results. The more he thought about the mechanics of what he was doing, the worse he became.

Is screenwriting like the perfect golf swing? In many ways, I think it is. Sure, I need to know the fundamentals of my craft (ie storytelling) but when I sit down to write I want to be creative NOT analytical.

As I mentioned previously in this blog, I attempted to use Vogler's Hero's Journey once and by the end of it I wanted to sieze the damn sword and bash the threshold guardian to the innermost cave of my creativity over the head with it.

For me, writing is organic, not a series of steps or benchmarks to hit. I find most screenwriting books incredibly dry and, as a consequence, have read very few. I DO, however, like going to seminars and workshops which can be much more hands on, entertaining and interactive. Linda Aronson, for example, when she was in Perth a few years ago or Duncan Thompson. Perhaps just the way I learn and take things in.

Where I think judicious use of theory can be useful is in the rewriting process and when discussing notes. This IS the analytical side of writing but until you have a draft to dissect then getting bogged down in all the competing voices of what "you must do" is self-defeating in my opinion.

I raise this as I will soon turn my attention to a new feature script. I intend to start with a beat sheet and then a scene breakdown so I know what my story is before I get anywhere near script stage. I have a rough idea of what the "turning points" are and the "inciting incident" and what the "climax" should be. But I'm not fussed about that too much yet - I want the story and characters to organically grow and leave lots of room for spontaneity and surprise. Not worry that "this" has to happen by "that" page number and blah blah blah.

So by all means, read all the maxims and "rules" that are out there. But my advice would be to forget them when you sit down to write that very first draft when creativity is paramount. Then resurrect the ones that make sense (to you) when you come to the task of rewriting.

Do you agree or am I way off the mark? Would be interested in other writer's thoughts.

Speaking of McKee, I leave you with this scene from Adaptation.


  1. No, I completely agree. I've had a similar run n with Vogler and various other 'must do's'. At the end of the day, the first draft is about letting your imagination run away with you. The editing process is about reeling it back in. Great post!

  2. Thanks Cei. Vogler's book is an interesting read as is using his model retrospectively to analyse films. But damned if it didn't totally screw me up on outlining a feature idea. And that's the key I think - these models all look great in hindsight.

    Will be really interesting to hear the writing process for Neighbours and how they approach story and structure!

  3. Screenwriting has always been appealing to me in a way that I wanted to know what it looks like, what you should focus on etc. Like how the writing process is organized.
    Though I do not think I would be able to write anything like that.

  4. Hi Lena. I suspect a lot of people get put off by the "rules" and the format. All I would say is that if you have a story you want to tell, get it down on paper first then worry about all the "intricacies" later. Writing is first and foremost about rewriting ...

  5. Don't worry, I'll be blogging as much as I'm allowed to on the process :)

  6. Let the people of Iran be your inspiration, Cei. Information can be transmitted to the world even in the most dictatorial of regimes.

    Hopefully you can bypass the Neighbours Junta and enlighten us all :-)

  7. Thanks for dropping by at The Story Dept. I thought I'd return the favour!

    I half agree with your post.

    Keeping the 'rules' in mind while trying to be creative would indeed be the most self-destructive approach and has lead to dreadful derivative writing.

    On the other hand, if you don't have a rough idea of where you're story is going, i.e. an inciting incident and an ending (that's really the very bare bones), most likely it is not going anywhere. That's my experience working with hundreds of writers and students of various talent and education levels.

    Once you go into re-writing mode, an acute awareness of techniques and principles becomes essential. At this point, you will actually need to go a lot further in the mastery of story and screenwriting techniques than most books and teachers tell you.

    If anything, I find screenwriting is being portrayed far easier than it really is, particularly in the area of required skills.

    Interesting you mention Linda Aronson. When I took her 'Plot Construction' workshop, I thought she was TOO prescriptive! (LOL)

    Keep blogging!

  8. Hi Karel and thanks for stopping by. Yes, screenwriting is damn hard and attempts to boil it down to magical formulas and 'never fail' rules is deceptive and simplistic.

    The phrase I hate most and have never understood is - "... and then the script writes itself." Hello? What does that mean? Where can I get one of these magic self-writing screenplays?!

    Linda Aronson did a one day course on non-linear structure that I found interesting (I'm a sucker for whiteboards). Though I confess, I bought her book and never got past the first chapter.

    Re Unforgiven, it's one of my favourite movies so the clipped dialogue exchange attracted my attention.

    I have, however, been reading your site for some time after being tipped off by M. Familton.

    I suspect I should be doing less blogging and more writing but I'll see how I go ...

  9. The great thing about blogging is that all this stuff ultimately plants itself in your subconscious so you don't need to worry about it when you're writing.

    The script will virtually write itself!!


  10. Yeah, but I don't blog about the craft of screenwriting. There are a million blogs about that (too much "stuff" if you ask me). More my experiences as it relates to writing and trying to get films made.

    I look forward to reading this virtual script!