So there I am, sitting in a screening room watching yet another film that slavishly follows the current screenwriting trend du monde with character arcs and story “beats” all lining up in predictable patterns.
Once again, I want to curse those screenwriting gurus who make a fortune writing books and teaching boot-camp writing courses that sell this formulaic stuff to neophyte writers — or worse, producers who actually believe this rot.
Studio screenplays now follow such a tiresome pattern that most viewers are miles ahead of a film’s development. (This is creeping into indie films as well, alas.) Thank goodness a pal of mine has finally written a book that swings far, far away from these formulas.
“You’d face better odds taking your dollars to the corner liquor store to buy lottery tickets than to follow the mechanical formulas advocated in these books,” says screenwriter and film historian Joseph McBride.
His own book came out of necessity.
Lacking any decent text to teach screenwriting at San Francisco State University, where he is an associate professor in the Cinema Department, he finally did the logical thing: He wrote his own.
“Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless” was recently published by Vintage Books. Filmmaker Peter Bogdanovich calls it an “impressively readable, unpretentious, and remarkably useful handbook on how to, and how not to, write a screenplay.”
“I’ve read many of the screenwriting manuals out there, and while every one of them has something to teach you, I didn’t find any book of this kind worth using as a textbook when I started teaching screenwriting in 2000,” McBride remarks.
“Most of the books preach formulaic writing as a way to strike it rich. I thought I would write my own guide to the craft. Aside from not wanting to mislead students about how they will strike it rich … I wanted instead to give them straight talk about the realities of the business.
“I wanted to focus on the step-by-step craft of writing a script, to take the reader by the hand and show him or her each step of how to put together a screenplay, from conception to outlines to treatment to screenplay. I walk the reader through all these steps while showing them how I adapt a classic short story, Jack London’s ‘To Build a Fire,’ into a short screenplay.”
The strategy behind using an existing short story is an intriguing one.
“At first I let my beginning screenwriting students try original stories,” McBride notes. “But the stories generally were bad and often not very original.
“I must have read 20 scripts about three roommates at San Francisco State University, two of whom suspect the third is a serial killer. I began to wonder where they got that plot.
“So I thought, ‘What would Jean Renoir do?’ I remembered that he once suggested that the way to cure the problems of the movie business was to have every director in Hollywood or Paris make the same story, a Western, for a year. Each film, he said, would turn out very differently, because they would reflect the personalities of their authors.
“I thought I would follow Renoir and give the students a choice of two short stories to adapt as an exercise, Ernest Hemingway’s ‘Big Two-Hearted River’ or Flannery O’Connor’s ‘A Late Encounter with the Enemy.’ We study these stories together and discuss in detail how to adapt them.
“I promise my students at the start of each semester that if they do the assignments and show up — Woody Allen says, ‘Eighty percent of life is showing up’ — they will be professional-quality screenwriters by the end of the semester. They are surprised to find that this is actually true.
“They may take a while as I did to start selling scripts, but their scripts will be of professional quality. And I urge them to immediately write a script they can make on their own as a no-budget calling-card picture.
“So when I wrote ‘Writing in Pictures,’ I followed that method with ‘To Build a Fire.’ I make the same promise to the reader, that if he or she follows the assignments in the book by adapting a story, he or she will be a professional-quality screenplay in a few short weeks. It seems hard to believe, but it will happen.”
As all the best filmmakers will tell you, the best writing comes from the heart, not from the calculator or the pocketbook. That’s not an easy path to take, but it’s by far the most rewarding emotionally if not always financially.
“Writing formulaic projects out of a craven desire to succeed or out of poor taste due to a lack of familiarity with the genuine classics of film history is the biggest mistake a screenwriter can make today,” McBride notes. “Writing to a formula is virtually a guarantee of a bad movie. As Frank Capra advised young filmmakers, ‘Don’t follow trends. Start trends.'”