Wednesday, December 03, 2003

Screenwriting Books

Submitted by Richard Hogg

Looking up at my bookshelves recently I noticed how many books on screenwriting I had. A dozen at least. Cursing not only my stupidity at wasting over £100 (that’s a good four or five nights out after all) I ended up with a few sobering thoughts.

How much of the thousands of pages I had read had I actually digested and more importantly been able to use in my writing. Act structure. Climax. Peaks and troughs. Pacing. Tone. Characters versus Characterization. This is not a rant denouncing help books. I don’t believe they’re all useless. The usual suspects, i.e. Story and Screenwriters Bible are and were most useful when going back over those early drafts when I had, quite frankly, written novels in a script format.

The main point I came away with is actually the central message of this whole piece. Just write. Yes I know you’ve read it before and even if you haven’t, of course you’ve got to write. How bloody obvious can you get. But it isn’t. Recently I found myself looking back over the last week. I had been to screenwriting class on the Thursday night and had been given a assignment and I had several rough ideas for a short story or short script. What did I do? Turn on my PlayStation and play a few hours of football (soccer to our American friends, though really our sport came first). Why? I have come to realize that I work in fits and starts. Other writers seem to churn out work on a regular basis with a routine at the heart of it. One hour on a morning or between half nine and ten at night, but gradually it all builds up. Instead I find myself writing ten to twenty pages of script a day for a few weeks then nothing for a month. I’m not blocked. It’s just lethargy. Have I tired myself out? I doubt it. I just suddenly seemed to prioritize watching those West Wing episodes I taped.

Anyway back to the point. Do write regularly. It’s been said before and will be said countless times again but I can’t reinforce it enough. If you really want to do it, sitting down and thinking about the rewards at the end won’t do anything. It has to be practiced.

My second point is to read a lot. Not just scripts. Writing is writing. I know there’s a whole different craft when comparing prose and scripts but at the heart is story. You do have to think visually. You can’t have a inner monologue to reveal character but you still have to have a feel for that character. They must be real to you. You must be able to make the reader care for them, empathize with them. The plot must excite. It must be something that you would want to read or watch.

Stephen King in his book on writing says he’s a slow reader but gets through about eighty books a year. Do you read more than one a week? And no, large print or children’s books don’t count. I read fifty, maybe sixty. And I thought I read a lot. But why is it so important? It’s all to do with that little thing that all the books bang on about, your subconscious. That part of you brain that is supposedly ticking away, filing away ideas, which it decides to let you in on whenever you don’t have a pen and paper handy. I’m wasn’t sure about the whole notion but as I read more I began coming up with ideas that had a hint of a character from one novel, a plot strand from a film, along with ideas from other sources mixed in.

On top of all this, King is right when he says if you want to be a writer so you have to study writing. He’s renowned as being able to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up. How does he do it? How much does he show? Is it because we like the character and don’t want anything bad to happen to them? Is it the language? The pacing? The only way you’ll ever know is to read. And make it varied. Harry Potter one week followed by a history book on the down fall of Berlin the next, followed the week after by a Booker Prize winner.

Stick to what you’re interested in sure, I tried to improve my scientific knowledge with a few popular books on black holes. It took me four weeks to get through a hundred pages. I actually found myself volunteering to do the house work rather than read this monster.

Looking back over this I’ve ranted on a bit (nothing new there) but back to the original premise. All the time I’ve spent reading how-to books, playing games, and watching reruns could have been better spent. I want to write for film and TV so I will watch film and TV, obviously. But the other activities I find myself engaging in, let’s face it, they’re not that important. If I want to be a writer, I have to read a lot and write a lot. Even if the vast majority of what I write is crap.
If it’s what you really want to do, then don’t put it off or come up with a list of excuses like I used to. Do it. A few years down the line the benefits will be obvious.

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