Monday 27 January 2014

Understanding Screenwriting

I guess in a lot of very real and important ways Tom Stempel's Understanding Screenwriting is one of my very favourite books. Whether you fancy yourself a writer of any kind, or simply as a consumer of those things that have been written, there is something within these pages for you.

There are a lot of books about screenwriting, written by screenwriters, and script doctors, and the cats' mother (she had a litter), and that guy that wrote nearly every episode of Babylon 5, and a lot of them act like a how to guide, but Understanding Screenwriting is more of an exercise in foundations and core understandings. That's why it has the title that it has. The title is apt.

The website makes claims to the contrary, going so far as to openly state that it is in fact 'a practical how-to (or how-NOT-to) guide to writing a screenplay', but it is not this. It isn't. They are trying to tell you that it is, because unfortunately that is what people think will write their script for them. Scriptwriters will write your script for you. Not books. A book won't do that. This book is more important than that though. It is a series of incredibly accessible, well written case studies on the history and theory of screenwriting.

Will it make your scripts better? I'm not promising that, because that is a silly thing for any book to promise. People take what they want from everything that they read. If you're thoughtful, and open to criticising your own work in a productive sort of way, then it will most likely do for you what you want it to do, except write your script for you. I don't know that I am that sort of person. If I ever have a script made into an actual film, I will let you know what this book did for me in more concrete terms. I do know that I wrote a great many scripts using a great many how-to books, but it wasn't until I read this that I realised what atrociously toxic nonsense I was producing.

Why does all of this make it one of my favourite books? I mean, it is more or less responsible for me not writing any scripts for the better part of five years. I just stopped. I looked at the scripts that I had been writing and just stepped away from the computer. Well, I didn't do that. I wrote other things, and played games, and spent a lot of time on YouTube and Wikipedia. This was a good thing though. I have read this book from cover to cover, at least once a year since I first read it, and am actually reading it again now. Not right now. I'm not reading and writing. It is an incredibly easy read, and it will leave you with a lot to think about. It should change the way that you think when you write, but it might not. It might just be one of the most interesting books that you ever read about scripts and screenwriting.

The book loses me a little bit in the last section, in which he talks about bad scripts, wherein the author suddenly trades clever insights for snarky putdowns. It isn't the whole last section, but there are whole parts of the last section in which nothing useful or productive is said, but instead reads a lot like one of those negative to be cool film reviews. In his discussion of Dune he admits to never having seen the film all of the way through (and makes no mention of having read the script) while making a valid point about adapting long novels, but Dune had far more hurdles facing the adaptation than the length of the source material. Then there are parts like his commentary on Willow that are completely useless (and possibly the worst written parts of the whole book). I'm not disagreeing with what he said about Willow, I just don't think it is useful. It can be boiled down to: I think this movie is boring, don't listen to Joseph Campbell. It just sounds like he doesn't like Willow, and wants to say something mean about it.

I would really like to see a second edition, with a more thoughtful last section. Stempel is clearly very clever, and I would love to read a less trendy approach to bad scripts from the same part of his brain that wrote most of the rest of the book.

There is actually a lot more that I want to say about how it has altered the whole process of writing for me, but I'll say that when I actually have something to show for my efforts. Right now, I don't have that. I have started writing scripts again. This year. A couple of days ago. Same day I started reading this book again. I'm good at starting things though. It's always in the finishing that I

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