If you’ve ever tried your hand at screenwriting, some well-meaning idiot has probably recommended or bought you a copy of Syd Field’s book, Screenplay. Maybe you were the well-meaning idiot and got it for yourself.
Inside, you’ll find all sorts of discussion about the mechanics of screenwriting that make it look, quite literally on some pages, like a physics formula. The great innovation most frequently pointed out, is how the book postulates that everything can be broken down into a three-act structure. Gee, you mean stories have a beginning, a middle and an end? That’s fucking gold. Good thing Syd figured that one out for us or we’d still be telling knock-knock jokes with no set-up in the middle.
Obviously, I’m not a fan. Syd Field just died, which probably means now is an ill-timed moment to get all critical and mean. But the tributes and eulogies I see out there on the web have put me in a foul mood. And this particular foul mood is as good an excuse as any for me to vent about the phenomenon of screenwriting gurus.
Syd Field’s book, for all the damage it’s done with its dry, lifeless deconstruction of what should be an art form, can at least be had in second-hand bookstores for a few bucks or, more appropriately, at garage sales for a quarter. That’s really the best thing I can say about it. It’s a cheap read, and there are so many copies in circulation, you can probably snag one for free (or thereabouts) will little effort if you feel you MUST have a look. Attending a Robert McKee seminar, however, will run you more in the neighbourhood of a thousand bucks a pop.
McKee has made a cottage industry (and fortune) with his lengthy and often packed seminars that break down a screen story into more physics formulas and geometic objects with seemingly random but supposedly insightful things written on each point. And people eat this shit up, swearing by it as they go home to work on their feature-length screenplay that will never make it past a single studio reader, assuming it ever actually gets finished and sent somewhere. As part of its marketing, these seminars like to drop the names of famous past attendees who could afford it, but should have known better than to go.
If you’re one of the Field or McKee disciples, fine. I don’t want to get in an argument with you. I’ll just call it a load of crap and you can hurl insults at me as I walk back to my computer to do some more paid screenwriting (or, let’s be honest, play video games – which I can at least afford to do most of the time because people actually pay me money to write for the screen, so there).
Whether it’s dinosaurs like Field or McKee, or any of the next generation of self-styled teachers trying to turn a buck telling you how to break into the biz with a perfect act structure and twists that happen on precisely the right page, they’re all kindred spirits. These aren’t screenwriting sages or gurus. They’re Amway salesmen. They’re exactly the same breed of people who write books and run seminars on how to flip houses for quick cash, or how to day-trade your way to millions. The crap they’re talking about isn’t where they made their fortune. They make their money from suckers who pay them to impart this vast, dubious insight they claim to have. Then they skip town with your dough in their pocket, while you try to earn a living based on the line of bullshit they just strung you.
Take a closer look at these screenwriters who have written how-to books or climbed a stage for a fee in order to educate the hopefuls and you’ll notice they all have one thing in common: You don’t want their career.
If you truly want to write movies or television and you feel you need guidance, the first thing you need to do before buying somebody’s damn book is to look up their credits. It’s just an imdb search away. Then ask yourself, “Is this the sort of success I hope to replicate?” Spoiler alert: it isn’t.
Syd Field wrote three episodes of a TV show and a documentary back in the ‘60s. He’s also credited with a “story concept” for a 2002 short. Robert McKee wrote one episode each for four different television series between 1979 and 1991. Then he wrote a TV movie bible-pic in 1993. Nothing since.
These are their produced credits, which are the only kind of credits that count in the business.
“Yeah, but they probably sold a lot of options.”
A monkey scribbling on the wall with its own poop can sell an option. I’m not impressed.
If you’re considering screenwriting as a vocation, chances are you have certain movies and careers in mind. You want to be a Shane Black or a Frank Darabont or a Coen Brother (pick one at random, it doesn’t matter, they share a brain as well as a filmography). Well guess what, they’re too fucking busy making movies to write you a self-help book telling you how to be them. There aren’t many real screenwriters, be they of the famous millionaire ilk or just stiffs like me working in the trenches, who are going to take the time out to play sensei and guide you to hone your craft and have a fruitful career. We don’t need the competition.
Look, you don’t want my screenwriting career either, but I’m not trying to sell you a book or a speaking engagement. I just want to stick it to all the so-called gurus out there by stealing their thunder and giving it away for free. No bullshit, I’m going to tell you how to be a screenwriter in one minute flat. It’s what I call my two-step program. I’m focusing on movies here because nobody ever starts out wanting to be a TV writer. Nobody. But the lessons learned will apply should you be lucky enough to end up milling product for the boob tube.
Step One: Watch every movie you’ve ever heard about. Read about film and watch anything that gets discussed or deemed noteworthy, be it good, bad or indifferent. Find lists about notable movies, watch them all. Read Danny Peary’s Guide for the Film Fanatic (or just get the list) and watch everything mentioned. Have you seen all the top 250 films on the imdb? If not, fix that. How about the bottom 100? Fix that too. Watch whatever has been scrutinized, analyzed or talked about in every genre. Don’t like westerns? Tough shit, watch ‘em. Offended by porn? Get over it because there are important titles in sleaze, too. Hate chick flicks? Man up and stare them down. You say you don’t like to read subtitles? Well get out your reading glasses because there are heaping piles of foreign cinema you need to watch. Didn’t understand one of the famed ambiguous movies? Watch it again. Did you really like something? Watch it again. Did you really hate something so much you never want to watch one second of it ever again in your life? It’s probably worth another look.
By the end of this process (and really, it’s an ongoing process that will never end until you do), you will have watched many thousands of movies. And you’ll still need to see many thousands more. If this sounds like a difficult or unpleasant task to you, then quit now. Screenwriting isn’t for you. If you just want to make money making shit up, there are quicker and easier ways to do that. Go be a con artist. But if this assignment sounds like a fun, mind-expanding odyssey, then go for it. Go on, go do it now before you read any further, I’ll wait.
You back? You done? Okay, good.
Step Two: Write movies.
That’s it. That’s all there is to it.
“But what about the specifics, like formatting and tense and dialogue and parentheticals and…”
Shut up. Format you can find anywhere and the language of how a screenplay is written can be learned with a cursory look at a few published film scripts. But if you don’t possess an inherent, instinctive understanding of structure and how screen stories are told after watching all those movies, then a thousand-dollar seminar isn’t going to do the trick either. If that’s the case, go find something else to do with your life and use this experience to impress and annoy people at parties by talking authoritatively about cinema when all they really want to know is if the new Adam Sandler comedy is any good (it isn’t).
“But, but, but…”
I’m not taking any questions. This was free. How much more do you want out of me?
“Just one question, please!”
Pause for effect.
“How do I get an agent?”
The screenwriter simply rolls his eyes and walks away, saying no more.
Excellent advice. My son wants to make movies and write scripts. In his film class at school (he’s in 11th grade) they watch tones of movies, and I buy every movie we’ve heard about that’s any good at the Half Price Book Store. I suppose we should also watch the 100 worst movies, but we’ll probably just watch them on Netflix… I’m going to make him read your post.