Seeing into the minds of actively working successful screenwriters is often insightful. Two such screenwriters currently have books out in which they discuss their theory and process of screenwriting.
Blake Snyder, whose credits include “Blank Check” and “Stop or My Mom Will Shoot”, is still actively writing and selling specs to Hollywood. His book, Save The Cat: The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, is a breezy, feel-good how-to-write-scripts-any-studio-executive-must-buy book. At 195 pages, it is a quick and painless read. And it has a few good ideas. Anyone who actually regularly sells scripts to Hollywood must have a few of them. His forte is conceptualizing the story through title and log lines, the so-called “high concept” theory. He distinguishes the principal with complete clarity and leaves the reader feeling he or she can also come up with these crisp, saleable ideas, and thereby have a writing career. He then breezes us through his story theory, from his ideas on structure to building dramatic tension to resolution. This material is less convincing, in part because he could easily have spent three times the pages discussing it – he barely touches on most areas – and in part because his theory feels as if it has enormous holes in it. If you match it up to your most respected mainstream box-office successes, you may feel it just does not hold up. On the other hand, if you look at Snyder’ body of work, his forte is definitely clean, crisp conceptualizations, not depth. Based upon his strong explanations about how he achieves this clarity, the book is worth adding to your arsenal. However, it should be but one of many arrows in your quiver – and not “The Last Book On Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need.” (He also has companion software, discussed below.)
Writing Drama: a comprehensive guide for playwrights and scriptwriters comes from European television and motion picture screenwriter Yves Lavandier. His book (translated nicely from French to English by Bernard Besserglik) is, in a sense, the antidote for Snyder’s. It is thoughtful and detailed, rethinking traditional Aristotelean story theory in modern terms, fully updated with loads of contemporary examples from both American and European cinema. Most Americans will be unfamiliar with some of the foreign examples, but the concepts are sufficiently laid out that this should not be a hindrance. Lavandier covers all of the key areas of story theory – including act structure, dramatic irony (a key element missing from the work of many beginning writers), how to build proper obstacles, characterization, dialogue and more. It is a complete course in writing. His ideas on the purpose and uses of the third act differ somewhat from most American theorists and the book does have a broader perspective on film that the strictly Hollywood point-of-view, but different perspectives are important and the basis for doing what you must ultimately do, namely painstakingly develop your own clear and effective story theory, something that happens only with experience and a strong drive to perfect your craft. Lavandier’s work is a fine addition to your writer’s library and a terrific tool towards developing your own craft. The book can be hard to come by in the United States, but can be ordered from the publishers, Le Clown & l’enfant, who were kind enough to send me a review copy.
As mentioned above, Blake Snyder has companion Save The Cat story development software, which includes templates to force you to conceive a title and logline, the “Blake Snyder Beat Sheet” which includes a series of preliminary beats he believes every story must have, and a story board where you fill in the rest of the beats and play around with your story. I spent several days conceiving a story using his software just to get a feel for it. I enjoyed the exercise and might press it further. If you have sixty bucks to spare and enjoy computer toys (as I do), it’s worth playing with. If you’re a starving writer, buy index cards instead.
Enough. Now go write….