Why another book on screenwriting?
Fair question. There are a lot of them out there. Let me tell you why I went to the trouble of writing this and maybe that will help explain why I think the world needs another screenwriting book.
I became a screenwriter because of Star Wars and Time magazine. After I saw Star Wars as a kid, I became obsessed with it, reading everything I could about the movie. At that time, there wasn’t much information available about how movies were made. No DVD commentaries, movie magazines, or movie websites for a kid to seek out. But my dad’s Time magazine had an article about Star Wars, so I read it. And that’s where I learned about a guy named George Lucas who was a director. “Sounds like a fun job,” I thought. “That’s what I’m going to be when I grow up.”
Not such an easy thing when you go to high school in Juneau, Alaska and don’t know anybody in the film business. I went to the University of Southern California film school because I learned that’s where George Lucas went… and my guidance counselor didn’t even know you could major in film.
I started out focusing mostly on cinematography, and when I graduated I worked small jobs as a production assistant, gaffer, or grip. On the side, I was working on screenplays. I discovered I had more of a passion for the writing part of making movies than anything else. So I went back to grad school, majoring in screenwriting. And over time I discovered writing was the thing people were most willing to pay me to do.
I learned story structure (of the three-act variety) in grad school back at USC. I’ve also read dozens of books on the subject, most of which added to or altered my approach in some ways. More importantly, I’ve written over twenty-five screenplays, some of which were bad, some of which were good, some of which got me an agent or writing work, and in one case (so far) got made into a big hit movie – Sweet Home Alabama. I’ve also written a children’s play that’s been performed thousands of times (Sleepover at the Stable), a video game (Nightmare Cove), and an animated television pilot (The MOFF Shoppe). Each experience helped me hone my approach to screenwriting.
Then, I got hired to teach a screenwriting class at Art Center College of Design. I naturally built my syllabus around what I was initially taught. But I quickly realized some of that stuff I never actually used. Plus, I wanted to include the many other things that I had learned since. So I adjusted the class to reflect my “real world” experience. I also asked other professional screenwriters what they thought about various techniques and adjusted my teaching process further.
Since then I have had the experience of helping hundreds of students hone their own screenplays. I’ve seen the mistakes they commonly make and I continued adjusting my teaching approach to head off those mistakes. I’ve also become a better writer myself in the process.
I was looking for a book to use as a textbook for my class. I found some very good screenwriting books, but nothing that was both comprehensive and deep on all the subjects I covered. Many gave a useful account of structure; far fewer dealt with crafting a powerful scene. Almost none covered techniques for rewriting. And there was a lot of misinformation about character development out there.
So I wrote this book to provide a complete guide to the craft of writing a screenplay the way the professionals do it. I will cover each part of the process in-depth; giving you the theories, techniques, and tools I have found to be the most practical in my own writing career. And I will endeavor to always keep the focus on creating a screenplay that can actually be turned into a movie. Because that’s the goal, isn’t it.
How to Use This Book
The screenwriting process consists of three distinct stages that require different mindsets. As you’ve undoubtedly figured out from my title, I’ve divided the book by those three stages.
The first stage is story development. This is where you figure out what your story is, who the characters are, and what happens. It requires both creativity and an understanding of narrative structure.
The second stage is writing the first draft. This is where you take the solid skeleton you built in the first stage and flesh it out with action, dialogue, spectacle and all the things we love in movies.
The third stage is rewriting. This takes the longest. Your first draft will not be perfect. Likely it will be a raging disaster. That’s okay – that’s what first drafts are for. It is in the rewriting stage that you take that raw material and shape it into something brilliant.
I will discuss the techniques used in each of the stages, including the theory behind them. I think it’s important that you don’t just memorize rules or a list of plot points, but that you understand why we’ve come to codify these techniques the way we have. Every story is different, and if you really understand technique, you will know how to apply it to your unique story in a way that brings out your vision and voice, rather than conforming your ideas to someone else’s form.