Saturday, February 28, 2009

Some more book reviews

Here are some more book reviews from the Screentalk days on books which are worth looking into.

The Screenwriter Within : How To Turn The Movie In Your Head Into A Saleable Screenplay (213 pages, Three Rivers Press) is by D. B. Gilles, a teacher at New York University, and it reflects his teaching experiences. It is primarily aimed at newcomers to screenwriting.

Gilles is a three-act-stucture thinker, and as such does not offer a radically new way of looking at screenplay structure. He does offer an interesting insight in the content of each act (the punctuation theory of screenwriting, as he calls it) : the first act ends in a question mark (how is this going to end), the second in an exclamation mark (my god! Things just got so much worse!), and the third act ends in a period (the answer to the dramatic question). It is a simple way of defining the main parts of a script; however, I feel it could potentially lead to inexperienced writers mistakenly thinking there should only be one big reversal of fortune near the end of the second act. Still, it’s a potentially useful tool.

Gilles writes in a very informal and breezy style (references to frat boys abound), and reveals quite a lot about himself. He correctly claims that our own psyches and lives offer a wealth of potential story material, and urges writers to delve into the darkest sides of their mind to come up with creative material. In fact, this was the first screenwriting book I’ve read in which this topic is treated so exhaustively (there have been others since). I feel that this is where its greatest value lies, as it causes the reader to re-evaluate his or her own experiences and discover new wellsprings of creativity there.

Where Gilles does not convince me is in his very, very offhand treatment of dialogue. He claims that no one can be taught what words to write, and this is obviously correct. However, there are many, many do’s and don’t of dialogue writing which can at least help new writers avoid mistakes, and these aren’t even mentioned. There’s also a very, very short chapter on different genres which doesn’t really contain any practical information.

Despite these criticisms, The Screenwriter Within is still a valuable addition to the writer’s bookshelf. It contains some interesting notions and fresh perspectives which can benefit any screenwriter. However, I would not recommend it as the SOLE source of screenwriting information for novices. In my opinion it works best as a supplement to the basic screenwriting texts which cover the essentials more thoroughly.

PLOTS AND CHARACTERS : A Screenwriter On Screenwriting by Millard Kaufman (Really Great Books, Los Angeles, 1999, 265 pp.)

Here at last is a book which provides today’s screenwriter with a living link to the Golden Age of Hollywood. For Millard Kaufman is a veteran of those mythical times, and a succesful one too : his best-known film is Bad Day At Black Rock and he’s also the co-creator of the cartoon character Mr. Magoo.

This book is not just another how-to manual : it is also partly a memoir of the screenwriter’s life during the Fifties. As such it is packed with anecdotes about stars, directors and the legendary producers of yesteryear, all of which are amusing, enlightening or horrifying - and somehow more glamorous than contemporary gossip. But there is a lot of serious writing material to be found here as well, of course.

In fact, what is most obvious about Kaufman is his love of language. This is undoubtedly the most beautifully written screenwriting manual on the market. In fact, at times the stylistic flourishes almost threaten to get in the way of the information on offer. But this is a very minor quibble, and all of Kaufman’s points –both practical as well as more philosophical, with considered discussion of Aristotle and other drama theorists – are well worth making.

While there is nothing stunningly new here, they help the new writer focus on the truly important elements of the script. One cannot but hope that books like this might finally help recover some of the magic which screenwriting is so sorely missing of late.

SCRIPT PARTNERS: WHAT MAKES FILM AND TV WRITING TEAMS WORK by Claudia Johnson and Matt Stevens (Michael Wiese productions, Studio City, 2003, 298 p.)

Many screenwriters are constantly looking for Mr. or Ms. Right – the writing partner who will make their professional life heaven on earth. Sharing the money and fame are a small price to pay for the friendship, support and extra creativity which a good partnership brings. But finding the right writing partner is almost as difficult as finding the right spouse. While Script Partners doesn’t provide any magic formulas to help you find your dream collaborator, it examines the entire process in great detail.

Claudia Johnson and Matt Stevens are themselves a screenwriting duo and have interviewed some twenty teams of co-writers for this book. They’ve included all the biggies (Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Harold Ramis and Peter Tolan, Woody Allen’s collaborator Marshall Brickman) and quite a few lesser-known writing teams. Chapters include finding the right partner, solving time and place issues, and all aspects of the actual writing (although the theoretical information mentioned here doesn’t differ from the usual advice given to solo writers). Johnson and Stevens also use a lot of examples from their own experience, which proves you cannot always depend on first impressions – as they started out hating each other.

The most valuable chapters in this book are the ones dealing with the personal difficulties inherent in the creative process, and the business side of things. Here, we get some valuable advice on how to handle the many problems which will crop up in almost every writing partnership. For anyone considering a partnership, this book will be a great help.

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