Monday, March 9, 2009

More book reviews


Chris Keane’s second book on screenwriting may seem to be all about creating the big blockbuster on the surface, but it really isn’t. Writing a script to woo an A-list actor doesn’t involve dreaming up a simple high-concept that requires lots of CGI-work – instead, it’s all about creating truly memorable characters and intriguing stories.

The book is largely based on Keane’s workshops. As such, the chapters follow a logic which might seem a little strange at first, but which actually provide a set of (somewhat surprising) building blocks for the entire scriptwriting approach advocated in the book. At first, the focus is on the writer – Keane asks his readers to do a number of exercises which range from choosing your favourite films and to admitting your darkest childhood secret. Careful though, some of these exercises can be very confronting if you're dealing with unresolved traumas.

The meat of the book consists of chapters about situation, concept, story, plot and structure. A lot of good advice here, with some original insights. The final chapters tackle scene outlines and treatments (with examples from Keane’s students), the obligatory breaking-into-Hollywood advice and a short look at adaptation.


Plotting is a matter of choosing the right story incidents to achieve your goals and making sure they are presented in the best possible order. Having all the necessary elements to construct the central conflict, and making sure the cause-and-effect chains which give meaning to the narrative work, are central concerns, and Ms. Cowgill examines them in depth.

She provides a complete breakdown of Jaws and American Beauty, to illustrate just how these scripts are plotted. And she also looks at sequences, plotting tools for characters and action, and common problems in plotting. One of the more surprising revelations is that the number of major events which can occur in a well-plotted film is actually quite low.

The book is full of very good advice, and although the focus is plainly on ‘traditional’ screenwriting, the focus is on (very) good and well-crafted storytelling. I suppose a few more extensive examples along the lines of the previously-mentioned breakdowns would not have gone amiss, but as a primer for screenplay plotting this book definitely hits the target.

EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE: Creating The Story Beneath The Plot – A Guide For Screenwriters by Peter Dunne (Quill Driver Books, 2007)

This is potentially one of the most important books on screenwriting you can get your hands on. It’s not flawless, but it focuses on the character development side of screenwriting in an unprecedented way.

Dunne basically distinguishes between plot – the actions of the screenplay – and story – the emotional evolution of the characters, and he stressed that both aspects must support and feed off each other in order to create a great script. In his structural model (which is an elaborate version of the three-act structure), the second act focuses on the story, while acts 1 and 3 respectively set up and resolve the plot.

Dunne uses Witness as an example, and the same narrative method is at work in Some Like It Hot. Dunn also provides a great technique to use with index cards.

As a writer, Peter Dunne can be somewhat verbose and too prescriptive, and the script he develops in the book is unfortunately not very good (as usual for scripts developed in screenwriting manuals). But the core content and the practical way in which emotional development is integrated with the narrative structure makes it a book every beginning screenwriter should read.

THE ANATOMY OF STORY: 22 Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller by John Truby (2008, Faber & Faber)

With this release, we finally get the screenwriting model of the last remaining 'unpublished' big-name guru in print. John Truby has previously taught his method through classes and through the BLOCKBUSTER story development software, but getting this material in book form means that it can now reach a wider audience.

Truby’s approach is explicitly anti-3-act-structure, but his criticism is frankly wrong. He proposes an alternative method which will develop the script organically, but ironically it seems far more complex than most other approaches to screenwriting out there (with the exception of DRAMATICA). His 22 steps combine backstory, characters and narrative events without really helping the writer shape their story.

On the plus side, though, the material on using the story world, creating character webs to people your script in the most effcient way and effectively using symbolism on several narrative levels is very good and deep. For more advanced students of screenwriting the book has some great material to offer, though it’s an unnecessarily textbook-like read. Beginning writers will probably be overwhelmed by the complexity of the method.

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