Saturday, April 25, 2009

Some more golden oldie screenwriting book reviews

Some more book reviews which first appeared in Screentalk:

ADVANCED SCREENWRITING: Raising Your Script To The Academy Award Level by Linda Seger (Silman-James Press, 2003, 300p.)

In her introduction, Linda Seger states that by now (and this was in 2003, the number must have almost doubled by now) there have been 120 books aimed at beginning screenwriters. This new tome is intended for the more experienced writer who wants to take his/her work to a higher artistic level. Although that should be taken with a grain of salt: this book can easily be used by beginning writer, and you won't find any truly advanced stuff here either.

Seger focuses on scripts written in the last twenty years, as she feels that these examples are most relevant to today’s writers. As such, she talks extensively about films like Magnolia, A Beautiful Mind, American Beauty, Lord of the Rings and other more recent productions. This ensures that much of the material presented here is fresh. On the other hand, some of the films discussed are really not that amazing in retrospect.

At first glance, the topics treated in the book don’t look that advanced: more talk about structure, scenes, dialogue, character transformation etc. The book's title is somewhat justified by the many new insights which Seger provides. For instance, she describes several different story structures, and provides an extensive listing of types of scenes. She is also refreshingly undogmatic: often criticising the storytelling in some very popular films, but doing it in a way which encourages the reader to think about their own responses to the points she’s making. However, as I mentioned before, this book really isn't that complex or impenetrable. It's a perfect companion to Making A Good Script Great.

What is noticeable is that in some instances her comments on some very well-regarded European films reveal the depth of the cultural divide between the two continents.

The final chapter focuses on the power of film to transform people’s lives.
In short, a lot of new, thought-provoking material, which will benefit any screenwriter, beginner or advanced.

OUTWITTING WRITER’S BLOCK And Other Problems Of The Pen by Jenna Glatzer
(The Lyons Press, 2003, 250 p.)

Some writers claim writer’s block doesn’t exist. Others – present company included – know the feeling of banging your head against a mental brick wall but too well. Whatever the cause, one thing is certain: if you don’t find a solution to your block in Jenna Glatzer’s book, you’re probably beyond help.

Glatzer has written everything from screenplays to greeting cards, and is the editor-in-chief of In this entertaining book she shares hundreds of methods to defeat the Block Demons.

Every possible cause of writer’s block is examined, from psychological problems to dealing with your kids, and for every problem several solutions are offered. For instance, in order to silence your Inner Critic, Glatzer counsels to cultivate an Inner Advocate, who is your biggest fan in the world. And in order to keep the balance between these extremes, she adds the Inner Pragmatist to the mix, whose job it is to keep a writer’s feet on the ground while still allowing creative flights of fancy.

There are also tons of very practical suggestions, such as keeping different kinds of notebooks, using published works you admire to get your juices flowing when blocked, and using opposites to explore new possibilities in your work. For the more esoterically-minded, there’s even a section on Feng Shui. For the less esoterically-minded, luckily it’s only a short section.

At times the (funny) humour becomes somewhat relentless, but the deluge of advice and stimulating writing exercises add up to a book which will benefit any writer.

WRITING SCREENPLAYS THAT SELL THE ACKERMAN WAY by Hal Ackerman (Tallfellow Press, 2003, 274 p.)

A colleague of Richard Walter and Lew Hunter at UCLA, Hal Ackerman couldn't really stay behind and not distil his course into a book. And even though the title isn’t exactly the greatest ever, there’s a good chance that this will become one of the more popular screenwriting bibles out there.

Though the book is mainly aimed at beginning writers, and thus treats the same topics as usual, Ackerman offers enough original insights and practical tips to keep experienced writers interested as well. He doesn’t shy away from some controversial statements: he disagrees with Lajos Egri, for instance, about the importance of theme as a guiding principle in dramatic writing, and replaces it by desire.

Ackerman is also the inventor of the Scenogram (previously introduced by Richard Krevolin in his latest book), a visual way of structuring the screenplay. While it doesn’t differ much from the most commonly used three-act structural model, it does seem to be a very useful and hands-on way of dealing with this material. Moreover, the way in which Ackerman uses scene cards in conjunction with the Scenogram is a real eye-opener. And his other creative technique, the ‘snowplow’, will also definitely engender results for the writer who sticks with it.

Ackerman’s buzzwords are desire, doing and conflict. Nothing new, but the way he puts the message across is definitely effective. The book also offers dozens of inspirational writing exercises which help keep the ‘writer muscles’ in shape. A book which I would recommend to all beginning screenwriters.

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