Sunday, June 21, 2009

Book Review: The Soul of Screenwriting: On Writing Dramatic Truth, and Knowing Yourself (Keith Cunningham)

This is one serious book. 472 pages long, and filled to the brim with mythology, psychology, theology, philosophy, screenwriting theory and practice, and a new structural model (as well as several other new or re-interpreted concepts). More than enough material, then, to keep you busy for ages.

Keith Cunningham is an American screenwriter and script consultant who, together with screenwriter Tom Schlesinger, has been active internationally teaching seminars, working with screenwriters and developing film and television projects in around the globe. One of Cunningham's main assets is that he personally knew Jospeh Campbell - and much of this book is inspired by Campbell's theories.

Which may give the impression it is similar to Chris Vogler's The Writer's Journey. But in fact, it's almost a 'correction' of the popular Hero's Journey model that has become popular in screenwriting and filmmaking circles. Cunningham goes back to the source, and also examines the difference between the Hero's Journey and the way screenplay stories are told and structured.

Campbell isn't the only major influence present in this book - psychologist Jean Houston also inspired Cunningham in developing his approach to screenwriting. Not only does he go into great detail about the act of creation and the obstacles, both interior and exterior, which the screenwriter must face and overcome on the mental level, he also provides several excersises, sometimes directly adapted from Ms. Houston's work, which are intended to help writers get more insights and control over their imaginative and creative processes.

And this mythological/psychological approach works: I've never yet read a screenwriting manual which helped me get as many realizations and insights about myself as this one - and not just on matters of creativity, either.

For those writers who want to know what the book and method offers that they can use immediately, the main concepts introduced here are the Story Molecule - a representation of the three dimensions of storytelling - the inner world, emotional network and external story - and the Sixteen Story Steps, the new structural model which is the culmination of the book. We'll get to this model later.

But don't be mislead into thinking that there's nothing else that is new in here. The Soul of Screenwriting very much builds on concepts and ideas that went before, and extends, challenges or improves on them. This doesn't mean you have to agree with everything Cunningham says in the book, but at the very least it's almost always solid food for thought.

I must admit I was quite gratified to discover some ideas I've been thinking about for the past few years, such as drawing a parallell between screenwriting and composing music, also pop up in this book.

The interweaving of the three dimensions of storytelling is talked about at length, and it's an element which has rarely been discussed before (and certainly not in this much depth). Just thinking about how you handle this in your own scripts will often help you identify your own blind spots - you may be excellent at crafting the outer story, but neglect the emotional network, for instance. And by paying more attention to this level, the overall quality of your scripts cannot help but increase.

Cunningham works with the three-act structure, though the second-act split is given so much emphasis that one may wonder why he and his partner don't just bite the bullet and call it four acts. Each act gets its own 'descriptor', so the writer knows what function the act plays in the telling of the story. These descriptors are based on the work of Howard Suber, whose book The Power of Screenwriting I've reviewed a few years back.

The Sixteen Story Steps are the main innovation here. The story steps are neither plot points or sequences: they embody storytelling functions. And they are not isolated 'points', incidents between which the writer must find material to 'fill up' the empty pages. Instead, they are complete parts of the story, with their own dramatic curve which corresponds to the Aristotelian plot curve). They also do not correspond to the sequences of the Frank Daniel method - there's no set length for each story step. However, according to Cunningham, these steps are all necessary to provide for a fully satisfactory storytelling experience. There are no examples of films which omit some of the steps, unfortunately.

The film used to illustrate the model is The Piano. An interesting choice, and a very good analysis, though my fundamental problems with the ending of the film aren't adressed - though some other plot weaknesses are discussed frankly.

What about the system itself? Well, as Keith Cunningham says, it is a new approach, and the two great advantages are that it really covers the entirety of the script (no working towards a certain point, but flowing naturally from one section into another), and that there are no 'breaks' when developing the story in this way.
Some of the Story Steps are already present in other models, at least conceptually, so that lessens the learning curve to an extent.

The only thing I'm not sure about is that this method of strucuting the script and telling the story is universally applicable, or whether it is primarily suited to decidedly character-driven, more personal scripts with an art house factor. It certainly is applicable to The Piano, but it might have been a good idea to analyze three to five other films in very different genres with the same model.

Now, please understand I'm not saying the model is NOT universally applicable, and there are several other movies which are referenced continuously throughout the book which are very different from The Piano (Witness, the mediocre and largely forgotten buddy-action comedy Midnight Run, The Talented Mr. Ripley). I just think the book would have benefited from a few more complete analyses to show how the model works fully in very different genres and registers. It would help make it state its case even more powerfully (maybe something for a second edition?).

Be warned, this is not a light read - it takes effort to absorb the material in here. In fact, this is a book to study, to come back to, to practice with - a true learning tool.
It is, however, also not a book I would recommend to absolute beginners - it might scare them off because of the density of information. But for anyone with a certain basic knowledge (and beyond) of screenwriting principles, The Soul of Screenwriting will at the very least make you think long and hard about yourself and why you write the way you do, and possibly have a long-lasting impact on your approach to and methodology of screenwriting.

You can get it here:

5 comments:

ef said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ef said...

based on your review, i just got the book and it looks pretty great. thanks much for suggesting it!

i do have to take exception with your swipe at midnight run, however. ymmv, i know, but it's one of my favorites of all time. must have seen it a dozen times over the years and it never leaves me less than tickled. what's your main beef?

meanwhile, keep up the good work, and it is good, and i really do hope more people step forward to comment. you deserve it!

one thing that might make for more comments is allowing them to be made anonymously, without signing into blogger. anything that slows down the commenting process turns people off, is what i've found ... i mean, it took me five minutes of fussing around to sigh in this time and, sadly, i probably won't take the time to do so again. and i would like to comment more, because you deserve it; but my time is too valuable to me to spend it fussing with google's sign in process.

mrswing said...

Hi ef,

Thanks for the kind words! I'll look into allowing anonymous comments.

My beef with Midnight Run? Simply that I didn't like it - didn't find it funny or exciting enough. But that's just my personal appreciation - I'm sure there are films I like and would posit as great examples of effective screenwriting which you might have second thoughts about. In any case, if you like the film, the analysis in the book will be all the more meaningful and effective to you!

Once again, thanks again for the comment and I hope that you will be moved to do so again in the future!

About the Guitar Guy said...

Thanks for a good review, I received the book as a gift and I'm considering starting reading it, but I must admit the 500 pages are a bit off-putting.

Anonymous said...

"The Soul of Screenwriting" is indeed a big mouthful, but also a brilliant book that made a lot of puzzle pieces fall into place for me.
For instance, I was totally in love with the idea of the hero's journey as the underlying pattern of good storytelling, when I first read about it in Christopher Vogler's The Writer's Journey. However, I always felt that Vogler's treatment of it was a bit messy and superficial. The seeds of a great tool for understanding and telling stories was there, but in order for it to be meaningful and applicable for screenwriters, it needed a lot more work - and Cunningham's book seems to do a lot of that work. Cunningham sees that it is not so much the individual plot steps of the hero's journey as it is their function as elements of a metaphor for personal growth that we should be focusing on, when we apply them to screenwriting.
And that is exactly the perspective on the hero's journey I'd been hoping to find explored in so many other screenwriting books before this one came along.
In this book, we also find out exactly how the mythic structure differs from the dramatic structure of screenplays, and we find the precise, psychologically insightful concept of the main character's "mode", which I think will eventually prove to be very influential in story development.

As you said, it is not a light read, and it will take quite a while for me to digest all of it, but so far, it has been immensely rewarding.

Michael E. N. Larsen