Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Screenwriting Gurus

Contrary to popular belief, I think many of the popular screenwriting books and self-styled screenwriting gurus can be responsible for holding back promising hopefuls by shackling burgeoning writing potential before its allowed to flourish. 

I accept that any book or teacher that offers the best/easiest/guaranteed route to success will always attract customers from both the lazy and inquisitive camps, but once they have your cash and your attention, then what? Most of us have only been schooled in the ways of reading and writing literature and to throw ourselves suddenly at drama, via a book or course that guarantees success, can easily end in confusion when we’re presented with a new language, new set of rules, and an assortment of scientific formulas.

It’s easy to see why, after several miserable attempts to grasp these new doctrines, so many enthusiasts fade into disgruntled oblivion. Wasn’t this meant to be easy? A thought further exacerbated by examples of successful screenplays.

A screenplay should be slick, succinct, and easy to read and understand. But we put so much time and effort into researching, structuring and writing a screenplay, to ensure it looks simple and is easy to read, that the finished product looks like anybody can do it, which naturally leads everyone who reads a screenplay into thinking they can do it. Take the recent critically acclaimed release, The Reader, as an example. The very talented playwright and screenwriter David Hare took Bernard Schlink’s complex 224 page novel and crafted it into an 82 page non-linear narrative, telling two stories fifty years apart, that reads ever-so simply and must have been a dream for both director and actors to work with - and was rightly nominated for an Oscar. Anyone reading that script with aspirations to dabble in dramatic writing could be forgiven for initially thinking “Only eighty-two pages? Cool. Not many words on those pages, either. Groovy. Hmmm, this looks pretty easy.” Add to that the promise of a book/guru/course pretty much guaranteeing success and you can understand why most wannabe writers end up nonplussed when they repeatedly fail to create a winning screenplay.

We do not need to be spoon fed how to write stories, basic storytelling technique is instinctive. Many moons ago I was on a beach with my young nephew. He's a quiet, sensitive little chap, not one for pouring his heart out, so when he began telling me how he was being bullied at school, I didn't make a fuss, I simply continued to look for stranded mermaids in rock pools and let him get on with it. As I listened, I realised we are all born with the ability to tell stories, it's just that as we grow up those who become the storytellers tend to have a more natural ability to successfully convey those stories.

He set his little world up for me. He told me about school, about a particular lesson, about the teacher, the kids and what they were all doing. I knew who the bad guy was, although he didn't initially tell me, then he threw in the inciting incident and the effect it had on him, swiftly followed by the subsequent plot point which seemed to tie in with the end of his Act I. Although hardly a riveting story, it was still a story, and one that was structured pretty traditionally. But ask my nephew who McKee is and he'll probably suggest that's what Ronald McDonald uses to get into his house every night. So what miracle occurred to gift him the power of story?

I firmly believe we are all born with an unconscious understanding of the basic principles of story. Combine that with years of being told stories, reading stories, watching stories, and it’s easy to see how we develop an unconscious appreciation of drama - a perfect platform to experiment with writing drama at a later stage. I also believe that those formative years, spent unconsciously absorbing valuable dramatic information, can be quickly rendered redundant by opting to become disciples of books and gurus rather than having faith in our own natural ability to work things out ourselves. Learning by writing through our own mistakes, rather than being told what those mistakes might be before we even know they exist, is what contributes to us developing our voice and becoming individuals in a field awash with imitators.

Novice screenwriters should read scripts instead of books and avoid the gurus, concentrating more on writing and telling their own stories, in prose, in their own way, without the restrictions of previously unknown dramatic rules and principles. It is a much more organic fertile environment and will allow any potential to happily flourish. Once a writer has become more confident and established in his/her ability then it makes more sense to dabble in the informative arts of gurus and their offerings, as these resources are much more useful to those already familiar with a basic understanding of drama in practice.

In positing this theory I fully accept I’m now off the Christmas card list of most gurus, their agents and publishers.

Mind you, maybe that’s not such a bad thing: once you’ve read one, you’ve read them all.