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The Myth Of The Screenwriting Guru

Written by Bill Mesce

Researching this piece, I went into Amazon and did a search for “books on screenwriting.” I came up with 8800 results.

Eight thousand, eight hundred. Eight-eight-zero-zero.

Wow.

Ok, take into account this total includes writing books not having anything to do with screenwriting slipping through Amazon’s search algorithm (i.e. books on writing fiction, research papers, etc.), and let’s discount narrowly focused works like Michael Rogan’s How to Write a Script with Dialogue That Doesn’t Suck, and William C. Martell’s Creating Strong Protagonists. And, of course, there’s a certain amount of duplication, some titles showing up repeatedly in the results. So, to be extra-safe, let’s be brutal and say Amazon’s stock holds “only” 1000 distinct titles on how to write a screenplay.

One thousand.

Wow.

Eighty-eight hundred or a thousand; either way, that’s a hell of a lot of books, each bragging it offers an essential, unique strategy for turning out a saleable, effective script for a movie.

Now let’s apply some logic to that math. Logic says that if all these books are correct in their assumption of offering a perfectly valid if distinctive strategy for writing a movie, then you’re wasting your $5-20 (the range of prices I found excluding prices for used books) because if one strategy is just as good as another and there’s a thousand of them out there, you’d do just as well blundering ahead without a book with a good probability of stumbling across one of these strategies on your own.

Or maybe they’re all only partly right; that each one offers something worthwhile, but no one book offers a solid whole. If that’s the case, and you only buy one book, then it’s like having only one piece of a thousand-piece puzzle, and you’re wasting your money again.

Or maybe they’re all just saying the same thing but in different ways. You could run up quite a tab trying to find the one that connects with you, or they all work for you in which case one is just as good as another.

Or maybe only one is right and the odds of you bumping into it are, well, a thousand to one (or 8800 to one).

Or maybe they’re all full of crap.

Or any combination of the above.

I used to be very dismissive of these how-to books. Then, a few years ago, I was in a writer’s chat room and one of the other participants — a veteran TV writer (if he should come across this, I apologize for not remembering his name) — said something I’ve never forgotten. He said all these books are useful: “Anything that helps you put your ass in the chair is good.” So, if one of these thousand (or 8800) titles helps you put your ass in the chair, then good for you and may God smile on your efforts.

Beyond that, my own personal, highly subjective opinion – and it’s nothing more than that: an opinion – is that however helpful any of these books may be, beyond that initial assist they’re dangerous crap. Taken a step beyond that, in terms of what you deal with on a practical, professional level, they’re useless.

Keep this thought in mind:

Screenwriting books are like books about how to get rich doing anything, like how to make a jillion dollars flipping houses. If all you had to do was follow the book, there’d be a jillion people who’d read the book and become jillionaires flipping houses. That doesn’t happen. What does happen is you often find out the guy becoming a jillionaire isn’t the guy buying the book, but the guy selling books on how to become a jillionaire.

*****

It’s said that those who can’t “do” teach, but that’s often said as something of an insult and it shouldn’t be. Albert Einstein managed to give us a pretty good idea of how the universe works without ever flying off into it.

Still…

There are some fields where you do look for – hell, demand – a certain level of experience-based credibility…

“Look, Doctor, I want to talk to you about this brain tumor I have — ”

“Well, I’m not really a doctor.”

“What?”

“But I’ve read a lot of books about neurosurgery.”

“You’re not a — ”

“And I’ve watched a lot of brain operations from the gallery.”

“You watched — ”

“Jeez, I’ve read so many books about this stuff I could practically build you a brain. So what say we get you on the ol’ operating table and crack the ol’ coconut, eh?”

“Ya know, I’m actually ok with the blinding headaches. See ya.”

I tend to lean that way on screenwriting books. I see one of these titles and the first thing I do is go to the Internet Movie Data Base to see what this or that guru has actually done. William Martell, for example, who’s written a fair number of books on various aspects of screenwriting, has quite a substantial filmography. Way to go, Mr. Martell! I’d be inclined to listen to him. On the other hand, Syd Field, author of what I consider the first modern-day screenwriting bible – Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting – and that other patron saint of the how-to-write-a-movie church, Robert McKee, are surprisingly light in the credit department. IMDB, providing IMDB is anywhere near accurate, lists only a handful of TV credits for McKee and nothing since 1993.

That lack of practical experience doesn’t axiomatically mean somebody doesn’t know what they’re talking about or doesn’t have some useful advice to offer…but it does give one pause before taking that counsel and thinking you now have the key to the screenwriting universe.

There’s also a historical perspective to consider.

*****

The first movies were made around the beginning of the last decade of the 19th Century. There isn’t much to them: scenes of the everyday, and stuff you could best describe as skits. But by the early 1900s, the movies were telling full – if short — stories (think Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery [1903] or Georges Melies A Trip to the Moon [1902]). While they did require someone to sketch out a scenario, they didn’t need all that much in the way of a script, at least not as we know scripts. By the next decade, however, films were getting longer, their storytelling more complex; the movies were growing up (a la D. W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation [1915]). And both in length, complexity and maturity, so did writing for movies.

Come the 1920s, movies, although still silent and in black and white, kinda/sorta/pretty much looked like movies the way we think of movies. Their pace may be slower than those of today, silent movie acting a bit hammy by contemporary standards, but with a little bit of patience and tolerance, you’ll find these movies every bit as entertaining as what’s on the screen today, and even more clearly see the ancestral lineage between them and present day big screen fare.

Then comes the early sound era and with it the head-spinning, machine gun-paced wordplay of the screwball comedies (Bringing Up Baby, 1938), a line of tough guy urban crime dramas from Warner Brothers (Angels with Dirty Faces, 1938), the launch of the indelible Universal monster stable (Dracula and Frankenstein, both 1931). It’s the era of the granddaddy of all monster movies, King Kong (1933), as well as the movie that perennially tops the list of greatest movies ever made; Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (1941).

Then we have World War II and a parade of war movies ranging from flag-waving propaganda like Desperate Journey (1942), to thrilling action fare like Objective, Burma! (1945), to the grim battlefield poetry of The Story of G.I. Joe (1945) and A Walk in the Sun (1945).

After the war, the major studios entered into a long, slow, painful decline. Desperate to bring a faltering audience back to the movies, it was an era marked by incredibly expensive epics like The Ten Commandments (1956) and The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957), as well as big-scale, splashy musicals (Singin in the Rain, (1952). The studios chased after the burgeoning youth market with a flood of sci fi (The War of the Worlds, 1953), while postwar cynicism and disillusionment fueled a line of film noirs as varied as the existential gloom of Out of the Past (1947) and the hysterical paranoia of Kiss Me Deadly (1955).

With the 1960s-1970s, the studios were desperate; attendance was at an all-time low (weekly attendance dropped from an all-time high of 84 million in 1943 and 1944 to a low of 17 million in 1973), and some of the majors looked on the verge of collapsing. A new, young generation of production executives came into the business willing to give a new, young generation of filmmakers a shot at telling stories Hollywood had never told before in ways they hadn’t been told before. Out of that caldron of new blood and commercial desperation came the greatest creative explosion mainstream commercial cinema has ever seen; what the French film journal Cahier du Cinema described as “the furious springtime of world cinema.” No period in American moviemaking ever turned out so many unforgettable, confrontational, provocative, remarkable films.

This was the era of 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Wild Bunch (1969), Planet of the Apes (1967), The Graduate (1967), Deliverance (1972), The French Connection (1971), Midnight Cowboy (1969), Cool Hand Luke (1967), Patton (1970), Rosemary’s Baby (1968), Apocalypse Now (1979), Last Tango in Paris (1972), Nashville (1975), Chinatown (1974), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (1966), The Hustler (1961), Star Wars (1977), Night of the Living Dead (1968), They Shoot Horses Don’t They? (1969), Fail-Safe (1964), The Sand Pebbles (1966), Taxi Driver (1976), Dirty Harry (1971), A Clockwork Orange (1971), Jeremiah Johnson, (1972), Straw Dogs (1971), Deliverance (1972), Jaws (1975), Network (1976), Carrie (1976), All the President’s Men (1976), Point Blank (1967), Bullitt (1968), Mean Streets (1973), The Godfather Parts 1 & 2 (1972/1974), M*A*S*H (1970), Spartacus (1960), Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb (1964), One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975)…and, as the saying goes, the list goes on.

And as far as I know, nearly all of these movies (“nearly” being my Cover My Ass word because I’d be willing to put a little money on the table betting it should read “all”) were written without their writers buying a screenwriting book or going to a seminar or writer’s workshop.

My my; however did they manage that?

*****

Moviemakers had barely gotten the hang of how to make full-length movies before some in the business were trying to figure out a system for writing them. According to the Amazon notes for a 2015 reprint of How to Write Photoplays (originally published in 1915), by John Emerson and Anita Loos (one of the A-list movie writers of her day, her day beginning in the nineteen-teens and running for several decades thereafter), there were already four books on film writing by 1913.

I haven’t been able to find out how many followed in the decades after Loos’ book, but I’m willing to bet there can’t be more than a handful. Oh, there were other forms of books about screenwriting; collections of interviews with veteran screenwriters like William Froug’s The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter, and John Brady’s The Craft of the Screenwriter (the latter includes an interview with two-time Oscar-winner William Goldman, the concepts of which Goldman would expand on for his own Adventures in Hollywood: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting, first published in 1983 and which I still consider the best book about the trade for reasons I’ll get to in a second).

Strictly speaking, these are not how-to books. These are writers with heavy track records sharing their experiences, sometimes touching on elements of craft, but just as often talking about surviving in a horrifically competitive, unforgiving, unfair business. They offer no templates, no step-by-step processes. Even Goldman, who occasionally offers up a “rule” of sorts (i.e. every scene should move the plot forward) one finds, in examining his work, that he breaks his own rules (even more often, is forced to break his own rules; more on that later).

But whether they’re sharing an experience or some practical bit of know-how, it’s all solidly based in on-the-job experiences. The contributors to The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter, for instance, count among their credits movies like M*A*S*H, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape (1963), Some Like It Hot (1958), In the Heat of the Night (1966), The Graduate, Aliens (1986), The Dirty Dozen (1966). Goldman’s filmography alone includes home runs like Harper (1966), Marathon Man (1976), and The Princess Bride (1987), as well as Oscars for Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and All the President’s Men, both critically-acclaimed as well as huge box office hits (Academy Awards; reviewers’ huzzahs; and popular success – my friends, that’s the Hollywood hat trick; you should listen to this guy).

I felt like that mindset changed in the 1980s, first with the 1982 publication of Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, then with Robert McKee’s STORY seminars, which he began offering in 1983 and which evolved into his 1997 screenplay-writing bible, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting.

Somewhere in there, the dam breaks and, voila, a thousand (or 8800) books on screenwriting. And screenwriting, as a creative form, died.

*****

I said before that these how-to books were dangerous. Here’s how:

You have writers reading these books and going to these seminars and workshops etc., and you have lower level development executives doing likewise, and having drunk the Kool-Aid, they are now convinced this is how movies are built; how they have to be built. So, if everybody’s reading the same books and speaking to the same reference points, screenplays tend to all feel alike.

Am I just being a grumpy old fart about this? Maybe, but when was the last time you saw a romantic comedy, a superhero movie, a maverick cop movie – any mainstream commercial flick – that you didn’t know how it was going to play out after you’d sat through just the first few minutes? Hell, after you’d seen the trailer! When was the last time a major release surprised you?

That’s what I thought.

And why should they? Most studio movies follow a set template, a recipe that requires “turns” at prescribed points, right down to the page count; that they follow almost ritualistic formulae (a pair of total opposites meet cute, on the surface can’t stand each other, but come to know each other better blah blah blah). Not only do you know what’s going to happen, but pretty much when it’s going to happen, and that, my friends, is the complete antithesis of dramatic suspense. That’s not a satisfying home-cooked meal; that’s drive-thru fast food.

What most of these books tend to do is tell you how to go forward by locking your eyes on the rearview mirror. They look at past successes (and, as a general rule, focusing primarily on relatively recent releases), pull out commonalities, and, out of that, form generic constructs of structure, plotting and character. In other words, they shave off whatever was distinctive about those movies to find what’s universal. The difference between, say, The Dark Knight (2008), Iron Man (2008), and Ant Man (2015) isn’t in their construction which, stripped down to their spines, aren’t substantially different from each other; it’s in the flavor of the execution of each (respectively: rich, tangy, bland) which no book can teach you.

Look, strip any corpse down to its skeleton, and all skeletons tend to look alike. It’s not the skeletons that make us each look and sound and act different from everyone else, but what does distinguish us is unrepeatable. The myth of these books is that if you ape the construction of a Jaws or Men in Black (1997) or Batman Begins (2005) or The Hangover (2009), you’ll end up with a screenplay that works just as well.

Uh, no.

That’s like saying if you learn how to paint using a color-by-numbers kit, you’re going to be the next Da Vinci.

Uh, no.

You wind up with writers – a generation of them – writing to a formula rather than writing to what may be a uniquely flavorful, distinctive vision in a uniquely flavorful, distinctive voice that is exclusively theirs.

Ok, that’s the dangerous part. Here’s where these materials become totally useless.

If you’re lucky enough (or, unlucky enough, depending on how horrific your experience is) to place your material with a production company, every rule, guideline, construct, step process, etc. goes out the window. What many (if not all) of these books and seminars neglect to tell you is that once your stuff is optioned or bought, it doesn’t belong to you, and thereafter your job is simply to do what you’re told. You’re not a creative element in the project anymore; you’re a short order cook.

Back in the 1980s I was adapting a 1980 novel by Douglas Terman called Free Flight for RKO Pictures which was, for the umpteenth time, trying to revive its production arm. The book had been a substantial success, had even made a few bestseller lists. Set in a U.S. devastated by a nuclear war and occupied by (then) East bloc and Soviet troops, the story concerned an ex-Air Force pilot trying to make a daring escape to Canada.

By the time I came into the project in the mid-1980s, I decided it was best to strip out this bit about the occupation: it was unwieldy, required a lot of exposition, I was afraid that everyone who’d seen the 1983 movie The Day After – which was, indeed, damned near everyone – wouldn’t buy that there’d be enough left of the Soviet union to carry out an occupation, and, with U.S./U.S.S.R. relations warming up at the time, I figured by the time the movie came out (if it did), that aspect would be dated.

But the guy running RKO at the time told me to put all that stuff back in: “I hate the Russians,” he said and thought this was an opportunity to take a shot at them.

Then I was told to tamp down the violence in the script.

“There’s nothing in this thing that a kid doesn’t see on Saturday morning TV.”

“Well, So-and-So thinks it’s too violent.”

“Who the hell is he?”

“He represents the bank we’re going to for financing.”

So, the violence was tamped down.

Then there were logistical issues. The novel – and my initial drafts – takes place in New England during early winter, with the climax playing out on a frozen lake. But the film was going to be shot in New Zealand: no snow, no frozen lake. Oh, and cut back on the night scenes because they’re more expensive to shoot than day scenes. Oh, and is it possible to also cut back on the major speaking parts?

“Well, the only guy I can see you losing is the great-grandfather. He doesn’t move the story. He’s mostly there to provide a kind of social commentary. You could cut him and be ok.”

“Yeah, but we love his dialogue. Can you give his lines to someone else? How about the daughter?”

“It’s his great-granddaughter, and he’s talking about his experiences in WW I! How the hell do I give that to the girl?”

Which is when you get some variant of an oft-repeated response: “You’re the writer; you’ll figure it out.”

All told, I did maybe a half-dozen drafts of Free Flight and they still weren’t happy. During one of his business trips to New York, the RKO boss asked me to come up to his hotel room to discuss the project.

“You’ve done everything we’ve asked you to do and done it as well as it can be done but the script still isn’t working,” he said. “We’re thinking maybe the problem is us. We want you to do a draft the way you want to do it.”

This kind of honest self-dissection is rare in Hollywood, but before I could mentally cheer about finally being given free rein –

“Just don’t change the first third and we need a big finish.”

So much for writing it my way.

Can you say “no” in those circumstances? Can you say, “I can’t think of a better way to screw this up six ways to Sunday than to do what you’re telling me to do”? Sure. And then you become subject to this:

“Ya know, Bill, we really respect you as a writer, and we’d love to work with you again on something else some day. But we think maybe it’s time to get a fresh set of eyes on this thing.”

Translation: “You’re fired.”

In the 1990s, I was working on a small-budgeted thriller called Road Ends with a development guy who was a dream to deal with: we were both in sync on what constituted good storytelling, and each draft we went through made the screenplay tighter without sacrificing a certain texture we were after. Then…

“Is there any way we can get the woman character in bed with the hero?”

This didn’t sound like him, and he even sounded uncomfortable asking.

“The whole idea is this guy’s on the run to draw the bad guys away from his wife and kids. If he falls in the sack with this woman, he loses a bit of being a good guy.”

“Yeah, yeah, Bill, you’re right. What about if she goes to bed with the police chief?”

“We have a nice tension going between her and the cop right up to the end of the movie. If they end up sleeping with each other, we lose that.”

“Yeah, yeah, you’re right, I see what you’re saying. Is there any way we can, just, you know, get her naked? Like maybe she’s coming out of the shower or something?”

“Is it that important we get her out of her clothes?”

“The marketing guy says if you get her naked it’ll add 15% to our overseas sales.” As a comfort he offered, “Look, Bill, just put it in. If we get a big enough star, she’ll refuse to do it and it’ll come out anyway.”

Which is exactly what happened. I wrote in she comes out of the shower naked, Mariel Hemingway took the part and decided her gratuitous nudity days were behind her, and she played the scene in a bathrobe.

About ten years ago I was hired to be a “ghost” on a TV movie script. The original writer, whose name had gotten the production deal placed, was laid up in the hospital and the production company needed a draft in 1-2 weeks to keep the project alive. I had to step in and bang something out based on the original writer’s treatment. Again, I was working with a terrific development guy which, on a short date, is what you want. But then I was also getting notes from several people in the production company’s New York office, and notes from their Los Angeles office, and notes from the network, and notes from the original writer. None of these people were conferring with each other so the notes were often in conflict. My job was to get something of what each party was throwing at me so they could be happy seeing it in the script. In circumstances like that, you’re not trying to write a good script; you’re just trying to make it coherent; “You’re the writer; you’ll figure it out.”

This is why I find Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade still so potent and educational (as well as the Froug and Brady books). In the stories these screenwriters tell, the only thing they all have in common is that each project is an exercise in problem-solving. Each story is different and presents different problems; each set of circumstances (different production companies, directors, stars, etc.) is different and presents different problems, all ultimately having a direct or indirect impact on the material and few of which have anything to do with making material stronger, more distinctive, more flavorful. I wouldn’t be the first person to argue that the development process, at least when it relates to mainstream commercial filmmaking, seems designed to take unique material and beat the hell out of it until it resembles all the other crap out there. You’re not going to get any help from Bob McKee or Syd Field in that process. More useful is a family-sized bottle of Maalox.

I always have in mind something I’d once read in an interview with a veteran screenwriter (can’t remember who). He said something to the effect that no one tells the production designer what to do because nobody else can do what he does, and no one tells the composer what to do because they can’t compose music, but everybody knows the alphabet so they all feel entitled to tell the screenwriter how to write.

Now, having said all this, I’d still advise you (with a bad taste in my mouth) to read some of these things not because they’ll serve you well, but because it’s the language of the day, and you need to be able to talk to and understand these people. Just don’t think it has anything to do with truly good writing…and keep the Maalox handy.