Tuesday, 13 September 2011

The Tools of Screenwriting by David Howard & Edward Mabley

On September 22nd, during BAFTA's Screenwriter's Lectures series, Souvenir Press are re-publishing an updated version of The Tools of Screenwriting: A Writer's Guide to the Craft and Elements of a Screenplay - by David Howard & Edward Mabley. And they asked me to review a copy for this blog. My first thought was ooh, me? How kind. (So lesson to all, beware the vanity and flattery of the poor screenwriter.) My second thought was, ooh, free book. (See first lesson.) So I immediately agreed... And then immediately regretted it. What if I hated it? I'm not going to say nice things about it if I don't believe them to be true. Oh goodness, am I going to read it, hate it, and then have to politely (or not so politely) send it back and apologise? So it was with some considerable relief that not long after beginning to read it, I thought my word, this is actually quite good. By the time I got to the end, I'd forgotten about the review and was just enjoying reading it.

I should explain. I believe there should come a point in a screenwriters life where you basically don't read screenwriter how to books any more. You should read scripts, and just write, write and write some more. And then get loads of quality feedback. Because they can become a distraction. A couple of years ago I sold all my screenwriting books except Vogler's Hero's Journey and Mernit's Rom Com masterpiece. I now have Tools to complete a trilogy. Because there should also be a point in a screenwriters life where you read everything. Gobble it up. For me it was at college, helped by the fact that the library meant I didn't have to pay for Seger, Aaronson, Field, Goldman etc, etc.

The Tools of Screenwriting doesn't have cool, funny industry inside stories that both amuse and shock. There are no anecdotes about what the munchkins got up to on the set of the Wizard of Oz or why there are no bras in outer space for Princess Leah to wear. Tools is exactly that. It gives you a clear run down of the tools you'll need to generate a good screenplay. Reading it won't make you a great writer. In the same way reading a great cook book will not make you Masterchef. But it will give you a description of the ingredients you will need, tips about how to use those ingredients - and then it's up to you. The chapters are short. There is no padding or fluff to this book. It's just a workers guide. It breaks down into four sections and I'm going to list the chapter headings to give you an idea of how the book approaches its task.

The first section is titled About Screenwriting and contains the chapters The Screenwriter's Task, Stage Versus Screen, Adaptation, The Auteur of a Film, The Screenwriter's Relationships and A Cautionary Note. This is the background info. This is about where, as screenwriters, you might find yourself within the industry and what your job might entail.

It then moves on to Basic Storytelling. Chapters include What makes a "good story well told," The Division into Three Acts, The World of the Story, Protagonists Antagonists and Conflict, Externalizing the Internal, Objective and Subjective Drama, Time and the Storyteller and The Power of Uncertainty. This section really gives you the fundamentals of how to construct a screen story. What methods and techniques are at your disposal.

The third section digs a little deeper. Screenwriting Tools. The chapters are Protagonist and Objective, Conflict, Obstacles, Premise and Opening, Main Tension, Culmination and Resolution, Theme, Unity, Exposition, Characterisation, Development of the Story, Dramatic Irony, Preparation and Aftermath, Planting and Payoff, Elements of the Future and Advertising, The Outline and the Step Outline, Plausibility, Activity and Action, Dialogue, Visuals, The Dramatic Scene and Rewriting. This is where you start to earn your bread a little bit more. Writing a basic, linear screenplay that works is a good start. But are there things you can set up on page 20 and pay off 50 pages later? Twists are great when they come off but is dramatic irony, letting the audience in on something the characters don't know, more engaging? Does the story world make sense and is there narrative logic behind even the craziest of ideas? Like I said, the chapters aren't long. It's more like the book is a bite size accumulation of the tools of the screenwriting trade.

The final section is an analysis of several feature films, including ET, Some Like it Hot, North by NorthWest, Citizen Kane, Witness, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Godfather, Chinatown, Annie Hall, and more. If I had one complaint about the book it was probably this. An update to include films of the last ten years would've been good. Instead of Annie Hall how about 500 Days of Summer? Instead of Streetcar maybe Crash? What about Little Miss Sunshine or frankly anything by Pixar? But it's a small complaint and to be fair the films chosen are absolute classics. If you haven't seen most of them and want to be a screenwriter, it's probably time to sign up to Lovefilm or something.

I realise all I've mainly done is list chapter headings and this is probably the weirdest book review of all time. Souvenir Press may well be regretting the day they sent me the book. But in closing, all I can say is, if I ever start teaching on a screenwriting course, I would definitely use this as my core text.



Adaddinsane said...

Well, you convinced me - I've ordered it.

And today's verification word is "difess" - to admit to a crime in a roundabout way.

Jez Freedman said...

oh the pressure. Well I hope you like it. Let me know what you think. (And surely to difess is unadmit!)