July 13, 2012

How I Really Feel About Screenwriting Gurus Courtesy of Frank Darabont and Scott Myers

As an aspiring screenwriter myself now writing for NFS for a few months, I have searched for advice from professional screenwriters that would be useful to the NFS community. My personal preference is to learn more about the craft and career of screenwriting from working, professional screenwriters. Of course, screenwriting gurus who are not actually screenwriters offer advice to aspiring screenwriters through a litany of seminars, books and websites -- some of which can be useful -- but always make me wonder about their true value (or harm) for those of us striving to learn the craft day in and day out. The other day, Scott Myers at Go Into the Story posted this quote from writer/director Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile) that crystallized my thoughts:

The whole industry of ‘we can make you a screenwriter.’ I have ambivalent feelings because, ultimately, even though there is some benefit to be gained by those things—I stress the word ‘some’ benefit, minimal benefit—ultimately you know what it all boils down to? You’re sitting at your desk, all by yourself for years, trying to figure out your craft and applying the effort necessary. And that’s what nobody wants to hear. Everybody wants to hear, ‘I can teach you a three-act structure, I can give you a formula, and you’ll be selling screenplays within six months.’ Bullshit. And what’s really funny is, these guys in the business of being screenwriting gurus, they don’t ever write screenplays. I have never seen one of these guys’ names on a screen credit in a movie. I do think there is some benefit to these classes, but I don’t think people should be misled into thinking it’s the be-all and end-all, and they’re going to walk out a screenwriter. Everything is self-applied effort in life. Everything. You don’t learn anything easily.

Naturally, this quote spurred some lively debate on GITS, to which Scott Myers responded with some great insights. First, he pointed out how structure has overwhelmed other elements of storytelling as a result of screenwriting guru books:

[T]he net effect of what I experience on the front lines of interfacing with many aspiring screenwriters is too much of an emphasis on structure – and by that they almost always mean plot – causing scripts to suffer: formulaic stories, thin characters, and narrative largely devoid of significant emotional resonance.

Scott also addresses the nature of several screenwriting books and seminars that claim they will help new writers have a script they can sell in a mere matter of months:

[T]hat attitude is wrongheaded, not only because the odds against immediate success are astronomically against the writer, it is putting the focus on the wrong spot: It’s not just about writing a script, it’s about becoming a screenwriter.

Per the latter, it takes time, it takes work, it takes immersing oneself in the world of cinema, it takes reading hundreds of scripts, watching thousands of movies, it takes learning principles and practices used by professional screenwriters.

In other words, is your goal to sell one script or have a screenwriting career?

No book or guru is going to make me wake up at 5:30 every morning and put my butt in a chair to write. That's my job. I hope someday it will lead to a career.

You can check out the whole debate on Frank Darabont's comments at Go Into the Story, but don't forget to let us know what you think about screenwriting gurus as well as their books and seminars right here on NFS. Have they helped you or led you astray as you hone your screenwriting craft?

Link: Screenwriting 101: Frank Darabont on Go Into the Story

[Screenplay photo by Flickr user Joe in DC (CC)]

Your Comment

20 Comments

I'm inclined to agree with you, Christopher. I find some books helpful, like the NOW WRITE series, but those are just exercises to get the juices flowing. I also like tip books, that may illuminate something that wasn't working in an already finished script that you might not have been able to put the finger on. Never done a screenwriting seminar. It seems to be like one of those Hollywood traps.

July 13, 2012 at 10:30AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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If you're dedicated enough to sit down at the crack of 5:30am every day and write, well I hope you have a great career too, dude. I'm more of an 11am person myself... : )

July 13, 2012 at 10:33AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Rev. Benjamin

I had a screenwriting teacher who really harped on the same types of things these books and gurus do and it really hurt my ability to write. I got so caught up in doing it 'right' that I lost my style and voice. It took several years before I was able to find it again.

I think it's extremely important to know the rules but not necessarily important to live by them. I think and believe if you read (novels, shorts, screenplays) anything with a story you're going to take in the general flow and scheme.

It's the work. Read. Write. And then read and write again.

That's my opinion and experience at least.

July 13, 2012 at 11:20AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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I had the exact same experience, trying to do it how I'd learnt it should be done instead of just writing a good script. Had the same thing writing soap as well, learnt to write in a way that crippled my instincts and as you say taken/taking a long time to hear my own voice again.

July 19, 2012 at 6:44PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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I always wonder about the stick that screenwriting gurus get. My art teacher was an amazing teacher but he never sold a painting. My english teacher taught me a huge amount about creative writing but he never wrote a novel. My Dad, on the other hand, was an amazing chef but didn't teach me thing one about cooking, he had neither the patience nor the inclination for it. I guess what I'm saying is that you shouldn't be so quick to dismiss people who have decided to teach just because they haven't excelled at the highest level. I've read over a hundred screenwriting books and while some of them are a lot better than others I can honestly say that there is something of value in every one of them, even Robert McKee's, and his credits are not something you'd write home about.

July 13, 2012 at 12:09PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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The difference between art/novels and screenwriting is that art or novels are meant to be sold to the public at large, to anyone, and screenplays are meant to be sold to industry insiders and turned into a move. The screenwriting gurus can help you create a nice screenplay by their standards, but who will buy it? And what is the point of creating something that is only the basis, foundation and blueprint for a movie and tailoring it to a screenwriting guru who will not buy it, instead of a producer or studio who will buy it? Create art for its own sake, fine, write a novel for its own sake, but why write a screenplay for its own sake?

July 19, 2012 at 4:13PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Professional writers will tell you to forget about gurus, just watch a shedload of movies/ TV, read a load of scripts, put in your 10,000 hours and then hope for the break you need.

Gurus tell you about structure, analysis of story structure etc.

The point is they are both right, only the former didn't need to the latter to inform them. If you rely on gurus you are muddying your mind - is this a principle of writing for thrillers, suspense, or a romcom, I can't remember etc. Ultimately, you are stripping yourself of the self confidence you need to make creative choices and it's never going to work. Limit yourself to a couple of recommended books, strip whatever you can out of it that resonates with you and sit down at a computer to find your own path. Just make sure you have you family filter turned on.

July 13, 2012 at 2:31PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Taking advice from guys like Lew Hunter (who only wrote TV movies of the week in the early eighties) and Blake Snyder (known for Blank Check and Stop, or My Mom Will Shoot) you really have to take this advice with a grain of salt. It seems more like their screenwriting careers were short lived and they had to find another way to make a living. Everybody wants a quick fix. The simple truth is you have to be writing screenplays as well as revising those screenplays constantly. I wrote ten features before I feel I wrote a good one and that one is still being revised as we speak.

July 13, 2012 at 2:34PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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@ Cinestar, if you redact a writer's credits to simply what have been produced, then you are taking some of the greatest writers of our times and saying that they do not count.

Blake developed an incredible - and easy to understand - system of story principles.

He was writing for the screen until the day he died. Literally. If you have an understanding of the credits process, then you would realize that credits are determined by many, many, elements over which, you, as the writer, have no control over.

Follow some of the credit wars, some solved through arbitration, some not. At the end of the day, you are a writer, and you sometimes just have to take your f*&#ing check and put it in the bank. Your script may be horrifically disassembled; the beautiful script that you wrote may end up being another writer's credit.

But you know this. So why post such deceit?

July 13, 2012 at 6:06PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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These discussions are meaningless, without at least trying to distinguish the kind of screenwriting one cares to do. Are we talking about professional Hollywood success, and a willingness to write what routinely gets sold? How much of the knowledge base here is actual skill, and how much is understanding the market? Is the idea to acquire the skills needed to work professional, or to write well and originally?

Or do you want to break into the cable dramatic series market, where far more technical and literary skill is required and the cliches and formulas of mass-market Hollywood are of no use?

Or are you writing for the art-house market and/or your own productions? Is the standard Au Hasard, Balthazar? Stalker? Breathless? Satantango? The Conformist? Or is your ideal "indie" Little Miss Sunshine? Or "Stranger than Paradise"? Or "Clerks?" Or "Reservoir Dogs"? Or none of the above?

Beyond that, does the traditional advice actually make sense? *Are* there in fact 3 acts in most movies? Or is so-called 3-act structure an artifact of the analysis? If you looked for 4 acts instead of 3, would you find them?

This profusion of questions is perhaps one measure of the incoherence of the aspirational screenwriting world.

July 13, 2012 at 4:29PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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geraldH

"If you looked for 4 acts instead of 3, would you find them?"

Ha. Indeed.

"This profusion of questions is perhaps one measure of the incoherence of the aspirational screenwriting world."

I have, at least in myself, noticed my ego's sincere desire to believe it's in total control and seek to define all the "hows and why's" collected to best help repel the insecurity inherent to being flawed and human while endeavouring to create something worthy of other peoples time and attention. Make's for a lot of useless chatter and activity along the way. Which ultimately does me fuck all good of course, and I am learning I just have to have to shut up, put up and get to work.

So back to work I go.

July 14, 2012 at 5:18PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Lliam Worthington

Personally I see rules/structure as a way to improve creativity and not otherwise. Let's say you give an art student a white wall and unlimited access to paints and brushes. Now give another art student a piece of paper and a pencil. If both of them produce something really good who is more creative?
Guess what i'm trying to say is that knowing the rules can be very liberating and take away some of that fear of facing a blank page. Having said that I find that the best way to learn is by doing so I guess that as with most things in life virtue lies in the middle.

July 13, 2012 at 7:40PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Good blog. Good discussion, with some great posts.

I have in turn been both greatly helped and hampered by books and gurus on screenwriting.
Obsessing about the fact your at page 40, when "ideally" you should be at page 30 can really hit
the creative breaks and put you into second guessing that can be quite destructive I've found personally. On the other hand when something is not working, having a good understanding of theories around structure or making sure a scene turns or campbell's comparative mythologies etc is invaluable.

I would say that the act of study itself is very worthwhile, but that it's very important "creatively" to then also let go of that study. And not just, not to be beholden to it, but actually to let really it go. I believe the points which are pertinent will then surface anyway in response and in harmony with your imagination if and when required if you have truly studied hard and put a lot of hours in. But if I have these principals/observations/ideas around screen writing at the forefront of my mind/too strongly in my consciousness, it can serve to disconnect me and feel like I really can't see the forest for the trees.

It really is a ride for me, or a flow, or a zone, for me "creativity" and I'm learning that the zone itself while it may be valuably supported by or arrived at by any number of means, needs to supersede all the other factors.

July 14, 2012 at 4:45PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Lliam Worthington

I think this debate is very well addressed by T.S. Eliot's essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent." In it, Eliot discusses not only a poet's relationship to the "dead poets," but also, I think, the relationship between a poet, or artist in general, and learning the craft of whatever medium he has chosen to express himself in. Another good read for poets, but also I believe artists in general, are Rainer Maria Rilke's "Letters to a Young Poet." I believe these two works very adequately address the struggle of becoming a screenwriter as well: Setting aside many of the specifics of the two works that pertain specifically to the art of language, Rilke and Eliot I think observe much that an aspiring artist should know about his relationship to learning and to his craft.

That said I personally believe that a foundational understanding of the well established principals of writing, both regarding structure (plot even), and indeed an understanding of character, is necessary for anyone hoping to be taken seriously as a writer, whether his medium be screenplays, novels, poems, or otherwise.

In my experience screenwriting gurus as this article has identified them are hardly the best people from which one can obtain this understanding.

I think Mr. Boone is absolutely right that an excellent way to understand screenwriting principals is simply to watch movies. Frank Zappa's prowess certainly shows that traditionally accepted learning methods (for example, classroom learning) are not the only route, although I would certainly say that attending university to study screenwriting is a far better route than screenwriting gurus.

As I have observed, screenwriting gurus have generally bogarted traditional teaching methods and warped them into a money-making operation. Some of the information is still there absolutely, which is why some people are helped by screenwriting gurus; however, ultimately there is no real instructional substance in what they have to offer, and those seeking to learn to write from a traditional instructional approach would be better suited seeking out a B.A. in creative writing from an accredited academic institution.

I personally learned an immense amount very quickly from watching movies, once I began consciously seeing how a screenplay works as it plays out, and I hope that by saying that I can revitalize some people's interest who may be intimidated by the daunting task of learning the craft. I disagree therefore with only one thing Frank Darabont said. "You don’t learn anything easily." That's an opinion, and not a good one I think. Other than that, I think he hit the nail right on the head about those nonsense gurus.

Furthermore, other poets and writers have written similarly enlightening pieces about what an artist should take responsibility for when he wants to create art. Ezra Pound, douchey though he may be, comes to mind.

July 19, 2012 at 4:11PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Edward

I do not feel qualified to to judge the real world value of any particular screenwriting book or teacher. But, none the less, I feel that some of this discussion misses an important an important point. Teaching and "doing" are often completely different talents.

I had a couple of excellent physics teachers who were mediocre physicists. I doubt that Einstein would have been a good physics teacher. I had other professors who did great work in their academic field but were lousy teachers. Many outstanding sports coaches were mediocre players with minimal playing careers in the sports they coach. There are famous acting coaches ( you know their names) who influenced generations of great film actors (e.g., Marlon Brando) but who have few or no screen acting credits.

Even Tiger Woods and athletes of his caliber seek advice and coaching, even as adults, from people who are not great athletes.
Is there anyone who thinks Tiger would have been a better golfer if he had had no coaching as a child?

I could go on and on, but you get the point.

Furthermore, even if an aspiring writer wants to learn from a successful and prolific screenwriter instead of a "guru", realistically, how many will be able to get access to one?

Furthermore, anyone with any common sense should know that mastering any art or craft requires years of hard work. That is a given. Who really thinks you learn to play classical music or jazz from a book. But that does not mean that that a music theory class can't help you on your journey as long as you do the work. I noticed that Aristotles poetics is among the books recommended on this site. How many screenplays did he write?

Screenwriting books and gurus may or may not be of significant value. But in my opinion, to try determine their value based on how many successful screenplays or screenwriting credits the teacher has is very false reasoning.

It was argued above that these teachers can cause writers to overemphasize structure and to be formulaic. That may be true and should be guarded against. But I suspect there are even more screenplays submitted that are rambling incoherent messes with atrocious dialogue. Many of these were written by people who are clueless about structure and dialogue. Even if formula should be avoided, there are clearly principles of drama that have withstood the test of time.

As regards "learning from watching movies and reading screenplays", this may be a valuable way to learn. But I still think that a combination of that with some "book study" would be even better. It could help you watch more intelligently and see things you might have missed.

I really think the key point of all that is expressed above is to not think that a teacher or book will take the place of years of hard work in mastering ANY art or craft. But that does not mean the teachers and books are of little or no value.

Just trying to play devil's advocate and give a little balance and perspective.

July 19, 2012 at 6:09PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Keith

I agree with you that teaching and doing are different things. Blake Snyder's screenplays are painfully vapid and I can say that not only do I not like them, I pretty strongly *dislike* them...but I've taken away a few good things from Save the Cat!, and I generally dislike most of these screenplay books and seminars.

July 24, 2012 at 3:41AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Daniel Mimura

I took truby in boston in1990 and though i am not a writer I wanted and did direct and produce in hollywood by 1995 and to learn the basics of story structure is something for anyone even reality tv producers .. these are tools and words needed to get ahead in . If you wanted to work you need as many skills as possible- i became a reader and work in story development at 2 studios after using this knowledge

July 19, 2012 at 8:21PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Joey Chang

When working in production a producer I was working for (who was writing his own script) saw me reading a screenwriting book. He said, "Careful with those books. They'll have you writing from sign post to sign post". He was commenting on the structure-centric nature of many books. One of the best books on writing for me was Stephen Kings. He basically says read a lot and write a lot. Also, the War Of Art was a quick and motivational read. For those more "stuck" the Julia Cameron book is very good and of course The Artist's Way. None of these really tell you how but motivate you into reality. Julia's works help the stiffled/stuck artist with exercises that encourage play and recognizing one's own demons. Those all served me better as an artist. They certainly helped me to write and create the short films I've done and the Artist's Way was revalatory. I finished that and produced a play for myself that I was the lead in. Fantastic, self-empowering motivator.

July 19, 2012 at 10:58PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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K

My own writing made a quantum leap when I finally stopped outlining my stories according to so-called Classic Story Structure. For years, I thought if I followed that structure, I'd have to come up with winners. Not. Don't get me wrong, there are elements of structure that every good story must include. But they must come about organically, and not from forcing the story into a "mold."

July 20, 2012 at 4:42PM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Thanks to everyone for the new book tips. I just purchased the War of Art and Now Write. I have read many of the other ones suggested, as well as the books listed on the this site's reading list.

What I hear from those inside the Kingdom is "You cannot get in, but don't give up."

July 22, 2012 at 11:26AM, Edited September 4, 10:54AM

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Chris