Monday, December 31, 2007

Screenwriting, Part 2: Craft


I hear a lot of people say that screenwriting is a harder form than novels. This perplexes me. It’s definitely a more restrictive form than novels, and you really have to KNOW your story – you can’t throw dazzling and evocative prose at the reader to cover up the fact that your story doesn’t actually end - but I think it’s much harder to write a good novel.

What I think is, people are intimidated by the form because they’re just not used to reading it. Think about it. We’ve been reading books since we were four or five years old. We (well, the people reading this blog, anyway!) have read not just thousands of books, but probably into the ten thousands. Okay, I’m wretched with math, but I don’t think that’s an unreasonable figure for this crowd. We’re voracious.

And how many screenplays have you all read?

Exactly my point.

That’s why starting as a story analyst is such good training for a screenwriter. You read dozens of scripts a week. You absorb the form through osmosis.

So if you want to be a screenwriter, start reading scripts. Tons of them. And start doing the same kind of analysis that you do as a novelist. Barry Eisler does a great motivational seminar on writing – well, I’m sure he does any number of them, but in the one I saw he really, really emphasized the point that writers are primarily self-taught: they have to be constantly reading and analyzing what other writers do to make a story work.


(remember, the writers don’t get any money from these sites, so if you enjoy a script, why not write to the writer and let her or him know it?) ( Enter Keywords: movie scripts online.)


Unfortunately there are very few books I can really recommend on film writing, but -

I cannot say enough good things about John Truby's new book THE ANATOMY OF STORY. Truby's one of the main screenwriting gurus in LA, and for good reason. His class was the best I ever took on screenwriting, and he's finally gotten it all into a book.

It's useful to read Syd Field's SCREENPLAY. It's groaningly simplistic, but it will teach you very general basic movie structure and teach you how to work by putting your scenes on index cards, which is a great method of developing a story, especially a movie.

Christopher Vogler’s THE WRITER’S JOURNEY is also worth reading. I’m sure other screenwriters here have useful suggestions, but I’ve read a lot of the how-to books and have really never have found anything like a definitive text on the craft.

I've heard good things about SAVE THE CAT! but haven't gotten around to reading it myself. Also people recommend Robert McKee's STORY - I haven't read the book, but got a lot out of his class when I took it, (many years ago now...)

And another plug for John Truby, if you like the book:

The best screenwriting course I've ever come across is John Truby's Story Structure class, which you can get in its entirety on DVD or CD online: (The master class is the one called “Great Screenwriting”).

It's not cheap but I don't think there's a film school in the entire country that is as good.

I do recommend taking classes, but I don’t recommend paying too much for them. Some of the people teaching out there don’t have any experience whatsoever in the business, so go to the first class, see if you think you can actually learn something from either the teacher or the other students, and if not, opt out.


After you have at least read SCREENPLAY I would recommend that you take 10 movies you love in the genre that you want to work in and watch each one - first all the way through, then again, this time starting and stopping so you can write down every scene and what happens in it. Then look at your scene outline and identify the three acts and the turning points, or climaxes, of each. Then see if you can identify the 8 sequences that make up the movie (almost every movie at least roughly follows an 8 sequence structure – each sequence being 10-15 minutes long. The first act has two sequences, the second act, four, and the last act two shorter ones, or one continuous sequence and a capper. Do that with 10 movies in a row and, again, you will have gone through better writing training than most film schools will put you through.


Here’s a crash course in script format: pick a movie you particularly like and would like to have written, get yourself a copy of the script, and type the whole script from beginning to end, in the same screenplay format the script is in. That exercise will teach you what you need to know about script formatting and pacing.


High concept is a whole other column! But if you can tell your story in one line (this is called a LOGLINE) and everyone who hears it can see exactly what the movie is, that’s high concept. (Name this movie: A shark terrorizes a beach town during high tourist season).

One of the best classes I ever took on screenwriting was SOLELY on premise. Every week we had to come up with three loglines for movie ideas and stand up and read them aloud to the class. We each put a dollar into a pot and the class voted on the best premise of the night, and the winner got the pot. It was highly motivating - I made my first "screenwriting" money that way and I learned worlds about what a premise should be.

I highly recommend you try the same exercise - make yourself come up with three story ideas a week, and try to make some of them high concept. You'll be training yourself to think in terms of big story ideas - extremely useful for novelists, as well.

And now go here and read this essay on Mental Real Estate on

It's vitally important if you want to work in Hollywood that you understand what a premise and what a high concept premise is, and that article does a great job of explaining it. Then take some time (got a few years?) and explore the rest of the site. It’s a free mini-film school by two of the best in the business – Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott.

And for television:

So I guess I will be continuing this series next week! Yes, yes, I’ll post a list of the questions I’ve gotten so far with answers, and I’m very pleased to announce that Paul Guyot will be back to guest blog about the TV side of the business, to further everyone’s educations in his inimitable – uh – style. Tune in next Saturday.

So again - ask away.

(Part One of this series is here.)


All the information on this blog and more, including full story structure breakdowns of various movies, is available in my Screenwriting Tricks for Authors workbooks.  Any format, just $3.99 and $2.99.

Amazon US

Amazon UK

Amaxon DE

Amazon FR

Amazon ES

Amazon IT

Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)

Amazon US

Barnes & Noble/Nook

Amazon UK

Amazon DE


J.K. said...

definitely read STORY, really makes you respect the art of screenwriting

Niki Chanel said...

While I'm in deep, reading all your wonderful 'teachings' I found a broken link: Mental Real Estate works with:

Gotta go back to soakin' it up (addicted).

Anonymous said...

Interesting article on screenplay story structure:

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Brittany said...

Alexandra, great material for screenwriters on here! I really love your 8 points theory. I have googled and tried to find where to find the movie script that I know well and that parrells the film I'm trying to write with no luck. Where would I find this?