There are a number of well-established books out there that promise to have the ‘not so secret’ rules of writing a successful screenplay. Basically someone, who usually has no screenplay credits of note, tries to come with some rules of their own, based on films they like (and vaguely fit the theory), and then continue to force any film they can into their rigid structure.
The problem with all these different approaches is that they obviously reflect the fact that films are made in different ways. So no one’s golden guidelines are going to be represented in every successful film, although its amazing how many of these gurus insist they do. Which of course means any film that doesn’t meet these precious commandments, that sell a gazillion books a year, automatically become their enemy. These films are saying, ‘actually, there is more than one way to skin a cat. (Blake Synder pun intended) Your book isn’t the definitive guide it claims to be.’
So the author has a few choices: still try and claim it fits hoping the wool covers the entire head, ignore the film and hope no one asks about it (most common), criticise the film.
It’s the final one that inspired this post. I’ve read most of the top screenplay books over the years: Save The Cat (Snyder), Story (McKee – as well as been on his course), Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting (Field) and Writer’s Journey (Vogler) to name a few. I’m happy with what I’ve learned from them, I feel I know enough to go ahead and write a feature (which I’m doing) but there was school of thought that I knew I was missing from my collection and that was John Truby’s 22-Steps to Becoming a Master Storyteller – who coincidentally is running a course in London soon.
The main reasons for not getting this book were because I felt I had spent enough time and money on courses and books but also because I know he is strongly against the three act structure which all the other books, and my own observations/analysis, lean towards. It’s not definitive, but prolific and advised for a new writer.
So anyway, Truby’s take on screenwriting is the most different of them all and therefore the likelihood of finding films that don’t meet his structure are possibly high. I’ve been reading his blog as he boldly reviews movies on it. I say boldly because these movies are obviously rated for how they fit to his rules. I say boldly because he watched Frost/Nixon, a hugely successful and acclaimed film and one that doesn’t fit his 22-steps, and out of the three choices mentioned earlier he chose the last one. In fact he ripped it apart.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with criticising a film – we all have different tastes. But when you pin your argument of how to make a successful screenplay in opposition to a film that was an award-winning, five times Oscar-nominated (including screenplay), publically admired (8/10 on IMDB) hit, then you’ve lost a lot of credibility in my book (Titled ‘Save The Story – A Writer’s Foundation Journey’).
The point is that all these books are limited to their own (sometimes too rigid) guidelines and the truth is that it is rare that any two successful writers write the same way. Listen to the many podcasts with writers for proof. I bet that not one successful writer has stuck 100% to any set of rules in any of these books. The books are useful as they are all theories and can give you ideas to help you on your way. Just don’t stick to them rigidly as they don’t tell the whole picture. Do what you feel is right, don’t be fooled by the limits these authors have to live by.
I might well buy John Truby’s book in the future just to see his views on things, but won’t be going on the course as that’s almost commiting to his thoery. And as one of many Frost/Nixon fans, if he doesn’t think people should write like that then it’s not really for me. (Dragon’s Den Impression) And for that reason I’m out.