Review: Screenplay Writing the Picture

Submitted by Robert Alstead on Tue, 04/27/2004 - 16:00
Screenplay - Writing the Picture

Robin Russin and William Missouri Downs begin their handbook on screenwriting for Hollywood with some sobering advice.

"There are no shortcuts... think long and hard before you commit yourself...only a tiny fraction of you (and your work) will make it".

Talent, good-writing and graft wont be sufficient to get that screenplay sold, let alone made, they point out. You'll also need patience, persistence, salesmanship and luck.

An anecdote, at the end of the book, about a successful Hollywood screenwriter who "let her mother die" so she could further her own career, rams the message home.

Russin and Missouri Downs know all about struggle having jobbed as screenwriters for television, the stage and film in LA, after graduating with screenwriting MFAs from the University of California. Their style here is to offer a workmanlike and thorough walk-through to their craft.

As you'd expect the bias is very much toward Hollywood type movies, so you can understand why cops, guns, fight scenes feature heavily - extracts from Forgiven and Terminator being two of the more memorable examples.

At the same time, the book reads like a film course distilled into a single book (they are even fond of quoting their UCLA profs) with useful exercises at the end of each of the 18 chapters: write out the qualities of your protagonist, simplify the narrative element in a scene or tighten up some badly written dialogue.

The authors open by suggesting ways, when submitting your spec script, that you can impress a professional screenplay reader ("the first line of defense...the most influential person in the business"). They cover the standard script formatting and screenplay conventions nicely, using diagrams to show margin width, tabs and text positioning - all basics the novice screenwriter can't ignore.

They emphasise establishing the theme of your film early on as a means of coaxing the screenplay into the light of day and offer time-honoured techniques for moulding your key characters into shape.

A lite history of dramatic theory going back to Aristotle's Poetics illustrates why you should be flexible when finding balance between the various story elements - plot structure, character, action and so on. While they offer arguments for various types of structure, they strenuously advise that before you start writing your screenplay you first plot the film using scene cards on a pin board - as an example, they chart the action of Sea of Love through 55 such scene cards.

Experienced writers may find some of their analysis long-winded, even dull. How many examples from Hollywood movies (Star Wars, The Terminator, Cliffhanger, Field of Dreams, Seven, Titanic, Braveheart are faves) do you need to show the importance of conflict and resolution? Similarly, you may not need to be reminded about obvious screenwriter mistakes like overusing adverbs, paragraphs of narrative that are too long (they recommend four or five "short, uncomplicated sentences"), or using passive instead of active verbs.

The less experience you have the more this book comes into its own. Fortunately, with its copious sub-headings, it does invite dipping in, say to check format or perhaps to help solve a screenwriting obstacle.

As well as chapters on writing for television and stage, Screenplay offers a primer on pitching - with a real screenwriter's successful pitch printed verbatim - and how best to market your work (agent, manager or lawyer?)

Although in personal and industry anecdotes, dubbed 'War Stories', the authors recall some of their tough experiences there is a certain driness at times to the writing. It would have been good to hear more intimate examples of how politics and personalities can twist a script.

More also might have been made of the fact that many screenwriters are also directors or actors and that many screenplays are adaptations, rather than the solitary screenwriter hammering out an opus.

It is also a little disconcerting to find that the most notable screenwriting credit between the two authors is for Russin when he co-wrote Stephen Seagal eco-thriller On Deadly Ground. The film, made in the Eighties, is ranked the 100th worst film ever on the IMDB as I write this, although that may be nothing to do with the original script, which importantly was sold and made into a box office success.

I don't remember reading any comment about the film in the book and couldn't find it mentioned in the index. That seems like a missed opportunity, although it is not surprising since the authors seem wary of rocking boats. It's the kind of choice that makes this merely a useful rather than a great book.

Screenplay: Writing the Picture at