Monday, July 07, 2008

The No. 1 Writer's Guru and screenwriting books

I promised I'd write something about Jeff Kitchen and his book which I found to be the most useful of all the screenwriting books. There was a session at SWF about screenwriting books too.

But this isn't that blog.

This is about a different screenwriting guru. It was the Monty Python philosopher's drinking song that suggested that Aristotle was very quick with the bottle. And he may well have been. But he was also a genius.

The concept of a scientist being a specialist is very new, barely 150 years if that. Before that specialism was not even considered, if you studied life you studied everything.

And so it was with Aristotle, if something piqued his curiosity then he studied it -- more than that: he studied the hell out of it until he understood it.

It just so happened that in Aristotle's home town they had a playwriting competition every year, the organisers would specify the subject (a standard Greek myth or story) and then judge the results. Aristotle noticed that some plays were enjoyable and some weren't. Obviously. But he's a scientist so there's one thing that occurs to him: Why?

He wanted to know why some plays worked and some didn't. And the fact that he had the perfect scientific situation where the variable of subject matter was removed so he could concentrate on what made a good play good.

And he did. Frankly he nailed it. What screenwriting gurus tell you today, he wrote 2500 years ago. He was the first screenwriting guru, even down to the fact that (as far as we know) he never wrote a play in his life.

And you can read Aristotle's "The Poetics" online here. I should warn you that it's not the easiest of things to read. At the start there's a lot of background information which sets the scene for his analysis but it's not entirely necessary to read and it's mainly applicable to the style of play.

On the other hand you could read Jeff Kitchen's book "Writing a Great Movie" which encapsulates and uses Aristotle's main points, as well as some others.

As I mentioned there was a session about screenwriting books at SWF. I didn't go to it. Some people object to them, some people are vehemently opposed to them. That is a viewpoint I find slightly ludicrous after all, nobody forces you to read them.

Books are good for a few things: format, industry insights ("How Not to Write a Screenplay" is invaluable), a description of "principles" which you can actually use to make sure that your work is of a reasonable standard (by which I mean things like "Enter late, exit early" for scenes).

I think those who vehemently object to screenwriting books have this odd idea that they somehow interfere with creativity. I am of the opinion that the only person that would be so affected is one that had limited creativity in the first place.

Every art form has principles which, if followed, ensure a certain level of technical ability from which creativity can blossom. Once someone understands those principles, they can then break them. Picasso was a superb artist who's early landscapes and portraits were "standard". He was a master of the principles before he struck out on his own.

The contents of some books are less useful than others, but that depends on your own personal level of skill and experience. What I find useful may not be useful to the next person, it could be too simplistic, or too advanced.

But the first is Aristotle, he analysed structure and what he said applies as much today as it did 2500 years ago. He's the man. Give him a go, and see what you can learn.

Of course, there are the modern writers who aren't "gurus" but as experienced professionals their words are worth listening to. And for that I can only recommend Script Secrets by Bill Martell with his blog and daily script tips. These are absolute gems.

As an example, just this evening, I finished adding extra material to my Monsters pilot, under the guidance of script consultant Philip Shelley . Then I read today's script tip from Bill and realised that I needed to make my protagonist more sympathetic in the opening, then the audience will empathise with her, and her later actions will be more believable.


What's on the turntable? "Sensual World" by Kate Bush from "Sensual World". I have this thing about female singer-songwriters...

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