The Many Contradictory Lessons of Screenwriting

 

In this modern age, if someone wants screenwriting advice, they can easily find it on the internet and in book form. Almost every screenwriter and director has their own philosophy of how to write a great screenplay. However, much of this advice contradicts other pieces of advice. This article will review many pieces of advice from writers. Since writers do not come out of nowhere, this article will also review how they got into the business.

Story Structure

In many Hollywood screenwriting guides written by somebody in the industry, the writer advises a specific story structure they tell the reader to adhere to, including plot points and what page they should happen on. This section will cover the unconventional structure of Rocky (1976) written by Sylvester Stallone and lessons from Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon in Writing Movies for Fun and Profit (2011).

Both examples center around people who came to the industry through performing rather than writing. Sylvester Stallone worked as an actor in many movies before writing Rocky. Garant and Lennon began by performing and writing comedy. In their book, they suggest making short films and posting them on YouTube or Funny or Die to break into the business rather than writing screenplays. According to them, this will demonstrate talent better than a hypothetical document like a screenplay.

Sage Hyden

Sage Hyden’s YouTube Channel Just Write covers many topics of writing screenplays for movies and television. Hyden directly contradicts the idea of needing a specific story structure in his video “Rocky: Why You Don’t Need Writing Formulas.”

In the video, Hyden uses the unconventional narrative structure of Rocky (1976) to contradict the specific narrative structure of Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat! The Last Screenwriting book you’ll Ever Need (2005). Sylvester Stallone wrote Rocky and became an overnight success after years of struggling in supporting roles. Snyder himself had written the widely-panned Stop! Or My Mom Will Shoot (1992) starring Stallone.

In Snyder’s book, it suggests having the Protagonist called to action on page 12 (by screenplay logic, this should be about 12 minutes into the movie). Unlike those books suggestions, Rocky spends nearly an hour going through Rocky’s life and setting up his world before actually offering him the chance to fight Apollo Creed on page 55.

Hyden argues that following the formula would cut many of the great scenes in the movie including the many scenes of Rocky getting beat down by various supporting characters who never come back into the story. Furthermore, he argues that following this structure leads to people not following their own instincts to create great movies.

Crux of Hyden’s Argument

Hyden’s argument centers entirely on a singular forty-five-year-old piece of anecdotal evidence. The video presents one story of somebody catching the brass ring by basically writing an unconventionally structured independent movie as a reason to break from the cookie cutter norm of Hollywood structure. It also does not delve much into the more experimental time when Rocky came out or how unconventional structure applies anywhere else besides Rocky. None of this means that success with unconventional structure cannot happen. It just means that Hyden’s argument does not necessarily represent a concrete reality of storytelling.

Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant

Although he touches on it, Hyden glosses over that most of these books teach screenwriting that will potentially sell and be made by a studio. On the Save the Cat website, it says that the book is “told by a showbiz veteran who’s proven that if you can sell your script if you can save the cat.” The mission statement of the book focuses on crafting a profitable product more than an artistically influential film.

The authors of Writing Movies for Fun and Profit (2011), Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant have worked as professional screenwriters for two decades. Of the authors that have written screenwriting books, they remain among the most successfully produced (they most famously co-wrote The Night at The Museum movies). Their book focuses on working the business and writing a theatrical mainstream comedy that will make lots of money for a studio.

In their intro, the authors describe their book as practical writing advice rather than the “fruity” story advice of gurus like Robert McKee. In their chapter on structure, the authors go over the structure of how to write a Hollywood movie. One point they make is that a character and story should be explained in ten pages (or about ten minutes). If not, a studio will not buy or make the movie.

Their point is less that you will not make great movies if you do not follow this structure at this length. It is that you will not make any mainstream movies for a studio. According to Lennon and Garant, they have literally had people weigh their screenplays to make sure that they are between 100 and 110 pages. Just like Snyder, Lennon and Garant make a point of where every plot point roughly should be on a page.

Changes since their book

While it has a lot of advice about the business working in 2011 Hollywood, it also has a few jokes and points that date it somewhat. Since their experience revolves in writing comedy movies for studios, the book focuses mainly on that. It does not take into account the role the internet would play in the years after 2011. In fact, in their chapter on “Naysayers,” Lennon and Garant paint most critics as jealous basement dwellers spouting their opinion on the internet. While they say somebody can come from the internet, they portray it mainly as a stepping stone. Since this book came before streaming really began taking off, it does not see people coming from the internet or working on the internet as a viable career.

Dialogue

When writing dialogue, one concern that comes up is how all the characters will sound. Do they all speak with similar voices? Do they have different voices?  Aaron Sorkin believes that screenwriters should use their own personal voice, while Steven E. de Souza wants to hear different types of voices throughout the script.

Both these writers came from the screenwriting world. Originally a playwright, Sorkin got noticed for adapting his play into the movie A Few Good Men in 1992. He continued writing some of the most acclaimed TV shows and movies over the next three decades. In 2011, he won the Oscar for The Social Network (2010). Steven de Souza became known for writing many of the big 1980s action movies including Commando (1985) and Die Hard (1989).

In the 2010s, they also became known for teaching amateur writers in various ways. Sorkin taught a Masterclass, while de Souza judged screenplay contests for the screenwriting service Screencraft. Screencraft also published Sorkin’s lessons. This does not make Screencraft a hypocritical service. It just means that writers can have conflicting viewpoints.

Aaron Sorkin

Sorkin specifically says to give characters your own voice because it will work better than trying to write somebody else’s voice. Sorkin found this because he tried writing for younger characters than himself and found the results terrible.

This approach has its pluses and drawbacks. While he does have a unique voice, Sorkin has also reused dialogue multiple times in his films and television. Rather than hide his voice, Sorkin leans into it.

Steven E. de Souza

In the 2010s, de Souza became a judge for screenwriting contests for Screencraft. When judging scripts for Screenwriting Action and Adventure contest, de Souza said that one of the major things he looked for was characters with different voices. He said one can like you, but they all cannot sound like you.

In terms of dialogue, de Souza also says that you never know which lines will catch on (he wrote the “Yippee ki yay, Motherfucker” based on a line from Roy Rogers). De Souza also said that part of this came out of Bruce Willis and him watching the same TV shows growing up.

Explaining the Character

In this screenwriting practice, two thirds of the way through the story, the narrative stops so a character can reveal a piece of tragic backstory that sheds light on their motivation. Writer-director Sidney Lumet dislikes this school of drama, while screenwriter William M. Akers gives it as a lesson in his book.

These men could not have more different careers. Throughout his career, Lumet created many well-known films, such as 12 Angry Men (1957), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), Network (1976), and The Verdict (1982). Lumet came from a background of theater of live television. William M. Akers has written and co-written screenplays that have gotten produced, but not to the same extent. Perhaps the most famous movie Akers wrote is Ernest Rides Again (1993). However, both wrote books about the filmmaking process (Akers’ book focuses principally on screenwriting).

Sidney Lumet

In his book Making Movies (1995), Lumet calls this the “rubber-ducky” school of Drama (“’Somebody once took his rubber ducky away from him, and that’s why he’s a deranged killer’” (Lumet 37)). Lumet says that he and Network Scribe Paddy Chayefsky always try to eliminate the rubber-ducky explanations. To Lumet, the character should become clear through their present actions. If not, the screenplay suffers a deeper problem.

While he expresses his distaste for such creative choices, he does not give a specific example of what such a movie that uses such a choice would be. He instead says describes this storytelling technique as a common practice among “kitchen sink” melodramas. According to him, it remains common practice among many producers.

William M. Akers

William M. Akers takes the opposite approach in his book Your Screenplay Sucks!: 100 Ways to Make It Great (2008). In the book, Akers says that the writer should have a “bad guy speech” where the antagonist explains himself. He uses the character of Magua (Wes Studi) in Last of The Mohicans (1991) as an example of this. Throughout the story, Magua hates the grey hairs (white men). Later in the film, Magua has an entire speech about how the grey hairs destroyed his life and why he now dislikes them. This includes losing his wife and kids to them.

Voiceover and Flashbacks

Throughout cinematic history, flashbacks and voiceover have been a common storytelling device to bring the audience in. American-Scottish director Alexander Mackendrick rejected these narrative choices, while Austrian-born American director Billy Wilder embraced them.

Both directors started as writers in an old studio system. Mackendrick made many British comedies before transitioning into American films. After his Hollywood career, Mackendrick went on to become the head of the newly formed film school at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). In contrast, Wilder came from German silent films and worked his way up to directing in the Hollywood Studio system. He would go to win multiple Academy Awards.

Alexander Mackendrick

In his book, Mackendrick expresses distaste for flashbacks and voiceover, as he sees them as a failure of expressing exposition in a present tense scene. Mackendrick sees cinema less as “non-verbal” and more as “preverbal.” He also brings it up more as a preference than an outright rule.

Mackendrick talks about this mainly with Sweet Smell of Success (1957). With playwright Clifford Odets, Mackendrick reworked original writer Ernest Lehman’s screenplay for that film when Lehman fell ill. Mackendrick liked idea of the script, but felt it had too many scenes of two people talking in a room with no thought given the visuals.

Odets dismantled the script entirely and created more distinct scenes with more characters. He would take the approach of a dramatic playwright by improvising a much too long scene full of exposition from one character’s perspective. After that, he would then cut it down to the basic mechanics of that scene and switch attack with another character. This time consuming rendered a more focused and compact script with more distinct characters.

In his book, Odets describes how a scene where Columnist J.J. Hunsecker (Burt Lancaster) intimidates a senator became more complex and tense because of Odets process. In the first draft, this scene was very much just about the Senator and Hunsecker, but in the movie, it becomes about the five characters in the scene.

Billy Wilder

Throughout his career, Wilder loved using flashbacks and voiceover narration to express exposition and get into the character. The Lost Weekend (1945) ends with a flashback to the opening scene. Sunset Boulevard (1950) tells its story over one large flashback from a dead man (William Holden), while Double Indemnity (1944) flashes back from a man (Fred MacMurray) with a severe wound. The Apartment (1960) begins with the lead character (Jack Lemmon) telling the audience who he is.

However, Wilder made point a specific point with voiceover and flashbacks adding to the story. Voiceover must not tell the audience what they already see, but add to what already exists onscreen. With the examples where Wilder used narration, the characters would not just state facts, but also commentate about their life and the situation in question. Similarly, Wilder uses the flashbacks to draw his audience into the mystery of the story.

Conclusion

Through all of these sources, the screenwriters constantly admit their subjectivity of viewpoint. As the Dean of the film school at CalArts, Mackendrick said that film writing and directing cannot be taught, only learned through an individualized process. Using a clip from Pirates of The Caribbean, Hyden says that guidelines exist more than rules. Lumet says at the beginning of his book that this is just how he makes films rather than a correct version of filmmaking or storytelling (which he says does not exist). Akers says that writers can take his advice with a grain of salt, but also emphasizes simply not boring the reader. All of these disclaimers suggest that most of this advice exists as an educated guess based on experience more than a completely correct rule.

Postscript

Perhaps one of the best advice on writing screenplays is that it depends on what you are looking to get out of it. What does the screenplay mean to you? Are you looking to sell or make this? Are you using it as a writing sample? The intention of the screenplay does help place it in the filmmaking system.

Similarly, taking notes does factor into writing a screenplay. If you are taking a writing class of any kind, you will probably get more out of taking notes than from not. If you are under contract to write a movie or TV show, part of your job will probably be taking notes. Part of the writing process might be removing expensive or impossible sequences and replacing them. Part of it might revolve around adapting to somebody’s voice. While the screenwriter’s voice remains important, so does a certain amount of flexibility with the people and circumstances the screenwriter works with.