Friday 23 December 2011

Book review: "Screenwriting Tips, You Hack"

I've read a lot of screenwriting advice books. They come in a range of styles and vary in value from dubious to priceless. One of the recent additions to the canon is Xander Bennett's Screenwriting Tips, You Hack: 150 Practical Pointers for Becoming a Better Screenwriter

Xander was a script reader, working for a minor production company in Los Angeles, when he became frustrated by the quality of the screenplays he was reading. He tweeted his complaints until someone told him he should put them in a blog. So he moved to publishing the Screenwriting Tips... You Hack blog as "a snarky diatribe." Since 2009 he has posted a tip a day on how to make spec scripts better. His first tip reads:   
Don't be boring. FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DON'T BE BORING. Tape it to your laptop. Tape it to your eyeballs. Don't. Be. Boring.
Good advice, I thought. (Actually, it was a rule invoked by Billy Wilder in each of his various writing partnerships. Or, more accurately, his two rules were “Thou Shalt Not Bore” and “Anything is Permitted” -- Lally, Wilder Times, but that's a digression.) 

Click here for
The book surprised me. I wasn’t expecting much more than a selection of Tips from the blog; updated perhaps, and maybe with a dazzling index. Instead it is a screenwriting manual, written from a coaching perspective, rather than the usual dry, by-the-numbers reworking of Syd Field. And it does have an index. Thank you, Xander. (That's one of my chief gripes with the Blake Snyder books, and others: no index.)
When I read a book, I tend to use the yellow highlighter to mark interesting passages. (And I dog-ear the page corners, too. Sorry, book-Nazis. I figure I paid for the book and if I want to find that important quote quickly, I need a little sign. You can pray for me, but I'm afraid the habit runs deep.) I probably went through more yellow ink, and left more dog-eared corners, on this book that any other I've read all year. 

His very best stuff (in my opinion) emerges from his inside knowledge as a script reader in Hollywood. The section on writing query letters and pitching is easily the best I've come across. Simple, crystal clear, obviously true, and wildly divergent from much of the waffle I've encountered on the subject. If you buy the book for that alone, your money will have been well spent. But don't get the idea that's the only good stuff in there, it's not. This book is uniformly good. 

Regular readers will know that I have issues with the common teaching of three act structure theory. It's not that I oppose the idea, just that it is frequently presented in an unbalanced way, without any mention of other approaches that have been employed successfully in the writing of great movies. Xander's book is not about structural theory, though he does spend four pages outlining three act structure. While everything he says on the subject is great, I'm hoping he expands that section a little in his second edition.

Now some quotes, none of them relating to writing query letters or pitching, because you need to read that stuff in context. There are so many good lines worthy of a mention that I'm struggling to restrict the list.
  • Your screenplay is not about what happens. It's about who it happens to.
  • At every point in the script, the reader should be able to look at a scene and understand exactly what the protagonist stands to gain or lose from that scene.
  • Writing a script without a theme, an ending, and a goal for the protagonist is like attempting to fly by jumping off a cliff and flapping your arms really fast.
  • You need an outline so you can deviate from it.
  • There should be dialog on Page One (or failing that, explosions).
  • Find the "watershed" line in every scene. You know—that one line that twists the situation and turns the conflict in a different direction.
  • If a scene exists just so you can introduce a new character, it's probably a bad scene. Every scene must move the plot forward in some way. 
  • Allowing the audience to know more than the protagonist is best used in Act 1—it's good for dramatic irony, setting up, and building empathy. Allowing the protagonist to know more than the audience is best used in Act 3 to facilitate the final twist or reversal.
The one I'm quoting last was the first one I highlighted. 
  • Chances are good that you know an interesting person or someone who knows someone who knows one. Talk to them. They won't tell you to get lostquite the opposite. Believe me, they will be flattered that you want to know all about their life and work.
I put his advice to the test. I'd "met" Xander when he left a nice comment on this blog back in September 2011. I contacted him and, over a period of time, worked up to asking if he'd do an online interview.  I don't know if he was "flattered," but he did agree.  Look for that in the new year...


Xander Bennett said...

Thanks Henry for a very kind and comprehensive review!

I'm particularly glad to hear you appreciated the index. It just appeared one day during the manuscript process; I assume my publisher hired some sort of professional indexer to do it, and he/she did an incredible job. It blew me away when I saw it.

And for the record, when it comes to books I'm firmly in the dog-ears-and-highlights camp.

Kathy said...

Ouch, one piece of advice resonated with me. Getting to the dialogue on page one. Or having an explosion. Now to rewrite the whole beginning of my current work in progress. Thank you, Henry. I think.

Ed Love said...

I've read his blog for ages, full of excellent advice. How wonderful to learn that his book is even better!

Onto my Xmas list it goes ...