Monday 11 June 2012

Book review: "Bill Idelson's Writing Class"

Bill Idelson's Writing Class was recommended to me by Brian McDonald. It is one of those books you stumble across and wish you'd found years earlier. If I were suggesting a hierarchy of screenwriting books for beginners to read, I'd place this at the top of the list. 

Bill Idelson worked in television, writing shows such as The Twilight Zone, The Dick Van Dyke Show, The Flintstones, The Andy Griffith Show, Get Smart, Bewitched, Gomer Pyle, Love American Style, The Odd Couple, The Bob Newhart Show, Happy Days, The Betty White Show, M*A*S*H and others. 

He was also a television actor, appearing in many of the shows he wrote. His last role was on The War at Home, in a 2007 episode called "No Weddings and a Funeral," a few months before he died at the age of 88. 

Bill Idelson's Writing Class
is a small book, 179 pages (including the full scripts for an episode each of Get Smart and The Andy Griffith Show). The Writing Class proper is barely 70 pages. But the ideas contained in them hold basics of story-telling that many of the hefty books never get around to. Each chapter ends with a writing exercise. Do the exercises before reading on. They will open your eyes to the secrets of story-telling. 

Before it was a book, the Writing Class was an actual writing class that met at Bill Idelson's home, in his kitchen, seated at a pine table that had once belonged to Humphrey Bogart. I don't know if the table helped, but many of his students went on to become successful writers in Hollywood.

Here are a few quotes to give you a feel for the man's style.

  • If you want to sell your product and make a lot of money, it's got to have a story. It almost seems too simple, doesn't it? But it's true.
  • The cardinal rule is ... no story, no money. You need a story that makes the juices flow. Something's got to stir. You've got to feel amused, or sad, or frightened, horrified, disgusted, turned on ... sexually. 
  • Everyone reacts pretty much the same. It's called "group behavior," and is important to a writer. It's what makes hits and flops. If you watch an audience during an emotional scene, you'll see the handkerchiefs all come out at the same time. People are very much the same. They have the same sorts of organs: heart, stomach, nerve endings, entrails, etc. It's what makes it possible to transfer a human heart to another human. It makes it possible to evaluate a script or a performance. It makes Oscars. 
  • When I tell students that hardly anybody knows what a story is, not even professional writers in Hollywood, they look at me as if I'm daft. How could people who make a living telling stories not know what a story is? Well, in my experience, most professional writers tell stories by the seat of their pants. They know what it feels like to have a story when they're writing. And they know what it feels like when they have no story or a weak story. But most of them couldn't explain what a story is if their lives depended on it. Oh, they'll give explanations of what a story is, but it won't help anybody write a story, and few of them use their own definition when they write.
  • So I ask the class: What is a story?
    "It has a beginning, a middle and an end."
    Always the first answer. And I tell them what Mel Brooks said when they told him that. "So has a piece of shit."
  • You need three elements to tell a story. The hero—(who) does not need to be heroic. He can be a crook, a shyster, a con-man, a mobster, anything, just so long as he wants something and the audience empathizes with him. His goal. And the obstacle
  • The story is the struggle to get what you want.
  • You want something: a girl, a guy, a raise, and there's an obstacle: the girl, the guy, the boss. 
  • The story is the struggle; the more difficult the struggle, the stronger the story. 
  • How do you make it more difficult? Well, it's the irresistible force against the immovable object. The hero has got to desire the object a lot. The obstacle has got to be unyielding. The audience has got to believe there is no solution. If you can make them believe that, they'll be on the edge of their seats. The hero cannot give up. The obstacle cannot give up. The longer the impasse the longer the audience will pay attention. The minute one side surrenders, the story is over. The story is the struggle.
  • When does a story start? When all three of the ingredients are established: The hero, goal and obstacle. When all three of those are known, the story starts.
  • The writer must not avoid conflict.
  • There's no limit to the lengths a beginning writer will go to avoid conflict. The easy way out. Don't do it. Intensify the conflict if you want to make a living.
  • Every person wants something every moment of his life, from the instant he's born to the minute he dies.
  • Everybody wants what is in their own best interest.
  • If everybody wants what is in his own best interest, what happens when people get together? A clash of interests. Conflict!
  • There are only two ways to get what we want. Your Final Draft software indicates what they are. Two settings: Action and Dialogue. In primitive times and places, such as the old west, action was the key, or at least that's what we're led to believe. But in our civilization, dialogue is used more. There is no more fascinating and complex a subject than dialogue. It's a subject for a lifetime study, and it better be a long life.
  • Good dialogue is spoken by the character, generally to another character, and makes the audience believe what they are watching is really happening. It makes audience's juices flow and holds their attention and puts money in the writer's pocket.
  • I believe that storytelling is kind of a natural thing. All of us, from an early age, were pretty good at telling stories, true or false. And we never worried about construction (read 'structure'). It always seemed a simple thing to tell a story that was interesting. The main thing was that if the story was interesting to us, it would probably be interesting to other people.
  • If you read the rich writing teacher's How-to books and believe that on page thirty you must establish the determining moment, and on page sixty accomplish the character change, your story might become just the wee bit mechanical, nest ce pas? Maybe that's why these writing gurus never make much money writing creatively.
  • The rich construction (structure) experts are not so much instructors as critics. They take a successful movie and dissect what the successful writer did. They remind me of wannabe painters who move a canvas chair into the museum and copy the brush strokes of Whistler's Mother. I only mention these charlatans to save student's time and money.

Here is the Bill Idelson story.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

Bill Idelson seems like one of the most experienced screenwriters to write a book. To think that he acted as well! He comes across as a very likeable guy, one that can laugh at himself. That book sounds like a keeper.