Monday 1 October 2012

Book review: Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade

I remember reading Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade by William Froug for the first time years ago, and quoting part of it at a screenwriter's meeting. It was the first book I'd come across which explicitly highlighted the failures of the Three-Act Theory, and I was delighted. Rereading it now, I'm more impressed than ever. 

William Froug is an Emmy award-winning American television writer and producer. Shows he worked on include: The Twilight Zone, Gilligan's Island, Bewitched, The Dick Powell Show, Charlie's Angels, and The New Twilight Zone.

He has also written numerous books on screenwriting, including Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade, Zen and the Art of Screenwriting (I and II), The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter and How I Escaped from Gilligan's Island.

This is a book worth buying, reading and rereading. What follows are some selected quotes:
  • My method is simple. See movies, as many as possible, and take from each one the important lessons that each has to offer.
  • I never see a film without analyzing the story structure, the core conflict, the line of action and counter-action, the opening signal, the theme, the protagonist, the antagonist, and so on.
  • Some screenwriters will think about a story for years before committing it to paper.
  • If you can write one really terrific scene per day, you are doing very well, indeed. Sometimes a single scene will take several days to work out properly.
  • Don't place yourself on self-imposed deadlines.
  • The secret of success as a screenwriter is simple: Keep the seat of your pants to the seat of your chair.
  • Work out as many of the story problems that you can before you begin to write. Otherwise, you might very well fall into the writer's worst trap, writing in circles...
  • A dramatic story is any series of events having vivid, emotional, conflicting, striking interest or results.
  • It doesn't matter one bit how often your story has been told before; you must retell it better, with a fresh and different approach. If you can do that, your story will seem like the newest idea ever presented.
  • When you tell an old story in a new way, it becomes a new story.
  • Old stories never die, they often merely improve with the retelling.
  • Character is story and story is character; they are each by-products of the other.
  • I have found character to be the single best story-source for drama.
  • The most popular game in Hollywood is recycling. Hardly a meeting goes on without beginning or diverting into discussions of what qualities previous movies had that made them winners.
  • If you hope to participate in these professional story conferences, you'd damn well better be film literate.
  • In order to create viable art that will hold someone's attention, you must have dramatic tension. Which, in screenwriting, is created by a line of action and opposing forces.
  • Tension = Attention.
  • Great screenplays have a single line of action and equally powerful opposing forces. 
  • Your protagonist does not have to be likeable.
  • What you must create is a protagonist who is fascinating, compelling, interesting, and understandable. 
  • Scorsese is often called "America's greatest director" on the strength of a body of work in which all the characters in his movies are various degrees of wicked and miserable people. 
  • Watching villainy lets people vent their rage in a harmless way.
  • Unless the threat is deadly serious, it's a joke and your protagonist will be ridiculed.
  • Try to avoid static locations such as offices, hotel rooms, park benches— any place where you are apt to have two or more characters sitting around talking to each other.
  • If, on the other hand, the scene must be played in a room, make certain it has a strong emotional dynamic, that something important is being talked about, and that there is tension or conflict between the talkers.
  • What works best in scenes is what works best in stories—a strong element of surprise.
  • In building your scene, do not tell us where we have been or where we are going next.
  • Avoid entrances and exits.
  • Scenes will play and write better if each character in your scene has a single goal or purpose for this particular scene.
  • Every character must have an attitude to make the scene play.
  • Look for the subtext in every scene—what's really going on as opposed to what appears to be going on.
  • Creating new and fresh scenes is one of the most important aspects of becoming a successful screenwriter. For this reason, I have lost my infatuation with Syd Field's paradigm.
  • If you like formulas, buy Syd's book Screenplay. It will help some writers and hinder others.
  • I know Syd Field and respect him; we served on the Writers Guild Academic Liaison Committee together, and I think his contribution to understanding story structure is an important one. But, like all formulas, his tends to wear itself out with repeated use.
  • The great American movies usually defy formula writing.
  • I attended a seminar on "Film & Literature." One of the panelists remarked, surprisingly, that all movies are told in three acts, to which fellow-panelist screenwriter William Goldman remarked wryly, "Really, I didn't know that."
  • The reality is that there are no clearly defined "Acts" in screenplays. An "Act" is whatever you choose to say it is.
  • When you structure your movie, there is no one-size-fits-all.
  • Modern moviegoers are annoyed when you show or tell them something they have already figured out for themselves. Trust your audiences; they are not as dumb as the cynics would have you believe.
  • An outline might be helpful but most certainly is not necessary for all screenwriters. Again, no one-size-fits-all guideline applies.
  • The best way to tell your story is the way the story itself dictates. Do not try to contort it into a predetermined form.
  • The idea that all screenplays are written in three "acts" is nonsense. The truth is many screenplays use five acts, six acts, two acts, or any number of large, developmental story sections. 
  • Avoid rigidity, it is the death of creativity.
  • It is helpful to know your theme before you begin to write, though it is not absolutely necessary, but you had better know it before you finish the screenplay.
  • A theme is simply a proposition leading to a conclusion.
  • Some call the theme a premise or a thesis. It does not matter what you call it, but you cannot write an outstanding screenplay without knowing what it is about. 
  • Many screenwriters complete their screenplays without ever knowing what they're about. The result is, almost invariably, an empty and unsuccessful piece of work.
  • There is more than one theme in a good movie; there are often many minor themes running concurrently, but there is only one major theme.
  • Frank Pierson told an important story about the need to find the theme or "take" on your protagonist before you write your screenplay. Frank had accepted a contract to write what he later titled Dog Day Afternoon, but he simply could not figure out what his protagonist was all about. He finally decided (the Al Pacino character) was a man trying to make everybody happy in all circumstances. 
  • The theme of this excellent movie is, If you try to please all the people all the time, you are doomed to failure.
  • One minute per page is average playing time for a movie. However, this can vary as much as twenty or thirty minutes for a two hour film, depending on the pace of the director.
  • A story must be underway on page one; something is happening or about to happen.
  • You do not need to set up your protagonist; your protagonist must "set up" himself or herself by his or her behavior and by the circumstances in which we discover him or her. Nothing more needs to be said.
  • Actors can say more with an exchange of glances than all your wordiness can convey. Trust the actors. I do not mean you should trust them as writers—far from it. Trust them to deliver much more than you ever expected from their first performance. Like it or not, if you are determined to be a dramatist, actors will be your lifetime collaborators.
  • What your audience does not know but wants to know is an excellent device to hold their attention.
  • The way people actually talk to each other and movie dialogue have nothing in common. Your job as a dramatist is to create the illusion of real dialogue. It is easy only if you work very hard at it, edit yourself carefully, rewrite it endlessly, polish it, until the characters say only what must be said and nothing else.
  • Write what you truly believe in, what excites you, what you care about—the kind of movie you would pay money to see. That's the formula.

1 comment:

Kathy said...

I always look forward to your book reviews, Henry, it is your fault I own screenwriting books I haven't even opened yet. This one sounds very down to earth and realistic. What credentials this writer has! (Much better than a more famous writer of screenwriter books who wrote a big fat book and didn't always give credit for other people's ideas.)