Recently, for some reason or another, there has been a backlash against screenwriting books. The reason for this, it seems, is that semi-professional (i.e. writers who have been around the industry and have gotten generally good reviews of their work but for some reason have yet to be optioned) and professional writers dislike the homogeny of the scripts from those amateurs who follow the teachings of people like Dave Trottier (writer of The Screenwriters Bible, which I reviewed here) and Blake Snyder, author of the hugely popular Save the Cat series.
The problem, they allege, is that the beat-by-beat structures these books preach are limiting to writers and result in work that is largely the same and uninteresting. A bigger issue many writers are taking with so-called “screenwriting gurus” is that many of them have never worked in Hollywood or, if they have, didn’t meet with much success.
Now, as an amateur writer my opinion probably isn’t very valid. But, as an amateur writer, I’ve found that screenwriting books are a good resource for learning the craft. Are they the be-all end-all to story and structure? Of course not. Are they being touted as such? Sometimes. Should those who are touting them as such maybe lay off a bit? Yes.
However, there seems to be a blind hatred in the screenwriting community of screenwriting books. They’re considered more harm than good and, worse it seems, a rip-off. Having read several of these books I don’t wholly agree. I’ve learned something new about how to maybe approach screenwriting with each book I’ve read. Dave Trottier is a great general source for formatting and a basic understanding of three-act structure (which, like it or not, is the most used source of structure in screenwriting). I still consult it if I’m confused about how to format something or I need a way to break out of a slump. I stole my character grid directly from that book.
But I don’t follow it as gospel and I think that’s the problem other writers are fighting against. Books like that, especially for a beginning screenwriter, should be nothing more than a guide while each writer figures out his or her own best way to write. And each story will decide on its own structure. Granted can easily be broken into five acts. The Time Bubble was very deliberately three with a peak during the second. The Inhabitors was designed as a three-act story like The Time Bubble, but I eventually threw out the entire outline and let the characters guide me.
I’ll admit, there are way too many screenwriting books out there that regurgitate the same information over and over. But someone who is looking to buy a screenwriting book as a guide should be aware of that and act accordingly. I’ve found that, like most things in life, if you’re careful and do your homework you’re less likely to be taken advantage of.
The argument that these “gurus” don’t have the necessary experience to speak on the subject is valid but irrelevant, I think. Most of the books and websites I’ve read on the subject boast authors who have given Hollywood a fair shot and either met with middling success or failed and turned to teaching. That, to me, is no different than most other skilled professions in life. Isn’t that where the adage, “Those who can’t, teach” comes from? I doubt even the most ignorant of screenwriting how-to authors can do serious damage to a skeptical reader. Regardless, the basic information doesn’t change.
Screenplays should be in Courier 12. They should all generally look a certain way with certain formatting. The way to get and agent/manager or a producer to look at your script is to A.) write something damn good and B.) put it out there through query letters, contests, or a mixture of both. In other words, this isn’t rocket science. If the information you’re getting is the same in all of these books, does it matter which book you’re getting it from?
Of course, I’m ignoring some central issues here. There are some scam artists out there that will charge you for their help without having the expertise or connections necessary to do so. These books do tend to focus too much on telling the aspiring screenwriter in an authoritative voice, “This is how it’s done.” That’s wrong. You shouldn’t have to pay out the ass for help and there is no one way to do anything, let alone write (which, as we’ve covered, is subjective).
The only valid advice I can offer on this topic is to be careful. Be skeptical. Learn the necessary lessons but apply them in your own way. In other words, use common sense.