10 Things Every Aspiring Screenwriter Must Read and My Philosophy on Writing.

10 Things Every Aspiring Screenwriter Must Read and My Philosophy on Writing.

10 Things Every Aspiring Screenwriter Must Read and My Philosophy on Writing., blog post by Darius Stevens Wilhere

So you want to be a screenwriter huh?

One question I get asked from time to time is how to get started writing screenplays. There are hundreds of books and thousands of seminars out there on screenwriting and writing. It can be overwhelming to think that you have to read even a fraction of these. And there's this little thing: most of them are not written by people who have had success as a writer or screenwriter. So how valid are they?

I haven't achieved great success yet as a writer either, so take what I say here with a grain of salt and see if it rings true for you. 

The books I think every aspiring screenwriter must read (in no particular order other than #1) are:

1. Stephen King's "On Writing." 

The King is one of the most successful writers in the world and when anyone at that level of the game has advice to offer, you'd do well to listen. And his factual, no bullshit approach is refreshing and entertaining. I have re-read this book or re-listened to the audiobook probably once a year since it was published. And how I wish, Dear Reader, that this had resulted in any of my work approaching any success, let alone his level of success, on anything I've written. But alas, we can't all be Stephen Kings. 

It's available here.

2. William Goldman's "Adventure's in the Screen Trade" & "Which Lie Did I Tell?"

A screenwriter with critical acclaim and commercial success shares his adventures in Hollywood and his approach to the craft. It's fascinating to see a little bit of how one of the best writers in Hollywood came to be and the odd circumstances he had to face as well as some of the most important words of wisdom you will ever hear related to Hollywood and screenwriting. 

You can find it here.

3. Robert McKee "Story" 

This could be controversial. I don't care. Unlike a lot of people I don't consider McKee's method as a formula for success. If it was, he would've written a shit ton of successful movies, which he hasn't. I think excellent teachers help show students form, structure, examples of what has worked and what hasn't and inspire us to find our own way. I think he has many fascinating points on how a well structured story is built and sort of helps refine several thousand years of writing structure into what has become known as the modern three act format. 

More on why McKee is important below. The book can be found here. 

4. Blake Snyder's "Save the Cat." 

Another formula for success in writing book, but one that gained a lot of traction largely thanks to Blake's personality and upfront approach to the business and focus on trying to quantify the blockbuster family formula and congeal the messy business of writing down into something quantifiable and capable of helping creatively bankrupt film executives grasp at strong potential movie concepts. A great book and a great guy and more on why this book is important below. 

5. John Truby's "Anatomy of Story." 

And another formula for good writing approach to screenwriting. I like a lot of his points. Truby has a fascinating approach to writing because it seems that first he kind of insists you understand a bit about life before trying to hammer it out in the pages. Here's the link

6. Any of Syd Field's Books. 

Many people hail Syd as the first of the screenwriting gurus. You can find Screenplay here. And he, similar to McKee, Truby and Snyder gives you different things to focus on when writing your story. But alas he was not the first, for those we must jump to: 

7. Joseph Campbell "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" and Aristotle's "The Poetics" 

Now we're getting hard core. Aristotle's Poetics can be really confusing if you're reading a bad translation, so hunt for one of the good ones in your language. 

Screenplays, lots and lots of screenplays.

Okay, those are the books. But that's not all you should read and in my opinion that theoretical study would be woefully incomplete without studying what I consider to be the main course of your study when learning to write screenplays.

You ready for this? Read screenplays. Yep. Not just one or two. Read hundreds of them. Thousands of them. Think that's hard work? Try being a studio reader, may their souls and their eyeballs rest in peace. 

You can find pretty much any screenplay you want on line, download them and read them. Make it a routine to read at least one screenplay a day and have a folder where you save the ones that really, really impress you.

Read movies that succeeded and think about why they did. What made them so good? What made those characters great? 

And just as importantly read movies that failed. See if you can figure out why they failed. Trust me, no one goes into a movie wanting to make a bad movie. Everyone wants to succeed, so how could it have failed? What did everyone miss?  

Then after you've read at least a couple hundred screenplays go to that folder of what you consider the best screenplays and read them over and over until you understand what makes them tick, what makes them great. 

Eventually you will come to realize that each of the greats do several things: 

1. They take you on a journey (Emotional or Spiritual or Physical)

2. They explore and exploit truths of human nature in a fascinating way. 

3. They teach us something about ourselves and either give us hope for the future or warn us about something to avoid. 

They do plenty of other things, but those three will all be there, regardless of genre, regardless of time period, regardless of any-fucking-thing. Great art always teaches us about ourselves. 

Why Screenwriting Guru's Are Important to Understand

Hollywood is a town that runs on reputation and fear. Fear of failure. People don't want to lose their jobs or their reputation or for that matter they don't want to lose other people's money. They want investors to succeed. So no one wants to make a bomb of a movie and yet every single movie studio executive is constantly faced with green-lighting a potential box office bomb.

So when you have people who maybe are excellent in business but not very creative, they look for mathematical formulas they can rely on to minimize risk. Hence structure in screenplays and formulaic approaches to writing. Hence hiring people who are known for making quality movies. Hence hence hence.  

When you start talking about movies costing hundreds of millions of dollars, that's a lot of studio executives with their heads on the proverbial chopping block. So they all want the magic ticket. The formula that will guarantee success. That's why you see so many rehashes, reboots, sequels and franchises based on comic books or books with already established audiences: safer bets. 

But the truth is that there is only so much risk that you can eliminate before an art form dies. And if Hollywood and the major studios really wanted to preserve or salvage the future of the art form of Hollywood cinema, they would dedicate a percentage of their profits to championing new artists with new visions who deliberately take risks to try and explore the new, the untried, the untested and perhaps open new territories not yet imagined. Studio Canal in France I consider to have a formula for this which should be copied everywhere in the damn world. 

I could go on, but my point is this: Why should you read the books on screenwriting by the top gurus? The answer is simple: Because those are the books studio executives read hoping to figure out how to cherry pick the massive successes out from the minefield of bombs. 

It sucks, but it's true. And that doesn't mean to say that there isn't a lot of great information in those books that will help you write the next great story, it's just a pragmatic fact which you should understand and swallow in all its bitterness. Even if you are one of those people who think they don't need to read the books on the rules: read them dammit.

Otherwise you might have the luck of sitting in a power lunch with a studio executive with the power of greenlighting your film and find yourself having to answer questions about your story in a way that you are wholly, laughably, unprepared for. 

My Philosophy on Writing: "Write as Best You Can and Let History Sort it Out." 

You can follow all the books above to the letter and still write shit. It is possible. Especially since many of those books have conflicting ways of writing. If everyone knew how to write the perfect film, every film would be perfect. But there is plenty of evidence that every film is not perfect. 

But here is what I feel every writer must strive for: tell the truth. We instinctually respond to the truth contained in every great story and every great piece of art. Something about it just rings true to us. Do that. However you must do that, do it and do it excellently. You can't just write blunt truth, you must write it with enough technical excellence that people respond not only to the truth, but the brilliance and flawless nature in which it is delivered. Don't worry about following a formula, just write the best you can and don't stop writing for anything other than to re-write and edit your work. 

And if you don't know what truth is, go out and live some adventures. Get shot at by a Mexican gangster, flee from the Venezuelan army, make love in a dangerous place or maybe even die in a terrible car crash and be resuscitated minutes later. Life is truth. Live it to find it. Then share it through your writing. Share enough truth in an entertaining enough fashion and you will build an audience. 

I remember watching a movie that is often regarded as one of the greatest in all modern cinema and the anniversary blu-ray reloaded deluxe edition included commentary from the writers who were responding to "How did you go about writing one of the greatest movies of all time?" And they responded simply. That they didn't know they were doing that, they were just trying to stay ahead of the crew that was shooting and to stay up with the studio schedule. 

How many films have initially failed only to find a later resurgence hailing them as a classic? As William Goldman so aptly said about Hollywood successes and failures: Nobody knows anything. 

So don't worry too much about trying to hit the beats of a screenwriting guru's formula or write the next greatest film of all time. Just write as best you can and make sure your writing is good enough to inspire people to want to make a movie out of it. 

If nobody wants to make your movie no matter how true it is, then you know you need to write better. 

And there is something else you can do as well to get your screenplays made, but this post has already gone on way too long. So I'll talk about that in my next blog post. 

10 Things Every Aspiring Screenwriter Must Read and My Philosophy on Writing., blog post by Darius Stevens Wilhere

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