Text Review

 

So You Want To Write a Screenplay?

review by Charlie Strachan

 

Writing Your Screenplay
Lisa Dethridge
Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 2003
ISBN 1 74114 083 8
255 pages, Pb AU$35.00

 

The history of writing books about the art and craft of writing screenplays is almost as old as the history of the film production industry itself. The potential profit to be made from working within the burgeoning industry attracted a great many 'wanna-be' writers. The spawning of a secondary industry, writing and publishing texts about the craft, was inevitable.

I've been collecting titles in the field for the best part of thirty years and have found only a very few useful either as a teacher of screenwriting or in my individual practice as a screenwriter. Most simply regurgitate the same old reductive, formulaic information. Only the buzz phrases change. Worse, most are written in an evangelistic tone that suggests Hollywood, fame and fortune are only a few dot points or stepping stones away. Few acknowledge that the stepping stones aren't laid out in a line, they are stacked on top of each other, forming a bloody great wall against which hopes and aspirations of the budding screenwriter may be casually and brutally dashed.

It was therefore refreshing to read the opening pages of Lisa Dethridge's Writing Your Screenplay and discover a writer who treats both her topic and her reader with respect. The book is aimed at a broad and general readership, but the introduction, indeed the whole book, is carefully designed to make those who think screenplay writing is easy think again.

Specifically, the reader is invited to consider screenplay writing as creative practice. On the final page, Dethridge acknowledges, 'While the technical process of screenwriting can be sketched out in a book like this one, the real learning comes from doing' (239). This is not a 'how to' book, rather it is a workbook or practical guide.

Each chapter is accompanied by a set of practical exercises, none of which can be completed in five minutes. Indeed, these exercises could form the basis of years of creative endeavour. Refreshingly, completion of the exercises won't add up to a screenplay, rather the folio and journal the budding writer is encouraged to build could provide the working documents from which a screenplay may come. That alone makes this book stand out. It suggests that the process of writing a screenplay isn't product-driven, but idea-centred. The reader is encouraged to enter the (potential) world of their characters and story, to dwell within that world and explore it exhaustively. As Dethridge writes, 'This book is designed to nurture your ideas for innovative cinema' (3).

Note the use of the term 'innovative cinema', rather than 'film' or 'movies'. Dethridge acknowledges that the potential screenwriters who may read this book are already influenced and conditioned by diverse narrative and screenstory-telling traditions. They are as likely to want to produce a screenplay that reflects the fragmented, fast-paced story worlds of The Matrix and Run Lola Run as they are to produce a more classically-structured screenstory. Dethridge encourages exploration in approach, but offers the sensible advice that, 'The more familiar the writer is with classic storytelling blueprints, the more likely they are to make successful departures from the norm' (3). Her text is designed to encourage her readers to investigate what kind of screenstory ideas might be most appropriate for them. She also gives strong focus to encouraging the reader to consider how the industry and potential audience might respond to a story idea. She makes it clear that while the process of screenwriting is in pursuit of production and exhibition, the process itself is a journey of creative and personal research. The focus is clearly on the personal development of the artist who feels they have something to share with an audience. The first two dot points (there had to be dot points) set the tone for the whole:

  • What do you hope to achieve by writing for the screen?
  • What do you hope to explore and understand as part of your research for the project? (6)

The opening chapter is a fine introduction to the delicate balancing act the screenwriter must perform to meet demands of art, industry, market and audience. It also looks at the basics of what makes for a good screenstory. Experienced screenwriters and teachers won't find much that's new here, but the exercises at the end of the chapter should prove valuable whatever level of experience the reader has.

Dethridge's second chapter has the sub-title, 'Know the rules before you start to break them' (40). Good advice, but so often this is where my heart begins to sink. Dot points are on the horizon. There are surprisingly few on show here. Instead, Dethridge offers an accessible and understandable overview of the screenplay as, 'a coded set of instructions that has a highly specific technical function' (43). I want my students to read this. The reader is also introduced to the 'Four Ps' (47). In my experience initialised lists usually herald the beginning of the buzz phrases, but again Dethridge avoids jargon. The Ps turn out to be those old favourites: protagonist; dramatic problem; plot; and premise. The terms are briefly defined and the rest of the book is essentially an exposition of their collective interrelationship, importance and complexity.

The following chapter on the psychology of the protagonist is familiar fare, but that is followed by two chapters that place focus on issues of time. These are the chapters I particularly want my students to read. I devote a good deal of my lecture and tutorial time to discussing how the ability to manage and manipulate Time is fundamental to the screenwriter's art and craft. Dethridge devotes some forty pages to a thorough examination of time as a basic issue in planning the chronology of a screenstory plot. Definitions of two separate, but indivisible time frames are offered, 'the time of the tale and the time of the telling' (79), then focus is placed on the multiple challenges the screenwriter faces when planning the arrangement of on-screen events.

What I found most interesting in this section was that Dethridge manages to make references to both Aristotle and The Matrix accessible and relevant to a contemporary readership, who may not have heard of one and who may think the other is easy to reproduce. Her ability to relate discussions of ancient traditions and conventions of storytelling to contemporary screen practice is enviable. Discussions of Aristotle, Joseph Cambell, Joseph Egri and Robert McKee stand alongside discussions of the premises and story structures of Sunset Boulevard, Breakfast at Tiffany's, Psycho, Basic Instinct, Thelma and Louise, The Matrix, Run Lola Run, Pulp Fiction, and Sliding Doors.

Readers are encouraged to 'get to know the conventions that govern the unfolding of screen chronology and then exploit them or subvert them as you will' (119). Dethridge then places focus on the traditional three-act structure. Here she gives due credit to writers of other 'practical guides', Syd Field (The Screenwriter's Workbook, Dell Books, New York, 1984) and Linda Seger (Making a Good Script Great, Samuel French, Los Angeles, 1994) who have attempted 'to identify patterns and paradigms in the structure of the three act screenplay' (128). (It may be worth noting that the former has as an outcome a completed first draft screenplay, the latter is most useful if employed in the process of rewriting.) There is also an extended discussion of Christopher Vogler's contribution to the field (The Writer's Journey: Mythic structure for storytellers and screenwriters, Pan MacMillan, London, 1999). In essence, the second half of the book represents a comprehensive overview of thought regarding the traditional three-act structure.

Admittedly, there is no reference to Ken Dancynger and Jeff Rush's work in the area (Alternative Scriptwriting: writing beyond the rules, Focal Press/Butterworth-Heinemann, Boston, 1995), and I think that's a shame because I believe they have a great deal to offer those interested in innovative contemporary practice. There are other shortcomings. Dethridge makes reference to the fact that the information she offers applies to both short and feature films, but there is little focus on the writing of the short film, the area where most new screenwriters devote their energies. I also feel that while this book encourages the reading of screenplays and the keeping of a logbook of the screenplays read, it actually contains very few screenplay extracts. A few more, particularly in the chapter on dialogue and characterisation, would have been a useful addition.

Perhaps the scarcity of extracts has something to do with the fact that much of the material in this book forms part of the on-line course in Screenwriting run by the Australian Film, TV and Radio School (www.AFTRS.edu.au). On the basis of what I've read here, the course is certainly worth a look.

There is no substitute in the teaching of screenwriting for individual supervision and guidance from an experienced practitioner, but as an introductory text and overview Writing Your Screenplay stands out. Lisa Dethridge holds a PhD in Media Ecology from New York University and has extensive experience in both the USA and Australia teaching media/communications and as a writer and script editor for the screen. That experience shows. I will be recommending this book to students and colleagues.

 

 

Charlie Strachan is a Senior Lecturer in Screenwriting in the School of Film, Media and Cultural Studies at Griffith University.

 

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TEXT
Vol 8 No 1 April 2004
http://www.griffith.edu.au/school/art/text/
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady
Text@griffith.edu.au