A couple months back, I wrote the following column on the Huffington Post, and it got a surprisingly large number of comments. (Mostly questions.) All the better, my screenwriter friends tended to agree with the sentiments. So, for thems who haven't seen it yet -- or want a refresher course, here it is again.
The most misquoted (and completely misinterpreted) line in literature may well be, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing."
Taken to suggest that smart people should be mistrusted and watched with a protective eye, in fact the true meaning is the direct opposite. The correct... and full... quote by Alexander Pope is:
"A little learning is a dangerous thing; Drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring."
The point being, of course, that if you don't learn enough, you'll miss out on the joys of the universe. The point being, if you mistakenly think you know more than you really do, it can cause serious problems later on. (The fact that most people have learned the quote incorrectly is too delicious an irony proving its case.)
So, what in the world does this have to do with wanting to write a screenplay? Well, pull up a chair close to the radio and listen. It's all about story theory - and other tall stories. After all, to start a screenplay, you need a story. And that's where it all starts at the blank page.
Once upon a time...
The world of story theory is an ancient one -- literally. In fact, among many professional writers, Aristotle's Poetics is considered the bible. You don't get much more ancient than that. Unless maybe you go back to the actual Bible.
If there is a runner-up among "writing bibles" (in case Aristotle is unable to fulfill the obligations of his crown), another might well be The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. There are others, but this is a good starting point.
All professional writers have their own, personal talismans that they swear by for teaching inspiration. The theories are everywhere -- even at the very end of this commentary, where you will be told the best advice on writing you will ever get. (Lesson one: this is known as a teaser.)
Everywhere, indeed. Story theory has even now proliferated to the computer world, witness the software programs that have sprung up to deal with the challenge. Among the most notable are those based on the theories of several popular writing lecturers. But where do these theoreticians fit in with the full spectrum of story theory that exists in the screenwriting world? And is there actual value in such story theorists -- whether in computer or human bean form?
Considering that this is a literary matter, it's comforting to know that some of the best teaching tools are themselves literary -- not just Aristotle and Egri, but a rich field of valuable works. Their value is in their scope: the more books on writing and story theories you read, the better-rounded your own choices have a chance to be.
(One of my own favorites is The Screenwriter Looks at the Screenwriter by William Froug. Oddly enough, this book doesn't tell you how to write. It interviews about a dozen renown screenwriters who talk about how they write and about their careers. Being great storytellers, the book is wildly entertaining. Bill Froug was the chairman of my Masters Thesis committee at UCLA - but know that I don't recommend this book because he was my teacher. It's the other way around. He was my teacher because of this book. I'd been accepted to UCLA and several other grad schools. That's when I stumbled upon this book. It was one of the reasons that happily veered me to the school.)
Happily, better-rounded is always a noble goal. The result is that serious and comprehensive writing programs have sprung up to fill the need with actual, real world teachers (as opposed to gurus or lecturers or grand wizards). Where such institutions were once the sole jurisdiction of Los Angeles, the advent of fax, e-mail and teleconferencing now allows active professionals to migrate and teach in universities and extension classes throughout the country.
(A good pal, Ian Abrams, is an accomplished screenwriter who wrote the film Undercover Blues and co-created the TV series, Early Edition. But he decided he wanted to teach, and is now in Philadelphia, at Drexel University. Similar situations abound. That said, I remain partial to Los Angeles schools since, when learning, there are daily opportunities to intern and learn the business-end first-hand. And you have access in class to writing professionals as associates and guest speakers. So, when you're done, you can have a running start.)
When it comes to teachers, though, probably the oldest (and most valued) tradition among writers is that of the mentor. From the first caveman, the concept of "passing it along" has been a badge of honor to scriveners. No doubt, some Neanderthal named Gork was having trouble getting his story point across with a drawing of a horse, until the older, wiser Montauk walked over and said, "Y'know, if you made that a herd of buffalo, the joke would work much better."
Because there has always been an interest in writing, there has always been a market for someone to try to explain it. Today, these people are often referred to as "gurus," an epithet that has as much meaning as the "Colonel" in Col. Sanders -- an honorary title bestowed to anyone in the state of Kentucky whose name begins with either a consonant or vowel.
To be certain, some professional writers do find value with these writing lecturers -- generally to refresh the skills they already have, not to learn. To those aspiring to write, it's another matter. Let's be honest, after all: reading a book and going to two-day lectures will not make someone a writer, period. If it was that easy, studio executives would hire themselves to do all the scripts.
Do writing lecturers provide a service for aspiring screenwriters? Well, it's an involved answer. And although a good place to start might seem to be "No," in truth, it's not that easy.
The problem with writing lecturers is not in what they teach -- in fact, like all theories of opinion, it's up to the individual to seek out what makes sense to him or her, and there certainly can be much of value. The problem is what results, that these lecturers have taken on the stamp of "guru," and that studio executives sit through a two-day seminar, learn the phrase "Character Arc," hear about plot twists that need to occur by page 20, and then they go back to the office believing that they suddenly know what screenwriting is, and what the template for all their studio's screenplays must be.
Y'know, that whole, "A little learning is a dangerous thing" thing. Hey, you knew I'd eventually get around to it.
(Lesson two: anyone who ever tells you that all screenplays must be a certain way, that the hero must appear by a certain page, that a plot twist must come by a certain page...is blowing smoke up your pants. And is almost certainly not a writer. In Peter Pan, the character of 'Peter Pan' doesn't even arrive for nearly 20 minutes! In The Caine Mutiny, the legendary 'Captain Queeg' - and of the great screen character ever - doesn't come aboard ship for over an half hour. In Sleepless in Seattle, the lovers don't meet until the last five minutes. In Forrest Gump, the hero doesn't change. In the Oscar-winning, Oliver! , Ron Moody got nominated as Best Actor for playing 'Fagin,' who drives the story - but doesn't even enter the movie for 45 minutes. These are, of course, exceptions, and when one is learning, it's best to stay far, far away from exceptions -- but the point is that rules for screenwriting work when they are completely, deeply, viscerally understood...and then given life to breathe and become adapted to fit the specific work.)
The problem, too, with writing lecturers is that people who have no idea how to write, go and pay for a two-day seminar and suddenly think they have now learned how to be a screenwriter. Not only have they likely wasted a great deal of money (which is their god-given right), but they'll go home, turn out heartfelt sludge and clog the already-clogged screenplay pipeline.
Yes, I know this is blunt. And I know that some people right now are rising in anger because they know they will write the next blockbuster, Titanic II, figuring out some way to raise the sunken ship and send it back to England. Well, they won't. Not because they may not have the talent (or they may), but because...Hollywood doesn't work that way. Being a professional screenwriter is really, really, really hard. And not just creatively hard, but hard from a business standpoint, as well. Is it possible to break through? Of course! But those who do, are seriously skilled, deeply trained -- and even more maniacally driven, willing to throw their entire life into the scrum and face the harrowing battle every...freaking...single...day.
This isn't meant to be arrogant or rude or holier than thou. It's meant to be honest. If you're going to play the game, you'd darn well better know the ground rules.
In fact, when you strip away everything on the fringes, at the core of story theory, it is academic how good "gurus" may be at what they teach. It's that they are viewed by executives and aspiring writers as THE answer on what screenwriting is and should be, and that two days will give you Everything You Need to Know. To be honest, this is not remotely all their fault -- although much is, because that's how most tend to market themselves.
People who lecture on story theory absolutely do have a value, make no mistake -- especially a value for those who already have some grasp how to write screenplays. But the importance and influence of such lecturers has grown so far out of proportion to the richness and diversity of writing, that regardless of how noble their intent may be, I think that they have had a very serious negative influence on movies today. When movies and TV shows must all be form-fitted into the same team's uniform, no one wins.
And there, at last, we return to the opening and Alexander Pope: when you have people studying a subject for two days thinking that they've become expert -- a little learning becomes a dangerous thing. Attending a weekend seminar on story theory will no more make one a screenwriting authority than watching a documentary on cold fusion will qualify a person to make an atom bomb. The only similarity is that both will have disastrous results.
So, what is an aspiring writer to do? So many choices, oh-so little time.
Read Aristotle. And attend an extensive writing program or college course. And always, always seek out mentors. But most of all, write. And write some more. And keep writing. Because the best way to learn about writing is by doing it.
You want to go to a seminar and spend a lot of cash money? Fine. Just do it with your eyes wide open, recognizing that what you are getting is the most cursory overview and merest of guidelines, not rules. And know that it won't turn you into Larry Gelbart (though heaven help us, we all try for that. And fail). It won't even turn you into a writer. What it may do is provide you with a lit candle to help lead you through a pitch-dark, raging storm.
And with all that said, here finally is the very best writing advice I was ever given about writing. Ready?
I was told this by the wonderful writer, Jack B. Sowards, who longtime readers will recognize I've written here at length. His credits include Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. And this advice was given to him by the celebrated writer of How the West was Won and Cape Fear, James R. Webb. (See what I meant about writers passing it along?)
One day when Sowards was starting out as a writer, he had a meeting with James Webb, who said to the young man that he was going to give him the absolute best advice about writing there was. Excited, knowing that he was about to get the wisdom of the ages, Sowards took out his pen and made sure he had plenty of paper to keep his notes. He sat up, cocked open his ears and prepared to take down everything.
Webb looked at him. And said only one word: "Finish."
That was it. That's the best advice. You can only have a story when you've finished it. Then, you can go back and make it better. But nothing happens until it's completed.
If at some point you realize the story is no good or just isn't worked, by all means listen to your good sense and stop. But when you're working on a story that's moving forward, don't keep tweaking, going back, rewriting, fixing, changing things, making revisions. That's why God created second drafts. But nothing happens until that first draft is completed.
So write. And for god's sake, finish.
Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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