30 October, 2015

Book Review: Screenwriting

In our Club Library, we have a range of books which members may borrow to enhance their knowledge of film-making; and, potentially, their actual film production skills.

One of the books in the collection is Story: Substance, structure, style, and the principles of screenwriting  by Robert McKee. Club member, Michael Alley, below presents a review of this particular book:

Robert McKee’s work almost exclusively encompasses many TV series but no major films; yet this book and his three-day story writing course are acclaimed worldwide as the best available, and many well-known films have been written by attendees at his courses.

The book runs to over 460 pages and it could not, by any means, be considered as an easy read. It is full of examples of techniques to help one develop one’s story or progress it when one becomes ‘stuck’. The filmography of quoted examples itself runs to over 30 pages of two line entries.

“Of the total creative effort represented in a finished work, 75% or more of a writer’s labor( sic. . he is an American !) goes into designing (the ?) story. Who are these characters? What do they want? Why do they want it? How do they go about getting it? What stops them? What are the consequences?  Finding the answers to these grand questions and shaping them into (a?) story is our overwhelming creative task.”

The book is divided into four parts each of which has several chapters: The Writer and the Art of Story; The Elements of Story; The Principles of Story Design and The Writer at Work.

He sets out 25 different film genres – most of us would struggle to reach anywhere near that total – then he sets out three levels of conflict which the main character , or protagonist as he calls her/him will exhibit and which we need to enunciate and understand in order to know how our protagonist will react or make decisions at various points in the story – ( heavyweight stuff , this !!) It is the gap between what the protagonist wants and the  achievement he aims for which involves the three levels of conflict. Many gaps are obvious – Lovers will meet – a detective will have suspects to identify and so on;  and so those gaps won’t surprise the audience. It is how the gaps are twisted unexpectedly which will grip the audience and carry it along .  [This is surely a pointer to the editing process – get rid of obvious things which add nothing to the story?]

McKee points out that many ‘turning points’ (see those set out by Snyder below) revolve around choices but – if we have developed our characters properly,  there really are no choices.  The choice they will make is so obvious there is no choice at all. The good guy will do the right thing and the villain won’t !   It is the dilemma of the choice which is more important – the lesser of two evils or a choice between irreconcilable goods.   Again, such points seem obvious when they are brought to our attention by an expert but are often overlooked at our amateur level as we try to write our scripts.

“William Goldman argues that the key to all story endings is to give the audience what it wants, but not the way it expects.”    

Again this truism may seem obvious but when some amateur films do not always fulfil the basics of a recognisable beginning, a middle and an end; let alone the more fulfilling skeleton set out by the equally respected Blake Snyder in ‘Save the Cat’ of:
1. Opening Image
2. Theme Stated
3. Set-Up
4. Catalyst
5. Debate
6. Break into Two
7. B Story
8. Fun and Games
9. Midpoint
10. Bad Guys Close In
11. All Is Lost
12. Dark Night of the Soul
13. Break into Three
14. Finale
15. Final Image

. . .then it is sometimes difficult to believe that even an approximate structure has been followed.

The book is a good but long treatise. If you have the time it is worth reading  (I wouldn’t have the audacity to say otherwise ) but to be honest there are shorter, more concise books on the subject which may be better suited to the amateur level of expertise.

Blake Snyder's books Save the Cat! Strikes Back: More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get into ... & Out of and Save The Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting that You'll Ever Need are also available in the Club Library.