Book Review: Screenplay Form and Structure

I was recently asked to review a new screenwriting book that will hit the shelves (digital and otherwise) in August, 2012. The book, Screenplay Form and Structure, is composed of posts taken from a private online forum discussing such concepts as audience bonding, the proper use of scene cards, and marketing strategies.

The book is edited by Alan von Altendorf and built out of posts from over a dozen contributors, some of whom are clearly students of screenwriting looking for their first big break and others who seem to have years of experience in the industry, though none of the main contributors have IMDB pages — not a great sign. I decided to give the book’s contributors the benefit of the doubt, because (1) options and uncredited rewrites don’t show up on IMDB and (2) you don’t have to be an outwardly successful screenwriter in order to be an excellent teacher. Just look at Robert McKee and Syd Field.

Screenplay Form and Structure has a scattering of useful tidbits and ideas, but overall the book is, ironically, lacking in useful structure. The forum format translates to conversational entries that can build upon each other, but too often includes page after page of contributors building up each other’s egos without providing the reader with any sort of useful instruction. Quite often throughout the text the contributors disagree with each other or fail to understand each other’s points. These conflicts sometimes lead to further elucidation on a topic, but more often than not made me wish the editor had picked up his red pen much more often when collecting these posts into a teaching text.

The book is certainly very different from other screenwriting texts I have read, and the unique discussion format makes for an original read that, while sometimes frustrating, does occasionally produce a tidbit of excellent writing advice. In my experience most screenwriting books are 80-90% repetition of one another — the basic principles of screenwriting are pretty much set, after all — so the value of new books, once you’re secure in the basics of screenwriting, is really in that last 10-20% — the pages that include unique exercises, ideas, methods, and tips that speak to the reader and have the potential to lead to a lightning-strike moment of creativity.

Screenplay Form and Structure has a few of these moments tucked away within its conversations. For example, on the topic of composing a first draft one of the contributors, Lucy Sogoian commented that she finds it helpful to think of her first draft as the “Creation Draft” and to start doing the work of “writing” in the second draft. In other words, getting your thoughts down on paper comes first and foremost — you can make it sensible and organized later. I think Hemingway says it best: “The first draft of anything is shit.” Accept this, create, and move forward.

Another comment that stood out to me was an exercise suggested by Alan von Altendorf, the book’s editor. He wrote:

I think the right way to see a film objectively is to play it twice. Screen about 10 minutes without sound and see the movie. Rewind, turn the picture off and audition that same 10 minutes with sound only. Now you’re ready to study the whole movie, aware of its visual “film form” and the aural/verbal “play” as distinct elements.

This exercise is genius. Occasional pearls like this make Screenplay Form and Structure a worthwhile read for serious screenwriting students, but a much lower priority than more comprehensive and organized screenwriting guides such as McKee’s Story and Snyder’s Save the Cat.

Screenplay Form and Structure will be available in paperback from in the first week of August and on Kindle a few weeks later.

(ISBN 978-1477644782)

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