by Angela Bourassa
In my five years of running LA Screenwriter, I’ve had the opportunity to read all sorts of books and articles on the subject of screenwriting. A lot of the information I’ve absorbed just swirls around in my head when I tackle a new script, but there are a few resources that I routinely go back to in order to check my writing. Those resources are Carson Reeves’ articles on Scriptshadow (for stakes, character development, and concept), Blake Snyder’s beat sheet (for basic structure), and Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat Goes to the Movies (for story-type specific structure).
Today, I add a new resource to the list.
Douglas J. Eboch, scribe of Sweet Home Alabama, has written a book called The Three Stages of Screenwriting, and it deserves a spot on your shelf right between Robert McKee’s Story and Syd Field’s Screenplay.
I used to always recommend that new writers read Story as their first and most important introduction to the craft of screenwriting, but from now on, I’m going to recommend The Three Stages of Screenwriting.
What Doug does so beautifully is break down the entire process of developing an idea, outlining it, writing it, and rewriting it into digestible chunks. The book is structured the same way your writing process should be, and it covers every topic you could possibly want covered under the umbrella of the writing process.
And this book isn’t just a how-to manual for new writers. I’ve written ten feature length scripts and still found myself learning new approaches and insights. The book is full of excellent guidance that every writer, no matter how experienced, can stand to be reminded of from time to time.
Doug’s 6 Questions to Define Your Concept
One of my main frustrations as the head judge of the LA Screenwriter Logline Competition is just how many people send in ideas that are vague or underdeveloped. Of course, loglines are their own beast, and some of these writers may have wonderful stories in their full scripts, but I doubt it. I think the number one absolute biggest mistake that new writers make is writing a concept that is flawed.
That’s why I was thrilled that Doug spends four full chapters on how film stories work, developing your concept, and developing your main character. He breaks the elements of narrative storytelling into five parts: character, dilemma, resolution, stakes, and obstacles. He gives thorough explanations of the importance of each, then tells writers to ask themselves six questions to help them define their concept:
Who is the main character?
Why do we care what happens to the main character?
What does the main character want?
What is the main character going to do to get what they want?
What is at stake for the main character?
What is the primary thing that stands in the way of the main character achieving their goal?
Lists like this are a big part of what make The Three Stages of Screenwriting such a useful guide. These questions help new writers learn the craft, and they give experienced writers a simple checklist to reference any time they start a new project.
Every chapter has practical exercises that are actually practical. Doug won’t ask you to go watch your favorite movie three times in a row – once with your eyes closed, once with the sound off, and once like normal – and take copious notes. While exercises like that can be great learning experiences, who actually takes the time? I mean, honestly – does anyone?
Instead, Doug will ask you to break your story into its three act structure. He’ll ask helpful questions to help you measure the strength of your concept.
Another practical step Doug has taken in his book is to limit his film references to six popular films: Some Like It Hot, The Godfather, E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial, The Matrix, Little Miss Sunshine, and Gravity. You’ve probably already seen most of these movies. If you haven’t seen one or two, you can watch them before diving into this book, and you’ll understand virtually every reference that Doug makes.
The word to describe The Three Stages of Screenwriting is “practical.” This book has real advice for real writers that can be readily incorporated into any writing routine. Doug explains story theory, but he doesn’t dwell on philosophical concepts and impractical exercises that aren’t going to help you sit down and write your story. He helps you get it done, and he helps you get it done right.
Buy this book. I can’t recommend it enough.
Angela Bourassa is the founder and Editor in Chief of LA Screenwriter.