Over the past few months I’ve been watching a shift play out in the world of aspiring screenwriters. A new set of gurus are challenging the old guard, generating a discussion about the true nature of what it takes to become an effective story teller.
Used to be that if you wanted to learn about the ins and outs of writing for Film and TV, outside of the usual academic routes, your best options lay in books and seminars of instructors like Syd Field, Michael Hague, and Robert McKee. I have a great amount of respect for these guys and very much enjoyed reading and learning from their books, but they all share one common aspect with many college professors, and that is they don’t actually work in the industry as screenwriters. Does that prevent them from being good instructors? Not if you ask me, but if you happen to pose the same question to Brian Koppelman, the scribe behind such movies as Rounders, The Knockaround Guys and Runaway Jury, his six second answer comes down to this:
(Click on upper right for sound / mute.)
This Vine clip by Koppelman was the first of his fascinating and addictive Six Second Screenwriting Lessons series, which, is now up to over a 190 clips as of this post. Drawing from his experience as a working scribe, Koppelman has used these Vine bits to come out strongly against what he calls “the Screenwriting Instruction Industrial Complex,” by which he means the instructors mentioned above.
He is not alone, fellow writers John August and Craig Mazin, hosts of the Scriptnotes podcast have taken a similar tone when asked repeatedly about what books they would recommend for beginning writers. Mazin has compared the authors of “how-to” books to “reverse engineers” who never managed to actually build a house.
The point Koppelman and the Scriptnotes guys are making is a good one. They speak from the experience of having achieved a mastery of storytelling along with success in the industry. Their understanding of the process is that of someone who is way past their Gladwellian “10,000 hours” of practice. In the case of Koppelman, many of his Vine clips actually are aimed at the very necessity of persistent work over a period of time in order to master the craft, and I could not agree with him more.
In an inevitable fashion, these guys are now becoming the new gurus for the digital age of writing. I predict that “Brian Koppelman says” will soon be the new “Robert McKee says.”
So, where does the truth lie for a beginning screenwriter today? Should we just recycle our collection of Syd Field classics and binge listen to Scriptnotes episodes? I would say “no” to the first part and a definite “YES” to the second.
The truth is, I don’t know if the treasure chest of Koppelman’s advice would make as much sense to me if I had not approached them with at least a basic knowledge of the craft. In other words, to reach the level of understanding why “all screenwriting books are bullshit,” I think you need to have read a few of them, and you need to have practiced the craft for a while to understand which parts of them you can throw away. This is of course highly subjective because I’m going with my particular experience of learning and writing over many years, and the actual level to which I have perfected this craft is still up for debate — at least according to some of the IMDB commenters on my movie. But I think I did get to discover first hand about how many aspects of the craft cannot be learned from a “how-to” book and rather have to be understood via doing the work itself — and “by doing the work,” I mean, writing, getting feedback, rewriting, reading good scripts, reading bad scripts, watching films, and writing more.
To me, that work also included reading Field, Hauge and McKee among others. Are they all bullshit? Individually, perhaps they are, but collectively, through the various concepts and different principles under which they break down the craft I think they can offer the right tools to get started. And here I’m talking “Tools not Rules,” which is the mantra introduced to me by the Go into the Story blog, another great resource.
But it is certainly true that beyond the basics, the best advanced knowledge out there comes from the blogs, podcasts and Vines of working writers who share their thoughts as a means of pursuing their passion and not as an income source.
A great and seldom mentioned example is Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio’s Wordplay Columns, a series of essays that add up to a master course in screenwriting from the guys who penned National Treasure, Shrek, and Pirates of the Caribbean, among many other films. Their site doesn’t allow direct links, so you’ll just have to do the old copy and paste thing: http://www.wordplayer.com You’ll be glad you did!
With all these different sources of knowledge just a click away, it’s a fascinating time to be a writer, assuming one can turn off their Twitter feed and iPod long enough to actually get some writing done.