Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Drafts and Crafts

I finished a second draft of THE OX this evening, which I’m hoping to get in good shape by March for the beginning of screenplay contest season. Very pleased with this draft – the first go-round (which I wrote last summer) was a blast to write but a hilarious mess to read. This time I feel I cracked the story, and the work to be done in the coming months will be more along the lines of tightening, tuning, filling holes, and just generally upping the awesome wherever I can. In the meantime, I will reward myself with a bag of my beloved Jalapeno Cheetos. (It’s a problem.)

For the moment, though, a few days of rest are in order, and possibly some development work on the next project. I desperately want to revise an old play of mine – one that I love, but that I have never felt was “finished.”

Anybody out there read Robert McKee’s STORY? I’ve had the text copy of it for a couple of years now, and read it half-heartedly some time back. Recently, with all the attendant adjunct-professor-traveling I have to do, I’ve been listening to the audiobook version, and have really been enjoying it – much more so than I thought that I would. Now, I’ve always loved books on craft. When I was acting, for example, I ate up Stella Adler’s book like it was manna. Mostly because she insisted that acting was an aristocracy, and I wanted to see myself in a fancy suit. As a playwright, I’ve always loved David Mamet’s books (in particular, THE THREE USES OF THE KNIFE, and in less-than-particular, everything else he writes. No one in my grad school program agreed with me.)

Of course, the opposing opinion espoused by a large number of working screenwriters is to disparage books on craft. Craig Mazin recently tweeted: “Screenwriting Tip: Ignore screenwriting tips,” or something like that, which was much more hilarious than Identity Thief. The standard advice given is that the only way to learn is by reading screenplays and writing and making movies, etc. Looking at the big-money industry of screenplay workshops, conventions, that whole shebang, I certainly think that opinion is justified. But there’s a big part of me that feels like – shouldn’t we be doing both? Does it really have to be either/or? It’s certainly appropriate to put great emphasis on industry nuts and bolts. It doesn’t make any sense to be ignorant. But surely we can agree that there are plenty of movies made every year that are just plain lousy, and they get made because some persistent and charismatic people know how to work the system. Good for you, Tommy Wiseau – I mean that. Getting even a lousy movie made is certainly an achievement.

What bothers me is the idea that those who don’t do (Robert McKee, the non-scriptwriting scriptwriting guru) or those who don’t do well (Blake Snyder, author not just of Save the Cat but of Stop Or My Mother Will Shoot) have nothing instructive to offer. Let’s just postulate, for the sake of argument, that there are, in fact, “rules” or “principles” which a good screenplay adheres to. I think that’s a reasonable assumption. And let’s say that the good Working Professional Screenwriters come to understand those principles either through work experience, through intuition, or both, while Good Professional Teachers come to understand those rules or principles through study and introspection, much like a philosopher would. The Working Screenwriter may not be able to communicate those rules well, which is the talent that the Professional Teacher has, while the Professional Teacher excels at communicating them but can’t put them into practice as adeptly as the Working Screenwriter. Neither one of them necessarily has a premium on the truth of the principle simply because of the means through which they access them. Complicating all of this, of course, is that there are so many terrible Working Screenwriters and terrible Professional Teachers.

I just know that, for myself, it’s a matter of balance: study and practice, study and practice, getting out there in the world, and eating more Jalapeno Cheetos. (I told you, it’s  … it’s a problem.)


  1. So, if I want to write a good play, what do I start reading ?

  2. There are a few general storytelling books that I like - John Truby's ANATOMY OF STORY is one of my favorites. As far as the nuts and bolts of playwriting, I like NAKED PLAYWRITING and Jefferey Sweet's book, THE DRAMATIST'S TOOLKIT.