The Key to Better Writing? Study Screenwriting!

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I feel obliged to preface this short piece with a disclaimer: I am no expert.

On the other hand, I’m not sure anybody is. Three words you often hear in Hollywood—and I’ve heard them myself—are: “Nobody knows anything.” You hear it from producers, you hear it from directors, you hear it from agents. (I’m told you also hear it from actors, but I’ve only met two A-listers in my life, and I didn’t hear it from either of them.) But it does seem strange to me that such a phrase is so commonly repeated in a town that nevertheless manages to release an average of 250 feature films every year.


Column by Douglas Schofieldauthor of TIME OF DEPARTURE
(Dec. 2015, Minotaur Books). Douglas dabbled in creative writing for
many years before the publication of his first novel FLIGHT RISKS
(August 2010, Hirst Publishing) and has also written a number of

screenplays, one of which was the inspiration for TIME OF DEPARTURE. 
Douglas and his wife Melody live on Grand Cayman, along with their most
excellent and amazing talking cat, Juno, who kindly permits them to share
his home. Connect with him on Facebook

Maybe it’s the same in publishing. Novels are rejected over and over again, only to become runaway bestsellers. Novels are accepted on first submission, and launched with great ballyhoo, only to sink without a ripple. One would be forgiven for wondering whether, in the world of fiction publishing, like film making, nobody knows anything.

Until someone does, of course, and publishes your novel.

But I digress.

As I was saying, I’m no expert. With just three novels behind me, and only one, my most recent, published by a major house (TIME OF DEPARTURE — Minotaur Books), I am not necessarily a qualified soothsayer when it comes to “Five Ways to Intrigue an Agent,” or “Six Ways to Dazzle an Editor.” But there is one thing I believe I am qualified to discuss: The intrinsic value of a screenwriting course.

If you are an aspiring novelist, or a published novelist striving (as we all should) to improve your craft, enroll in a screenwriting course!

(Want to write a screenplay? Start with these tips.)

I’m not here to promote one particular course over another, but since I have only taken the one offered by Hollywood legend Robert McKee, that is the one I will name. There are others, dozens of others, and many of them are no doubt of high quality. Some are online; some require class attendance; some are short; some are long. Comb the Internet. Do your research. Pick a course, and sign up.

“Why screenwriting?” you ask.

I can only speak about Bob McKee’s course.

You will learn things you perhaps never considered about what McKee describes as “story design.” You will learn how to structure a story so that it can be told at different levels—as personal conflict; as social conflict; as physical conflict.

Remembering that the key to readable fiction, whether it be a novel or a screenplay, is to keep the story moving forward, you will learn how to construct your story as a series of events from your characters’ lives, so that every event is a scene, and every scene shows meaningful change, and every meaningful change is expressed in terms of a value. Values, as McKee says, are those qualities of human experience that can move from positive to negative, or (less commonly, if we are cynical), from negative to positive.

Positive value / Negative value: love/hate; rich/poor; hope/despair; legal/illegal . . . life/death. The list may not be infinite, but you can see infinity from there.

You will learn about classic story design, about minimalist story design, about anti-structure design—all providing levels of understanding essential to the successful novelist. You will learn how to create characters that are unique, credible, and intriguing. How to relate your characters to the controlling idea of the story. How to take that controlling idea and wrap it in a powerful climax that leaves the reader thinking about an essential truth of human existence.

And here is the bonus: On top of all this, and much more that I don’t have the space to expand upon here, you will come away with a wealth of insight on how to write readable, and credible, dialogue. Because . . . what is a screenplay? It is a story told from start to finish in 120 double- and triple-spaced pages, and it is eighty percentdialogue. The ability to write convincing dialogue is the central skill required of a screenwriter. So why not learn from the very people who teach them their craft?

(Ever want to adapt your novel/memoir into a screenplay? Here are 7 tips.)

To summarize, a comprehensive screenwriting course will teach:

1. Story structure. You will learn the basic architecture of human storytelling—knowledge that goes back, at least, to the ancient Greeks.

2. Economy of language. We are not living in the nineteenth century, and the classic writing style of Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Charlotte Bronte, Mary Shelley et al, while admired as great literature, offers no appeal for the modern fiction reader. Successful modern fiction requires a nimble style that will pull the reader along, allowing his or her imagination to fill in the descriptive blanks.

3. How to write dialogue. Well-written dialogue must be credible, real, and infused with the subtexts that are so common in life—for how often does modern everyday speech baldly and plainly reveal true inner thoughts and feelings?

Don’t delay. Enroll now.


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