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Which Screenplay Guru Books To Read?

Here are 8 popular, and academically-cited screenplay manuals:

  • Screenplay by Syd Field
  • Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger
  • The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
  • Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hauge
  • The Megahit Movies by Richard Stefanik
  • Story by Robert McKee
  • The Anatomy of Story by John Truby
  • Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder

The best advice to the aspiring – and established – screenwriter would be to definitely read all of the Screenwriting “Guru” Manuals. (Field, Seger, McKee, etc. They all have much useful information, for any screenwriter.)

Also here is a free summary (literature review) I did, of 100 popular screenwriting/film story texts.

Feature Screenwriters Wkbk cover

The Feature Screenwriters Workbook (Velikovsky 2011)

The Backstory to this text:

While studying a postgraduate Screenwriting course at film school for 2 years, as a research project, I read the 100 most popular books on Screenwriting – and summarized them into 1 page each. I recommend reading the summary first – and then reading as many of the original texts as possible. (Reading 100 of them closely, took me about a year. It is worth taking the time to absorb the Domain of Screenwriting Theory like this, and in fact is possibly essential, in order to make a creative contribution to the Screenwriting Domain.)

All these popular “screenplay guru” texts (and in 2012 there are now over 2500 texts on Screenwriting, on Amazon.com) also compose much of the current “screenwriting convention”, therefore – as a screenwriter / filmmaker it is crucial to be aware of these texts, and all of the screenplay principles they prescribe.

(Although it could be argued that – the existing `convention’ in itself is deeply problematic, as: 7 in 10 films currently lose money.)

However – note that – the only work listed above that does not use an unempirical / self-selected sample of scripts for screenplay study/research purposes is: Michael Stefanik’s The Megahit Movies. (Stefanik does use an empirical data set: movies that made over $250m at the US domestic box office.) However – this is likely problematic also – those films are all written by highly experienced and credited screenwriters, and it is worth noting also that – all the “Megahit Movies” are not-particularly-high-ROI films – as they all have very high budgets...

Also therefore, we should note: the expensive Production Budgets of all those `Megahit Movies’ are well out of the reach of an Early- or Mid-Career Screenwriter – and indeed, none of them were written by Early- or Mid-career screenwriters… They are big-budget studio extravaganzas. New writers are not involved in these projects.

That is in fact, the key Point Of Difference of this study/research, to the other Screenwriting Instructional Manuals – namely, empiricism:

The Film ROI (return on investment) bell curve

The empirical study data set – the Top and Bottom 20 Films of: The Film ROI (return on investment) Gaussian bell-curve

For the film story principles studied and prescribed here, the primary data set is exclusively, the Top 20 RoI films of the last 70 years. The secondary data set is the bottom 20 RoI films. There is also a control set of 20 films. 

These three key data sets are not `self-selected’ data-samples. (i.e. not “selected by the researcher” – as – the data `selects itself’: The Top 20 RoI films are: The Top 20 RoI films, and nobody can change that. Anyone else doing a similar study in 2012 would arrive at the same films in these data sets: the Top 20 and the Bottom 20 RoI films.) Likewise, the control films don’t change.

However by fortunate happenstance, their much-smaller film budgets (of the top 20 RoI films), also mean that: 90% of these films are well `within reach’ of an Early- or Mid-Career Screenwriter and/or Filmmaker. The budgets are as low as $7000. 

i.e. The encouraging news is, if you have access to $7k of financing, You could make a film like this.

The Top 20 Audience Reach/Budget Films of the Last 70 Years. Data Source: The-Numbers.com. Analysis: JT Velikovsky

The Top 20 Audience Reach/Budget Films of the Last 70 Years. Data Source: The-Numbers.com. Analysis: JT Velikovsky

To put it another way: If you write a film screenplay based on the High RoI Film Story Guidelines presented here – the resulting screenplay/film probably has a greater chance of being optioned – produced – and: released. (Possibly and probably, than any of the other `guru’ books.)

And: if possible, ideally, in fact, it (the film) would be produced by you, the Writer-hyphenate (e.g. the Writer-Director, or Writer-Producer, or Writer-Actor, etc.).

One key finding of this doctoral research study is that a crucial common element across all Top 20 RoI films is that: they were all produced with the involvement of a Writer-hyphenate(This sometimes includes “Concept/Story by” rather than an actual screenplay writing credit. The hyphenate is not always Writer-Producer, it is sometimes Writer-Actor, sometimes Writer-Director).

In short, the Top 20 RoI Screenplay Guidelines presented – resulting from this empirical study – are more realistic – and pragmatic – than those provided in the various conventional Screenplay Instructional Manuals, by reason of: the smaller Production Budgets of the sample data-set. 

To be clear: the Top 20 RoI films have an average budget of under $2m, and some of them are even as low as $7000.

The primary data set of the empirical study can be viewed here: The Top and Bottom 20 RoI Films 

By contrast, the average/typical film studied in the other Screenwriting `guru’ Instructional Manuals has a budget of around $15m, and, some of them are over $200m. While it would be wonderful to have such a film financed, it is extremely unlikely for unproduced – or even early- to mid-career – screenwriters.

To reiterate: an early or mid-career writer is extremely unlikely to ever see an expensive movie get made. (Where “expensive” is regarded as: a film production budget over $2m.) – The movie industry doesn’t work that way…

Contrariwise – there is something to be said, for: writing about ten “practice” screenplays – before a writer/filmmaker even attempts to write the one that you actually intend to make. See: StoryAlity #8: More On The Ten-Year Rule.

On this topic, quoting Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in `50 Psychology Classics’, Butler-Bowden (2007) says:

“The real story of creativity is more difficult and strange than many overly optimistic accounts have claimed. For one thing, as I will try to show, an idea or product that deserves the label “creative” arises from the synergy of many sources and not only from the mind of a single person… a genuinely creative accomplishment is almost never the result of a sudden insight, a lightbulb flashing on in the dark, but comes after years of hard work”. 

(Csikszentmihalyi in Butler-Bowdon 2007: 68)

It may sound off-putting – but: it’s actually not. If you really love writing – you will be in the `flow’ state (see: Creativity, Csikszentmihalyi 1996), and the “years of hard work” are not work. It’s more like `play’ than work.

So – I suggest, by all means, read all the Screenwriting Instructional books you can (and see: The (free) Screenwriter’s Workbook for a guide to many of the best ones) – and – if you find any of them useful, then of course – use any or all of the “principles” in them.

Butspeaking as a professional transmedia film screenwriter, I would also strongly advise that you to look at the research methodology in each book carefully and, place it in context: Examine closely the data-set that they use (the exact films in each case, that are studied / used, as examples/proof of the “theories” espoused within each book). Ask: Were they consilient?

HOW TO GAUGE THE `RELEVANCE’ OF ANY GIVEN SCREENWRITING INSTRUCTIONAL MANUAL:

As above – one of the quickest ways to examine the data-set (in each case), is to flip to the back of the book, find the “Filmography” (or, simply examine the book’s Index) and look closely at all the films listed. – Are they expensive films?

Look those films up on IMDb.com, The-Numbers.com, and BoxOfficeMojo.com. What previous credits did the screenwriter/s have? Also, look closely at their Production Budgets. Look also at their box-office return. Work out the RoI (Return on Investment) of the films studied.

The formula for calculating RoI:

Box Office $ / Budget $   x   100 = % RoI 

And – ask yourself (and – research, using: Google/Bing/IMDb/the library/any means necessary) how each of those films got financed – and made.

Perhaps ask also: how many theatrical feature films (if that is what the book is about) had the writer of the Screenwriting Manual, itself (in each case) already had produced before? (In many cases, the answer is: none. There is of course an old maxim that states “Those that can, do – those that can’t, teach”. For this reason, I guess, probably the best Hollywood Screenwriting Manuals worth reading are Blake Snyder’s, just in my own opinion. Though there are many good ones.)

On the other hand, regrettably, the theories espoused in Story by Robert McKee are like Aristotle’s narratology `methods’ – as, by McKee’s own admission – his study of screenplays is qualitative, subjective, un-scientific, and the resulting principles have no empirical bases, or statistical proofs.

To illustrate, it is worth looking closely at the “Notes On The Text” at the front of Story, 1999, and what it means, in practice:

“The hundreds of examples in Story are drawn from a century of film writing and filmmaking around the world. Whenever possible I offer more than one title of the most recently and widely seen works I know. Because it’s impossible to select films everyone has seen and remembers in detail, I’ve leaned towards those readily available on video. But first and foremost, each film has been chosen because it is a clear illustration of the point made in the text.”

(McKee 1999: Notes On The Text)

McKee, Field, Seger, Hauge and other screenwriting `gurus’ of course mean well; they are simply following in the steps of the examples we have from history: Aristotle, for example.

However – Aristotle’s method was also unempirical.

This screenwriting knowledge is therefore not based on empirical, scientific evidence, merely the author’s opinion as an “authority’. (This is quite ironic – as Aristotle is known for pioneering “the scientific method”, and even: `logic’, and yet – he did not use the scientific method when examining the principles ancient Greek drama. While this approach may have worked in the past, its track record is not good, as 7 in 10 films lose money. It is possibly now the right time for a scientific revolution in film narratology.)

I do not wish to make out that I am a creative genius for using this method; (in fact, I could not, even if I wanted to) it is in fact a historical inevitability, due to the concept known as: Disciplinary Zeitgeist.

In Creativity in Science: Chance, Logic, Genius, and Zeitgeist (2004), Simonton finds:

`Sociologists of science have argued that discoveries and inventions are the inevitable product of the sociocultural system –  often personified as the zeitgeist or “spirit of the times”. For instance, Robert K. Merton (1961) maintained

“discoveries and inventions become virtually inevitable

1) as prerequisite kinds of knowledge accumulate in man’s [sic]cultural store;

2) as the attention of a significant number of investigators is focused on a problem – by emerging social needs, or by developments internal to the particular science, or by both”; (p.306).

This position is also maintained by historians of science who believe scientific creativity is contextually determined (Boring 1963, Furamoto 1989)…

Notable examples of multiples [i.e. simultaneous discoveries] include the creation of calculus by Newton and Liebniz, the proposal of a theory of evolution by natural selection by [both] Darwin and Wallace, and the discovery of the laws of genetic inheritance [independently] by Mendel, De Vries, Correns and Tschermak. Such examples are taken as incontestable proof of sociocultural determinism.’

(Simonton 2004: 11)

Indeed, Simonton has also gathered together previous scientific studies of film success in Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics (Simonton 2011), though he notes that, to date, overall the studies are lacking in consensus, and are not particularly cohesive.

All the screenwriting analysts/gurus use different methodologies. The problem here is almost the same as with the screenwriting manuals: questionable or non-uniform (and non-consilient) methodology.

My own view is that – screenwriters and filmmakers need accurate, empirical evidence of what makes a successful story – which is why I created Creative Practice Theory Narratology as an empirical research methodology.

Screenwriters and filmmakers (even Hollywood movie studios) are desperate to know:

What causes a film to go viral?

The Top 20 RoI films reveals this knowledge. (Or at least, some of it.)

And yet – this knowledge does not decrease the `Creativity’ of the writer in any way, it in fact empowers them.

And: Who would not want their film story to reach the widest audience possible?

Most notably, using these empirically-derived story guidelines, a writer can tell any film story they like.

These High-RoI-Film story principles function rather like a `Trojan Horse’ meme, in the culture.

Trojan Horse

High-RoI Film Story principles are like a `Trojan Horse’ meme for your film story Theme/Message. Your film goes viral: your message reaches the widest audience possible, and for the least film production budget. Everybody wins.

As a writer/storyteller, your own message/theme is:

Whatever you, as the writer/filmmaker, wish to deliver to the waiting world.

…Comments welcome,

——————————————–

JT Velikovsky

High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher

The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky

JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/

————————————

REFERENCES

Csikszentmihalyi in Butler-Bowdon, Tom (2007), 50 Psychology Classics: Who we are, How we think, What we do: Insight and Inspiration from 50 key books (London: Nicholas Brealey).

McKee, Robert (1999), Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (London: Methuen) 466 p.

Simonton, Dean Keith (2004), Creativity in Science: Chance, Logic, Genius, and Zeitgeist (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press).

Simonton, Dean Keith (2011), Great Flicks: Scientific Studies of Cinematic Creativity and Aesthetics (New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press).

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