Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Screenwriting, Gatekeepers, and the Golden Stepstool

Xander Bennett earned his stripes as a Hollywood slush pile reader, culling spec scripts to make sure that producers didn’t spend their valuable time reading snoozers. Along the way he noticed that inexperienced writers tend to make the same mistakes time and again. To help real aspiring screenwriters avoid those traps, he wrote Screenwriting Tips, You Hack. I appreciate his candor and his utility, but I can’t get past some serious lingering doubts.

The subtitle claims to offer “150 Practical Pointers for Becoming a Better Screenwriter,” and he undersells himself in two ways. First, he actually includes 168 tips, ranging from one-sentence nuggets to four-page essays. Second, though some of his pointers live in film’s exclusive world, most apply to any form of creative writing. I could even harvest some useful advice for my college writing students, like: try dumb in the first draft. You have rewrites to make it into art.

Bennett ranges through the whole screenwriting process, from generating ideas and organizing, through drafting and rewriting, ensuring the strongest possible structure, into troubleshooting so you send out the strongest possible spec script. He also deals with moving across genres—TV writing differs from films—and career planning. He focuses on the general, like crafting strong dialog, and the specific, like choosing the right punctuation to propel your sentence.

As I say, many of his tips apply across all creative forms. For instance, read more of the kind of literature you hope to create. You can’t write a rom-com if you only enjoy science fiction craptaculars. And you can’t write a screenplay just because you watch a lot of films. Also, write dialog for ultimate drama; don’t fall so in love with characters that you won’t let them hurt; and take all feedback seriously, even if it doesn’t jibe with your original vision.

I especially appreciate his advice on active writing. Nothing kills a piece of creative literature, whether a script or a story or a song, like egregious “to be” verbs and “-ing” endings. And while I disagree that adjectives and adverbs kill the momentum set up by verbs and nouns, too many modifiers definitely suck the action right out of a sentence. I’d like to see all writers, whether creative or scholarly or professional, apply his advice on active, energetic prose.

Bennett doesn’t just toss out advice, though. He takes the time to explain what it really means, backing it up with evidence from well-known films—acclaimed successes and notorious flops alike. He writes with a dry humor and the voice of experience, like someone who has seen it all, and has plenty of war stories to share. He reminds me of a best friend who wants to help you achieve your dreams while avoiding the pitfalls he’s already endured along the same path.

But that doesn’t mean Bennett has the golden key to screenwriting success. He offers advice to get past script readers, the gatekeepers who decide what’s worth producers’ time, so don’t think that just because you use his tips, you’ll get produced by Coppola and directed by Scorsese. Also, Bennett focuses on screenplays as finished literature in their own right, which is a far cry from seeing them turned into finished films.

Also, a Google search turns up no produced films under Bennett’s byline. Though his official bio says Bennett has made the leap from script reader to screenwriter, game writer, and graphic novelist, I turn up only one title under his name. He doesn’t even have an IMDb page. When David Mamet pens books on scriptwriting, we know he learned his lessons the hard way. Bennett gives us no such assurance.

Simply put, getting the rubber stamp from a Hollywood script reader, like getting past a New York editorial assistant, only means your work doesn’t suck. It’s a far cry from actually making it into the inbox, much less seeing your name in lights. Bennett’s advice will help you weed out the errors that torpedo aspiring writers and their run-of-the-mill spec scripts. He will not, however, close the gap between wherever you are right now and stardom.

On balance, Bennett’s advice will strengthen most writers. Weak writing, in any genre, tends to suffer the same problems time and again. But strong writing is always strong in unique and surprising ways. Aspiring writers can only close that gap by writing, a lot, until they find that story only they can tell. Bennett offers a golden stepstool, but only you can achieve your ultimate goal.

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