Monday, 8 December 2008


I've a confession to make. No one ever taught me how to be a screenwriter. I taught myself.

Assiduous followers of this blog will have noted that I started by learning to copy the screenplay format from a sample page in the writer's directory. To be honest, I found the screenplay layout fascinating - it was so unlike anything I'd come across before. Over the years I learnt not to be experimental with the layout, not to customise it, but just to let it do its work. The screenplay is the format, the format is the screenplay.

There were no How To books that I knew of, and no courses to go on - if there had been, I'm not sure I'd have enrolled on one anyway. I just practised writing scripts in the proper format and, one day, I became a professional.

It was five years or more into my career, by which time I'd already won a Writers' Guild Award for my work on a 'Best Original Drama Series', that I decided to find out how I did what I was, apparently, already capable of doing.

I bought dozens of books on screenwriting, which had magically appeared in recent years, and set myself the task of learning how to do it better. I was already an experienced professional, but there's always room for improvement.

I guess I was lucky, in that I could weigh up everything I read against my own professional experience. If a writer was talking nonsense, I could tell. If a book had something useful to say, I'd be able to spot it.

I'd say about 95 per cent of what I read was absolutely useless. No, it's worse than that. 95 per cent of what is taught in books and courses on screenwriting is actively damaging.

These people are making money by trying to teach a chrysalis how to turn into a butterfly. You must do this, you must not to that ... It's a wonder that any newcomer survives this process, because the art of screenwriting is largely intuitive. It's like being taught how to tell a joke.

You may have noticed that I had a go at Robert McKee in a recent posting. He's made a fortune, and a name for himself, out of telling people how to write for the screen.

A few years ago, I taught a short screenwriting course. At the end of it, one of the students emailed me, thanking me for making the process seem so clear. He'd read dozens of books, all of which merely mystified the process for him. 'Ever heard of Robert McKee?' he wrote, by way of illustration.

Some time later, I was staying with a film actor friend of mine whose girlfriend worked for the BBC. She had been called in to attend a weekend seminar led by the Great McKee. She was rapidly losing the will to live.

What a bastard! I mean, seriously - he gets PAID to make the magic of screenwriting a bewildering and painful subject.

It was, sadly, typical of the BBC to fall for his snake oil. For a while (although I believe they've abandoned this) the BBC even ran its own 'Writers' Academy', in which poor lambs were instructed in BBC scriptwriting technique. In reality, I suspect that they were browbeaten into churning out the kind of meaningless drivel that the BBC prefers these days to meaningful drama.

All of which makes me wonder - why is there now an industry devoted to teaching people how to write screenplays?

Get this: the cinema had been around for a hundred years before this self-help Teach Yourself Screenwriting industry appeared.

Now, I'm all for democracy and meritocracy, and I really enjoy helping would-be screenwriters to grasp the intricacies of the craft.

But I fear that so many of these books and courses don't really help. They either stuff your head with useless nonsense, making the task of screenwriting infinitely more difficult than it needs to be - that, or they encourage a kind of machine-like approach to the script.

And I daresay I've been guilty of that myself, every now and then.

So, are they helping, all these books, courses, seminars and festivals?

The short answer is: no. Scripts aren't getting any better. In some areas, they're getting worse.

The greatest screenwriters in history - people like Ben Hecht, Robert Towne, William Goldman - did not have tutors. They didn't learn their craft from books. Maybe, if they had, they'd have been as confused as anybody trying to become a screenwriter these days, and their scripts would have been as torturous and uninspired as so many now are.

If you can master the format, you can write a screenplay. We've all seen movies, we all watch TV. So we know what works and what doesn't.

Learn the format, and then write. And write. And write.

And bin all those books. And throw darts at a picture of Robert McKee.

Just do it.

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