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Screenwriting - An Appeal To Craft

By Author: David Parker
Total Articles: 37

It's fashionable for people who want to become writers to rely exclusively on things like talent, instinct and passion. These things are important, it's true. Without them you'll have a hard time just sitting down and starting. But don't be fooled, there's a limit to how far they can carry you.
You also have to learn your craft. You have to know how to construct a great story, start to finish. Basically, you have to study.
I freely admit that a lot of storytelling is instinctual. Everyone carries a story about their days work home with them. Hell, I can't walk to the end of my street and back without thinking of something to say. But are these stories so well told? Or do we just listen because they're about people we know? How do you let the audience 'know' your character? How do you make them care? Your craft might not be quite up to the level of your enthusiasm.
You must have, not only the vocabulary to express yourself, but the maturity not to over indulge. Economy of language; you are writing to communicate, not show off. The basic bread and butter of your writing will always be sentence construction and word selection. It's unlikely you'll find much written in the textbooks about these two, because they're usually the two gifts a writer will start out with. They're the things that make you think you're a writer in the first place. And they're the things that will trip you up if you don't keep an eye on them. So pay attention to them, practice, and get better.
But that's only a start. What makes a good story great? Why does Hitchcock show the bomb to the audience but not the main character? What is an act? The nuts and bolts of how a story works. Why this scene here, and not there? You must cultivate an understanding of these things.
To do so you have three choices, by order of preference and cost;
Ask someone who knows.
Read the books
Cross your fingers and hope 'talent' is enough.
This is the preferred option because it's the quickest and cheapest. Find someone who knows more than you and ask them about it. Simple. It also has the added benefit, if you find someone really good, that they'll meet you halfway and tailor their answer to your abilities. Of course there's always the risk of bad advice. Common sense is the only defence against that I'm afraid.
You should be doing this regardless, not least so you don't look like a dumb ass in front of your mentor (see option 1). All you need to know about story, and how to construct a story, is in the literature. Robert Mckee, Syd Field, John Truby, Blake Snyder, Vicki King, Aristotle and Joseph Campbell will get you started. And now that you know who they are you've no excuse, so put the work in.
Talent alone is most definitely enough to build a career. It really is. To acquire talent please re-read options 1 & 2.
The argument against theory I often hear is that it reduces films to nice, neat, formulaic pap. That constructing a story properly is the shortest route to mainstream and boring. That's all fair and good, it's wrong, but I'm not really interested in starting a debate. All I will say is that if you come across a theory or a method that doesn't work for you; don't use it. Simple, right? These ideas and techniques are tools, the more you're aware of the more you can use. But possessing one does not diminish another. Knowing how to spell is not an imposition on your artistic temperament.
In summary, put the work in. Talent is a myth. Learn your craft.

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