Scribbler’s Saga #70 – Your Screenplay Sucks

Posted: July 19, 2018 in Uncategorized

© 2018 G.N. Jacobs

Here we go again, actually bothering to read yet another screenwriting manual. Truthfully, I feel less of my been there, heard it in Story Analysis class skepticism for William Akers’ book Your Screenplay Sucks than I do for most of the others reviewed here (I’m looking at you Mr. Cat). Why? It might actually help a few more people write well without possibly falling into a Cookie Cutter Trap that stifles innovation and some of what Mr. Akers can, if you shift back to writing in past tense for most prose, help a few people who don’t write screenplays do their jobs.

The book is laid out as a checklist listing the top 100 things new screenwriters do to suck up their work. Cool, a checklist that covers all stages from getting the idea to finishing a screenplay, with key advice in the middle about the actual writing (why I actually like this book instead of tolerate it as being another structure heavy Hero’s Journey book). And Mr. Akers puts his typing fingers where his mouth is by visually presenting examples, in many cases, from his own work and that of others taking his classes at Film School.

I can’t stress enough how refreshing it was to read examples from the author’s own screenplays where he needed to edit, revise and shorten according to the principles laid out in his book. I mean, there’s a nasty saying about Self-Help and other Instruction Manual type writing that these books only help the author. Not so here. We see on the page every early draft mistake made by him in his efforts to keep his hand in and those of his students. We also get to see many of the second drafts that improve or at least shorten the job of the reader when scripts float around for consideration.

Most of the advice might come from Shrunk & White’s The Elements of Style (a work so ubiquitous to writers I may never review it). Shorter sentences. Choose better words to go in those short sentences. Active voice. Present Tense (it is a screenplay where things happen now). And Mr. Akers guides you through all of it with an acerbic and strongly worded writing style where he sort of takes up the coat of a format Nazi. But that’s not his fault, the whole business of Hollywood has always been run by format Nazis, none of whom were originally writers.

For instance, Mr. Akers makes assertions about the new current format about how the scene headers or sluglines should look that directly conflict with the default settings that come out of the box when you load Final Draft and Movie Magic onto your computer. His methodology can be replicated on these writing programs; you have to think about it as you write. It really doesn’t matter that much to me…I’m currently back on my frequent No Screenplays rant which happens every few months and then I start over doing my screenplays as graphic novels. If you’re still trying to crack screenwriting as business, maybe you need to listen…your agent will have the last word.

The advice in this book comes off as good, modestly more applicable to other forms of narrative writing and helpful by showing examples of failure. These reasons are why I like the book and suggest you will either like it or learn from it without ripping out your eyeballs (a good start from how I normally feel about writing manuals). I did notice a few minor things…

For one, Mr. Akers doesn’t actually contradict the suggestions in Save the Cat. Somewhere in the middle of the book he writes, “I have students that refuse to write without having Save the Cat open beside them as they write. Others swear by Vogler’s Writer’s Journey. I’ve found both to have the same general usefulness. Pick one.” So if there is some other way to get to good, dramatic writing and plotting, someone else wrote it.

I spent the rest of my reading this book nitpicking because I can. There’s an assertion about the Moses story in Exodus that I found amusing, that the Pillar of Fire and Smoke leading Israel through the desert represents horrible Deus ex Machina screenwriting. My reply – “God is the protagonist of the Bible and so your concerns make less sense” – might stir up a few hornets.

On page 43, Mr. Akers commented on the adaptation Book to Screen of Tom Clancy’s Clear and Present Danger that in the book the Jack Ryan character spends too much time in Washington and never really enters the fray in Columbia. First, as someone who read the book long before deciding that Mr. Clancy’s sentences are generally unreadably long, Jack Ryan’s dramatic arc includes the discovery of the illegal anti-drug operation as a Washington insider. Second, there was this really cool part where Jack Ryan leaned in on a door gun from a helicopter saving the soldiers abandoned by the evil National Security Advisor. But, yes, this does highlight why movies and books will always be two slightly separate animals.

If I have to resort to nitpicking to have anything to say other than gushing effusively about how everyone should read this book and so on, I guess it isn’t such a bad read that might help us do our jobs…convincing the reader/viewer to listen at the campfire a little while longer. With that, you now have the skinny on a much better writing manual than I’d expected. Get back to writing!

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