History, we are told, is written by the victors. So, it also seems, are books about writing; although it is perhaps more accurate to say that books about writing only talk about winners.
Whether we’re talking about Star Wars, Unforgiven, Casablanca or The Wizard of Oz, almost any model of screenplay structure or character development or dialogue construction can be retrofitted to suit the film in question.
It’s like one of those mysterious illustrations that test whether you see two faces or a goblet. Once the secret is pointed out to you, it is virtually impossible to unsee.
Now, I’m not suggesting that these films or scenes or characters within aren’t good examples of the methods and approaches being promoted. Rather, because they are good examples, I question how much you can learn from them.
If you know the film well, it can be virtually impossible to imagine it any other way. And that is what the lesson should be telling you.
What happens when you don’t follow the model?
What does bad writing look like and how can you fix it?
Without that last part, learning to write well becomes the typing equivalent of being given paint, brushes, canvas and the Mona Lisa. Now, go out there and launch the new Renaissance! (The Rerenaissance?)
A couple of years ago, I had the good fortune to take a comedy writing workshop given by Steve Kaplan. Aside from providing our small group with a series of tools to not only analyze but also develop comedy—nicely captured in his wonderful book The Hidden Tools of Comedy—Steve walked us through examples of where these tools were used to great effect AND examples where they weren’t.
Alongside excerpts of Groundhog Day, we watched scenes from Alex & Emma. After considering the classic sitcom about nothing Seinfeld, we were inflicted with the show’s original and quite terrible pilot.
Like with the positive examples, you see the failures when they are pointed out to you. But the nice thing about the failures is you can ask what could have been done differently to make the idea or scene work better.
(Note: Sometimes, the answer is nothing, because it was a weak idea or poorly written.)
You may not have committed the specific sin you’re studying, but it at least gives you the opportunity to use the tools you’ve just acquired and see if you can’t make that “Elvis on crushed velvet” look more like the Mona Lisa.
And particularly for the relatively novice or untested writers, examining failures helps to keep from establishing an impossible bar of success. Rather, it suggests that whereas we always strive for greatness, mediocrity can make it to the screen, and more importantly, we do not need to (and never will) achieve gold with every piece we write.
Which is good, because for every Pirates of the Caribbean and Shrek, there is a The Lone Ranger (all written in part by the wonderful and giving Terry Rossio).
The Hidden Tools of Comedy (Steve Kaplan)