REVIEW: Crafty Screenwriting, by Alex Epstein
A short while back, I wrote a typically unrestrained essay about all those screenwriting charlatans trying to separate screenwriting wannabees from their money—even though the authors of these “advice” sites and books were hardly legitimate screenwriters themselves.
It is, therefore, with great humility that I must now reverse course somewhat (somewhat! I say!). There actually is one very good book out there that you might not already own.
Alex Epstein is one of the most active members of the scribosphere (his site, Complications Ensue, is linked in our left column under Writing). The only thing that made me wary of Alex (other than his Canadianness, or his somewhat cliched political liberalism, or the fact that he went to Yale, which is an altogether inferior school to Princeton as everyone-who-didn’t-go-to-Yale knows) was that he was hawking his book, “Crafty Screenwriting” on his site.
“Sigh,” I sighed. “Why must everyone have written a book?”
When Alex offered to send me a copy, I accepted, thinking that posting a very frank review on The Artful Writer might serve the same role as a decapitated head on a spike in front of a castle’s walls.
“Ah,” thinks the how-to writer, “I’d better travel around this website. Nothing here but trouble…”
Alas, the book is good.
Actually, it’s very good.
What I like most about the book is that it’s written with a particular philosophy in mind, and it just so happens to be the same philosophy Ted and I espouse here on The Artful Writer.
Screenwriting is a job. A profession. A trade. A vocation.
For those of you who have been reading the essays here, you’ll find a lot in common between my views and Alex’s. He talks about the necessity of outlining (me too), the value of pitching, even if it’s just to your friends (me too), the importance of a good title (yup), the necessity of a good hook (check), and above all….the two most important sentences in the book (and on page 1, natch!):
A screenplay is not a complete work. It is not intended to be appreciated on its own.
Alex’s time as a development executive taught him what so many screenwriters fail to understand. This simple truth is our mantra here at The Artful Writer: the screenwriter’s job is not to write a screenplay, but to write a movie.
In addition to some decent passages on character and dialogue, Alex seeds in a few bits of insight, at least one of which was new to me. He makes a very cool distinction between horror movies and “terror” movies.
In a terror movie, you’re terrified of ending up dead. In a horror movie, you should be so lucky.
That’s a great bit of shorthand for someone like me who occasionally writes horror, but is still somewhat new to the genre.
So, is there anything wrong with this book?
Yes. In fact, there’s something terribly wrong with it, and if there’s ever a volume 2, I’m going to go to Alex’s house and sit on him until he fixes it.
The most important element to screenwriting is theme. I can’t be clearer than that. Theme drives everything. Theme must be an argument, and it must be present. It is a lack of thematic presence and progression that makes screenplays episodic (not a lack of character development, as Alex posits, although he’s at least not making the classic mistake that episodicism derives from poor plotting), and all good movies have a theme.
Alex doesn’t think so. Oh, how I gnashed my teeth and wept when I read this:
You don’t need to have a theme to have a great popcorn movie. Alien is a well-crafted story about a bunch of human beings in danger of being eaten by a monster. While we find out that an evil corporation put them in danger, the movie isn’t really about the danger of evil corporations. It’s about people trying not to get eaten by a giant bug. We come away from the film with just the adrenaline rush.
Arggh. No. The theme of Alien can be expressed in a few related ways. “Humanity’s greed will be its downfall.” Or “Our pride is our greatest weakness”. Or “There are things better left unexplored by man.”
The theme creates the details. Humanity is reaching beyond itself. It’s motivated by pride and greed. It believes it is safe. What it encounters in the form of the Alien is a lesson in humility.
Alien is, in the end, a retelling of the tale of Icarus.
If those elements weren’t there, the movie would be very very scary, but it just wouldn’t be as compelling. It wouldn’t be about anything.
Alex also makes the mistake of presenting themes that aren’t arguments, like “guilt versus redemption”. That’s not a theme, really. It doesn’t take a stand.
That weakness aside, the book is really terrific. Worth owning, especially if you’re an aspirant. Alex does a fine job of presenting a view of screenwriting that simply isn’t articulated often enough, and he does so to the reader’s benefit.
Well done, Alex. Amend that chapter on theme, and you’ve got yourself a gem!