Filmmaker Edward Dmytryk published a series of books on the film trade when, in the last section of his life, he became a film teacher. We have already reviewed here his book On Film Editing and here his book On Screen A
On Screen Writing
Let us start with a single line that is worth a whole book:
Quite simply, fashioning a movie is much more than most writers think it is and much less than they would like it to be.
Go on, Mr Dmytryk:
Of all the contributors to the collective “art” called’ “Filmmaking”, the screenwriter is the one “creator” whose contribution is most frequently edited, controlled, revised, or discarded, and whose creative efforts are most often debated, denied, or subjected to arbitration.
Working to someone else’s taste
To begin with, unless he’s not only the writer of the particular script but also its producer and director (in which case his problems may be different but just as great) he is, at least in part, writing for someone else’s taste, to someone else’s order, appealing to someone else’s judgement – first, the producer, then the director, and occasionally, in these days of multimillion-dollar stars, the actor. Each of these usually wants -demands- his ”input” into the script.
(“Input” has become perhaps the most frightening and distasteful word in the artist’s lexicon. It brings on compulsive shudders to directors, actors and editors, but the screenwriter undoubtedly suffers more from its implementation than the other three combined. For in this era of corporate boards, advisory commissions, and analytical committees, any attempt at ignoring “input” is considered the ultimate heresy.)
Skilful adaptation of good original material is the secret of fine screenplays, adaptation which takes full advantage of those techniques which film alone provides, varied and optimum camera positioning, effective change of audience point of view through competent film editing, and ability to highlight dramatic transition by zeroing in on the reaction, affording the viewer a greater opportunity understand, identify with, and interpret the attitudes and emotions of the people in the screen rather than just those of the author.
The screenwriter’s skills
Skills vary -greatly. That is an obvious statement, yet an astounding number of people fail to take it into consideration when discussing screenwriters. Evaluation of talent is important, of course, but most writers must also be rated on Category. Some writers are strong on plot contrivance but weak on character development. Others assemble groups of exciting, sometimes profound characters but can’t imagine what to do with them. Some find it impossible to write a singular scene from scratch but are able to flesh out a script with dramatic skill when given a solid story skeleton containing an interesting plot and honest characters, Which, obviously, is whey so many films carry multiple screenplay credits.
Where to start?
A writer’s particular bent will determine his approach to a script. I prefer to start with characters and a situation. Good characters make good films, even if the plot is rather thin. The reverse is rarely true.
Concentrating on character opens up plot possibilities to a great degree. Beginners in the field often complain that there is an extremely limited number of plots. That’s true. Splot the odds are great that you will finish with a routine script. But there are as many characters to play with, to work with, to investigate, as there are people on Earth. No two persons are exactly alike, not even identical twins. When any two people get together, conflicts based on their differences in character and background are sure to rise, and conflict, as we shall see, is one of the most important ingredients in drama.
The minor characters
One of the chief weaknesses of many scripts is the short shrift given to minor characters. Comments like “one-dimensional beings” or “cardboard characters” are perhaps the most common phrases seen in critical reviews. Any character who deserves to appear in the film deserves to be a “person”. Only a little thought or effort is required to make him one.
I few -a very few- writers seem to have an inborn awareness of the nature of human character. Most of us have to study and/or to learn about it through experience.
A really good writer is an expert observer. Everything and everybody, whether routinely dull or exotically bizarre, is worthy of his attention. He will know, and accumulate for future use, odd or not or unusual names, he will also collect odd or unusual characters. But his greatest Talent is his ability to scrutinize, without appearing to do so, all phases of human
behaviour,no matter how mundane some might seem to be, for the ordinary behaviour in one situation or environment may be total eccentric in another. He will try to puzzle out the hidden implications of usual or unusual reactions, knowing that his conclusions will have no validity unless he can also read the reactors.
I would like to say that a close study of this book and the strict adherence to its guidelines will make you a screenwriter – but it wouldn’t be true. No one can give you the secret of screenwriting because no such secret exists. No one knows exactly how to write a superior screenplay. It is a matter of instinct and experience – or talent, living, learning, and practice.
The talent comes first. Almost everyone thinks he has an artist locked inside of him, but that isn’t true, either. And although living, learning and practice may make a good technician, they will not make an artist unless he has the gift. That’s the bad news.
The good news is that no person is born with the word “artist” stamped on his or her forehead. Many a gifted individual has lived and died without an inkling of his gift; others, through circumstance or fear of failure, have never given themselves the opportunity to release their creative potential. The bottom line is that you never know what kind of an artist you might be, or if you are an artist at all, unless you try.
This book alone cannot make you a screenwriter, but it can make you aware of what the screenwriting is all about. Well, perhaps not all, but quite a good deal. I encourage you to read as many other books on the subject as you can tolerate; each will have at least some different slant on the art. Then, if you are one of the fortunate few with a gift for the craft, that awareness plus experience ( both your own and that of others who have gone before you) and practice will increase your chances of writing something worthwhile.
So, read, and put to use, and go with God, or your teddy bear, or whatever t
alismanserves to strengthen your faith in yourself. That’s what you need most to make your dreams come true.
You, writers of the world, who are reading this, please listen to what Mr Dmytryk has to say in this book!
MORE ON DMYTRYK’S FILM WISDOM IN OUR POSTS On Film Editing According to Edward Dmytryk AND On Screen Acting According to Edward Dmytryk (and Jean Porter) AND LOTS MORE ABOUT WRITING FOR FILM IN SCREENWRITING.
MORE ON SCREENWRITING IN Ten Amazing Discussions On Screenwriting And Filmmaking From The Masters Of Cinema, Save the Movie! The 2005 Screenwriting Book That’s Taken Over Hollywood — And Made Every Movie Feel The Same, Screenwriting Tech, Best Scriptwriting Books Ever: The Art of Dramatic Writing and Endings, amongst many other posts!