Screenwriting by the book, and by the numbers

Review Writing

July 09, 2006|By SUSAN DUNNE | SUSAN DUNNE,HARTFORD COURANT

Lights! Camera! Fiction!

The Movie Lover's Guide to Writing a Novel

Alfie Thompson

Running Press / 254 pages / $12.95

There is a great scene in the movie Adaptation in which the character Donald Kaufman drones on about the unbreakable rules of screenwriting to his twin brother, Charlie Kaufman, a brilliant iconoclast who can't disguise his revulsion.

One thinks of that film often when reading Lights! Camera! Fiction! The Movie Lover's Guide to Writing a Novel. Alfie Thompson's advice book teaches fledgling fiction writers how to structure a narrative by scrutinizing the screenplays of successful films.

Thompson's suggestions to writers aren't baseless; they are just as dryly practical as those given at the Robert McKee screenwriting seminars that Donald Kaufman parrots so slavishly. Dry practicality is no substitute for originality, though. McKee and Thompson, and most other advice gurus of this ilk, seem to have the collective goal of instilling conformity in the heads of eager, striving writers.

What's depressing is that they're succeeding. The reason they're succeeding is even more depressing: From a commercial standpoint, they're right. Writers who don't push the boundaries of public expectations usually sell better. Extraordinary nonconformists - like the real-life screenwriter Charlie Kaufman - stand out so prominently among their peers because it's a miracle their stuff gets produced at all.

That being the case, teaching fiction writing via screenwriting perpetuates this cycle of conformity, because visionaries are almost uniformly turned away by risk-averse cinematic gatekeepers. (The disdain is now self-perpetuating: Truly inspired writers tend to avoid Hollywood for the same reason smart women avoid O.J.)

So the appeal of Thompson's book depends on what type of writer you are: Do you write from the heart, where the muses run free - or from the head, where the money is counted?

Thompson admits out front that her book is not for writers who heedlessly throw their souls onto the page, marketability be damned. She praises those mavericks, acknowledges that they don't read advice books anyway, and then writes for the others.

Each of her nine main chapters tackles one aspect of fiction writing by assigning a movie to watch: for characterization, While You Were Sleeping; for external goals, Spider-Man; for internal goals and character growth, Speed; for premise, Clueless; for creating tension, Lethal Weapon; for conflict, The Sixth Sense; for suspending disbelief, Die Hard; for plotting, Bridget Jones's Diary; and for putting it all together, Jaws.

Every page is packed with advice that, depending on your inclination, will be inspiring or maddening. She discourages dialogue that sounds too realistic; she encourages plots that can be summed up in one concise sentence; she discourages unhappy endings ("your characters absolutely must reach their internal goal"); she discourages introspection; she encourages writers to create characters that can be defined by established, easy-to-understand personality types; she insists that all actions and emotions must make rational sense, even that most irrational of emotions, love. The back of the book is full of charts and forms to pick your emerging story apart, piece by piece.

Her tips lay an effective groundwork for creating salable commercial fiction. They also tacitly dismiss a sizable number of some the greatest books ever written.

Her rules are so hard and fast that it seems laughable when Thompson starts in on "letting subconscious take over," because it's clear the goal of this book is to send the subconscious packing, to sublimate the unpredictability of true inspiration in favor of giving editors more of what they've grown accustomed to.

It's telling that, except for The Sixth Sense, none of the films she cites - more are scattered throughout the book - challenges viewers to rethink their perceptions. The films hew closely to mainstream genre conventions, and work effectively, some very effectively, within them. All were box-office bonanzas.

It's even more telling that Thompson's own novels - written under the pseudonym Val Daniels - are Harlequin-type romances. This genre of book, written as if by template, sells very well.

If the sentence "It isn't necessarily the most fantastic writing that keeps one reading. ... Your writing can be genuinely mediocre," fills you with hope, not horror, this book is for you.

Susan Dunne writes for the Hartford Courant.

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