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The Tools Of Screenwriting by David Howard and Edward Mabley

1/10/2011. Contributed by Geoff Willmetts

Buy The Tools Of Screenwriting in the USA - or Buy The Tools Of Screenwriting in the UK

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pub: Souvenir Press Ltd. 298 page indexed small enlarged paperback. Price: GBP12.00 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-28563-902-7.

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The sub-title of this book, ‘A Writer’s Guide To The Craft And Elements Of A Screenplay’ sums up the main title, ‘The Tools Of Screenwriting’. I’m not altogether sure if I agree with its writers, David Howard and Edward Mabley, that a story designed for film is that different from a prose story. Other than the amount of words used, I’ve often spoken some of my short stories verbally before writing them a little more elaborately. Whichever, I do agree with them that it is the quality of the material that counts the most. Without that, any story is doomed. The major difference between the two is that once the screenplay is written, its interpretation is through many hands and the screenwriter is less in control of his or her creation unless they are also the director. Hmmm…that might explain why a small number of significant directors write their own screenplays.

Even if you’re not planning to write a screenplay, books such as this are important reads because they cover similar ground in plot construction, characters and motivation and why you should feel for their situation that it is so easy to overlook. Something that is often overlooked by writers is sticking to significant scenes and mineralise the boring bits and avoid repetition. Life on the page as well as on-screen is, after all, an abbreviated version of life and events.

One thing that I felt could have been covered better in this book was on adaptations. Yes, not all books are going to make good films, mostly because of differences between prose and visuals. However, it doesn’t explain why screenwriters and directors want to change the ending which could still be accomplished into something totally different.

The topic of advertising in the book is rather what we call showing the ‘smoking gun’ in prose before it is used. If you’re going to use anything then establish whatever it is, be it weapon or attitude, so it doesn’t come out as something totally unexpected so as not to cheat the reader. If nothing else, you’re going to come away with a lot of American screenwriter terminology here.

The writers also give a valid argument for having an outline or plot before breaking it down into scenes or chapters. They also give valid reasons why it is a foundation that should be flexible enough that the plot can be changed but I wish they’d addressed how does the screenwriter explain to his or her producer and director why what they agreed to can suddenly be changed. Saying that, considering the number of re-writes a screenplay goes through, maybe this is open to flexibility and nothing is set in cement. The process is still valid in prose. Even more so if something isn’t working or not strong enough, good writers will improve things.

Something else I wish was included was ‘pass the parcel’. That is, rather than giving something directly to a particular character, it is passed like a daisy chain to camouflage the obvious. Best example of that was in our genre with ‘Aliens’ where Hicks gives Ripley a transponder who later gives it to Newt although I’m sure it’s been used in other films as well. Logistically, it would have made more sense to have given the transponder directly to Newt but then it would have telegraphed that she would need rescuing later.

Just in case you think that Science Fiction isn’t mentioned at all in the contents, it does, especially in the section under plausibility and establishing something is there and not to cheat the reader. I’d loved to have seen their comments on fantasy films and how to do plausibility there but unlike some screenwriter books our genre isn’t ignored. Granted, none of the film example choices used for analysis are that current but I’d be surprised if any of you haven’t seen any of them at all. One interesting point that did come up is they distinguish films from our side of the pond as being more talky than action they have, forgetting that over here we’re more orientated towards drama. Considering that the US films has had its share of dramatic films, one has to wonder why the orientation has shifted away from them. Is the American viewer or writer moved away from them?

With the information from the first third of the book, the second two thirds applies analysis to sixteen films. Of which, I have to confess to have only seen half. Interestingly, ‘E.T. – The Extra-Terrestrial’ is included but I have a suspicion that this film was chosen because of its family film status than anything Science Fiction. Although the writers say they had problems which films to choose for examples, based on their analysis, many of them are award-winners and significant award-winners. It would have been interesting to have seen them dissect a few film examples where they’ve gone wrong. After all, unless you can appreciate where they’ve gone wrong, how can you avoid similar mistakes yourself?

This book was originally released in 1993 and is still relevant today. I wish, especially with the analysis, that it was possible to distinguish between the two writers, but that’s a minor gripe. If you’ve got a yen to write screenplays then this book will give you some insight into requirements to get right. If you’re into writing prose fiction, then this book will also add some added insight into your storycraft.

GF Willmetts

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