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Screen-Writing Tricks of the Trade Paperback – October 1, 1992
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You can list out what attracts you: great actors, an interesting title, or exciting locations. The most important item will always be the story. What is the movie about?
The answer to this question is found in the script providing a signpost to directors and actors of what needs to be done. It is the movie’s spine.
This quote about movie making from the distinguished Hollywood screenwriter William Goldman is a caveat: “Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for certainty what’s going to work.” (Adventures in the Screen Trade, p.39)
There are some screen writing academics with ideas. The best come from UCLA.
Professor William Froug is from UCLA and his book Screen –Writing Tricks of the Trade is an interesting, thoughtful, elegantly written book on screen writing. He introduces you to some of the books you need to read on this subject (e.g., Aristotle’s Poetics). The movies he lists out are the ones to watch out for.
The heart of a great script is the story and Professor Froug opens with this quote: “A dramatic story is any series of events having vivid, emotional, conflicting, striking interest or results.” (p.17)
The word conflict stands out. Many screenwriting academics see this as an essential element in a movie. Professor Froug believes that having a force and a counter force is essential to a movie: “Without conflict, your reader will fall asleep and you will never have to think about having an audience. The ballgame is over. “(p. 27)
Professor Froug touches on the importance of character: “Character is story and story is character; they are each by-products of the other.” (p.19).
Some academics argue that a film can be character driven or plot driven.
Where there is no development of character, a film will be hollow. Operation Crossbow (Sophia Loren and George Peppard) is such a movie, parading a line of famous stars, but with little character development. Contrast this with The Counterfeit Traitor (William Holden and Lillie Palmer), where the characters were vivid and real. This movie is rightly regarded as one of the best counter-espionage movies ever made.
Professor Froug’s insights on the structure of the screenplay are particularly interesting.
The series of events (being the story) “must be held together by something that connects them, one to the other, or you have no viable story….To make your story really work, you are looking for a single line of action.”(p.25) He cites as an example the word “Rosebud” which is the glue that holds the screenplay of Citizen Kane together.
That single line of action is perfectly illustrated by North West Frontier (Kenneth More, Lauren Bacall, Herbert Lom). This movie set in British India in 1905. The British must help to save the life of a Hindu prince from the Moslem rebels. Each scene is necessary to further the plot. The thread is there.
I have read patronizing comments about North West Frontier disparaging it as a sort of comic book adventure story for young boys. Nothing is further from the truth.
The dialogue exchanged is sharp and tart for its time when Lauren Bacall and Herbert Lom duel with the British authorities. The action sequences will set you on edge. This was the film J. Lee Thompson cut his teeth on.
Professor Froug is particularly interesting about the formula approach to screenwriting. This is the paradigm where a three act screenplay breaks down into so many pages, and where there are turning points at the end of Act 1 and 2, which take the action off into another direction.
He is clear about a formulaic approach to screen writing: “It is not valuable to recommend that new screenwriters write by the numbers…..The great American movies usually defy formula writing…” (pp 61-62)
My gut reaction is that the formulaic approach works very well for action movies. First Blood (the Rambo movie) actually conforms in every way with the formula. It is a very entertaining movie.
Professor Froug has important things to say about the theme of a movie. He admits it is difficult to identify this at times but says:” The major theme is the heart and soul of your screenplay. Without a theme you script will be hollow, empty.” (p.77)
There is only one major theme in a movie.
He defines theme as:” What are you saying in this story? What is your point of view? What is there about this story that engaged your heart and mind? What do you feel this story has to say?...” (p.74)
I found his examples helpful: Home Alone (A man’s home is his castle); Citizen Kane (Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely); Rain Man (Am I my brother’s keeper?)
This book is excellent on the structure of a script. In some areas, it needs upgrading or amplification.
I would like to see a more detailed discussion on what kinds of software a budding screenwriter should use. There are many products on the market. It would be useful to know which the academics prefer and why. This book discusses scene cards but I doubt if modern scriptwriters are using them anymore.
There is much discussion in the book about agents. Frankly, the passages were very discouraging. Dealing with agents seems to be a bit of a grovel.
The question is whether in this modern digital age there are other ways to market a script. Are there web sites where you can advertise your script? There seem to be vehicles on the web where people can invest in the making of movies.
This book poses a final question. Given the difficulties of actually getting a script sold, is it better to write a novel first rather than produce a script? Since movie studios are risk averse, the chances of an unknown outsider selling a script must be negligible.
There are many ways today of getting a novel published. Self -publishing on the internet is one way. The beauty of a novel is that it gives you a chance of working the plot out in some detail. If you succeed with the novel, the writing of the script will be easier. You will also have compiled a track record in any event.
I approached two friends who are proven screenwriters (One has had two series on HBO and the other currently has one running on FOX). I have an idea based on my professional that would make for a great situation comedy but I have never put pen to paper. Independently, they both recommended this book. And...they both refer back to this book to make sure they haven't picked up any bad habits.
If you are a novice like I am, buy the book. Don't question why, buy the book, read it and you'll ask yourself why didn't you buy it sooner. If you're a seasoned writer, you ALREADY have this book! It has been referred to as the "bible" for writers...and it is.
I liked the book because it is not stuffy and condescending. It just gets right to the point, and doesn’t waste time with endless academic exercises.
Since reading Mr. Froug’s book, I have completed five feature-length screenplays, and am working on three others. Now, if I could only find an agent in the Catch-22 representation worlds of New York and Hollywood (you can’t get an agent to read material if you are a new writer, unless you are already established, and thus not a new writer). No wonder the same tired movies and plots are constantly being recycled. No new blood is being allowed in. But, that’s another story.
You can’t go wrong with this book, especially for the low price. I have bought several copies and given them to my writing and film making friends.
Froug has taught several of today's top-paid screenwriters. His methods are time-tested and proven effective. Many myths were dispelled in this book, and I found that it contained a great deal of very practical tips that other books simply didn't deal with. For example, how do you know if your script is boring? Will it get ripped-off? How do I keep from losing the "fire" for writing my script? These questions and many others are answered in the book.
One of the best things about "Tricks of the Trade" is the way in which it strikes a balance between structure and "feel" in your writing. Froug isn't shy about questioning the rigid formulaic methods which Syd Field teaches. While acknowledging that a reasonable structure *is* important, he states that it is far more important to write from the heart. This is one of the first screenwriting books I've seen do this - to actually tell you that Act I doesn't have to end on page 25, that there musn't be a certain event on page 45, etc. While agreeing that certain elements need to be present to create a good, solid story, Froug boldly teaches us to write from out heart first.
I would recommend reading "How to Write a Movie in 21 Days" as a companion to this. It is sort of an opposite approach, being very formulaic, but once you have that perspective then you can read Froug's book and learn about the importance of the "feel" in your writing.
Lastly, what you'll find inside the covers...
- the process of writing, from conception to final draft - creating a solid story - writing powerful dialog - finding ideas - finding an agent/producer - creating a strong protagonist - much, much more
Enjoy, and happy writing!
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Froug a well known and more importantly and well respected teacher of screenwriting uses his years of experience and the...Read more