Drop by a bookstore and you can find numerous books about screenwriting, far more books you might think than there are active screenwriters. And maybe that’s ok – one reason books exist is to let us immerse in activities we would never actually do or perhaps dabble with doing or maybe actually can’t do.
So then why do so many colleges offer classes in screenwriting? The best that one of these students can hope for is that they might be able someday to write a commercial or instructional video for an employer. In fact even then they would be better off learning as they go like most screenwriters have done. Whether this makes screenwriting classes the equivalent of the mythical basketweaving classes is hard to call – you might argue that students learn discipline and control of language – but that’s not a comparison that could be easily dismissed.
The even bigger picture is that despite all this instruction and support there can only be a very few people who would claim that Hollywood writing is in any conceivable fashion being well-done. We all realize that screenwriting is far worse than it was even thirty years ago, across the board no matter whether you’re considering structure, dialogue, concision or pacing. And I’m including TV as “Hollywood” because even if you consider The Sopranos, Deadwood, Lost or even The Walking Dead, True Blood or The Wire as somehow superior to other TV they are all severely damaged by the demands of a medium that requires padding, extension and subplots. (The Brits, at least here, do this better.)
But it was actually three films and a specific item that started me wondering about this. Transformers: Dark Side of the Moon, The Green Hornet and Conan the Barbarian all have a prologue and in each case the prologue is utterly unnecessary. The material is what once upon a time would have be considered backstory and brought up in the main story as needed. Now we’re treated to plodding displays of every single motive and character beat. The idea of backstory still exists apparently but now is something to fill out running times or to eliminate any confusion or ambiguity.
Admittedly these three films are all quite bad but as far as screenwriting goes they aren’t Hollywood anomalies. Enormous hits like Avatar or Iron Man are if anything worse. Even acclaimed films such as recent Oscar nominees Moneyball, Inception, Midnight in Paris, Argo and (seriously?) Avatar don’t show much to contradict this, though admittedly even if most Oscar nominees typically aren’t particularly good films they also typically aren’t especially bad ones either.
This all comes back not necessarily to screenwriting classes and books but to the idea inherent in them that screenwriting is basically learning certain structures and techniques. I’ve read the Robert McKee book and that perhaps sums it up. McKee’s book either displays the obvious or jumps into the silly but basically it’s an extended attempt to turn learning exercises into master technique, or even dogma. However useful the idea of three-act structure might be on a theoretical level it does have a purpose in guiding somebody learning to write. It’s not necessary to learn that way and in fact that may not be best way to do it but it does have a function.
What’s happening though is that this is turning into the way all screenplays are being conceived and structured. That’s why we’re seeing prologues and exposition and character moments and movies that are far too long. There’s just too much clutter. This is unavoidable for TV shows because they have to run for certain amounts of time and use a certain number of actors (at least American TV). Not to mention that networks can’t leave well enough alone and insist on continuing shows past their sell-by dates.
And there’s too much effort on making the three-act story fit three acts. It’s increasingly rare to see in media res used though many films could benefit from it. One of my all-time favorite TV episodes is from Firefly that opens with the captain alone on the ship, so wounded that he’s barely able to crawl and the ship counting down to self-destruction. How many films would open like that? (Actually one of the deleted scenes for The Avengers was a Maria Hill debriefing that would have made most of the film a flashback. It was wisely removed not just for the flashback issue but because the tone was off.) What made the Firefly episode more memorable, if a bit showy, is that along with the story of the captain’s struggle against the clock it had flashbacks to show how he and the crew got to that point and then a second set of flashbacks relating how the crew came to be on the ship together.
You could argue that the sorry state of screenwriting is really due to those perennial bad guys The Money Men. They’re the ones insisting that stories be completely clear, that there be no gaps or ambiguities, that characters be likable and reasonable (or if they’re antagonists then mean and reasonable), that every little thing be explained and filled in. So writers are just giving the studios what they want which is what the studios think the public wants (or at least tests well).
Which perhaps answers my initial question. There are books and classes about screenwriting because that’s how the assembly line keeps running. And I’m hardly the first person to point out that it’s the glamour of movies that brings people to that business against their better judgement so if they see a way to create a ticket to that ride then what could be better? Even if they really know it’s never going to happen they can still convince themselves that hey just maybe it could if only I had the time, connections, ideas, luck, right software. Because after all writing a screenplay is just like making a sausage….