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04/04/2005 - BOOK REVIEW - "SCREENWRITING FROM THE HEART ? THE TECHNIQUE OF THE CHARACTER-DRIVEN SCREENPLAY"
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SCREENWRITING FROM THE HEART - THE TECHNIQUE OF THE CHARACTER-DRIVEN SCREENPLAY - By James Ryan

In all my years of teaching, 95% of the students who have taken my class come with an idea already in their head. A story they lived, a story about their family, something they thought up on the way to the class, SOMETHING. So I was taken aback when, in the first couple chapters of this book, Author James Ryan says to "meditate on your idea, come to understand the flow, figure out what the idea is telling you about yourself, etc." Most of my students have NO TIME for that. Their issues are more concrete: "How many pages does it have to be and what kind of type font do I use?"

First, a little more about the book: The book is split into three sections. Section 1: "The Character-Driven Approach" (67 pages) goes into the deep thought processes to try and understand your characters fully. Section 2: "Finding Your Structure" (33 pages) takes to issue some of the core thoughts behind one, two and three-act screenplays. Section 3: "Crafting Your Script Step-By-Step" (73 pages) actually dives into the "nuts and bolts" of writing your screenplay and I found this section to be the most helpful in terms of writing and structure.

In Chapter 3 in Section One he goes on to talk about "Contingent Causation" and "Indirect Linkages." Now, if I brought these things up in my class, turned down the lights and went through breathing techniques, the class would laugh me out of the room. Is this helpful? For some, maybe, for others a lot of the ideas spread out over the first section of the book would cause more harm than good.

Sprinkled throughout the book are "exercises" to do. These exercises include: "Shaping Your Story from Unconscious Discoveries" (Where you sit in a quiet room and look at various objects) or "Discovering Your Profile As a Writer" (you come up with lists of likes and dislikes and then analyze what they say about you) and many others. Many of these exercises, presumably for the first time writer would, in my opinion, create more panic and concern and achieve the exact opposite of what the writer SHOULD be doing. Which is writing.

So is the book terrible? A hindrance to the first time writer? No. If you can get through the "mumbo-jumbo" of seeking out what your unconscious is trying to tell you in section one, in sections two and three you'll find more concrete answers to your questions.

What the book does that is GOOD is have you think in some ways that you may not thought. Instead of assuming that all films should be in three-act structure (90% SHOULD be in three-act structure - in my opinion), he brings up two-act structure and how that can work. Or, even, a one act structure (would NOT recommend a first-time writer to try a one-act screenplay).

How is this book from the screenwriter's POV? If you're a first-time screenwriter with this book on your shelf, skip section one and just move to sections two and three. If you're in the store and this book looks interesting to you, find a comfy chair and read sections two and three until they kick you out. I wouldn't invest money in it. If you're a SEASONED writer (written a few scripts), though, this book might very well help you think in different ways if you reached a stagnant point in your writing.

Bottom line is this: First time writers? Skip this book. It won't help you and you'll probably end up more frustrated with other things to worry about. You don't need more questions to linger in your head. Seasoned writers? Buy, or borrow, a copy of this book and give it a read, especially if you're questioning where you are in a screenplay you're writing. Some of Mr. Ryan's suggestions you may find very helpful.

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