If there’s one thing that can be said about screenwriting books, it’s that there are a lot of them. It seems as though most people who sold a screenplay once in the 1970s have since written a “definitive” guide to screenwriting. So the question for those of us seeking out the rare few books that are worth our time and money obviously becomes, how do you know which book is good?
I recently had the pleasure of reading Richard Walter’s Essentials of Screenwriting, and while I read it, the answer became very obvious to me. Unlike many of the “how-to gurus,” Richard Walter is in an undeniable place to dole out advice and instruction. A long-time educator, he is the head of UCLA’s graduate program in screenwriting. His years of overseeing emerging and eager talent are credentials enough, but they’re not what make the book worth reading.
I cannot deny that Walter’s style can at times be repetitive – and I truly mean this in the most appreciative way possible. In fact, it's the most valuable thing about his book. He hammers home that the beginning (of a script, a scene, a line of dialogue) is the point before which nothing else is necessary. The end, on the flip side, is the moment after which everything else is gratuitous. These basic tenets help form the foundation of his guidance; get them down, and you’re on your way to a successful (at least structurally) screenplay. And by the end of the book, you will most certainly have them ingrained in your mind, as they are mentioned time and time again. The same with many other key points to craft: write more with less (no novels, please), show your skill by bringing elements back throughout the script (i.e. don’t explain everything right when it happens), and above all else, present your script in a professional format (no illustrations, industry accepted font and spacing, proper tense-usage, spelling, and grammar).
As I read the book, encountering the same reminders again and again, always building upon one another with other tidbits offered in later chapters, I really got a sense of Richard Walter’s style. I felt as though I was in the lecture hall hearing him speak. He wasn’t repeating points because he had nothing else to say; he was repeating them because they were crucial; they were, not to get cheeky, essential to remember. They warranted saying more than once. And you know what? They quickly started to sink in.
I was still working on re-writes for an action/adventure script I was writing while I was reading Essentials of Screenwriting and I was amazed to find that – mid-sentence sometimes – I would often stop and think back on something I had just read in the book. Was I starting my scene in the right place? Was that last line of dialogue I just wrote a bit too long – did it need to end where it did, or was it really over sooner? Richard Walter had, over the course of 400 pages, so firmly rooted certain tips and guidelines in my mind that I could in no way deny that I was using them. His advice to me, the reader, was instantly incorporated and appreciated.
So how do you know which screenwriting book is good? It’ll be the one that offers suggestions and instructions you immediately begin to implement in your writing, not because you have no other guidance, but because they make perfect sense and, more importantly, they make you a better writer. After seven years of screenwriting education (both during and after school), I was not sure how much I could glean from another how-to book. Essentials of Screenwriting proved that I had a number of lessons yet to learn, lessons that have proven invaluable in my writing since. Even after all my years of writing, I found I could still benefit from a few “essential” reminders from someone who truly knows.
Essentials of Screenwriting is on sale now.