Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

“I’ve got so many scars, they’re criss-crossing each other!”
Louis Zamperini

“As the writer, you need to burn down houses. You need to push characters out of their safe places into the big scary world — and make sure they can never get back. Sure, their stated quest might be to get home, but your job is to make sure that wherever they end up is a new and different place.”
Screenwriter John August
Burn it down  

The story of Louis Zamperini would an amazing one if it were merely fictional. But the fact that he’s a real person who lived a real heartbreaking but redemptive story is beyond words I can adequately express. I just finished Laura Hillenbrand’s book on Zamperini’s life, Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, and it’s one of those rare books that can invade your soul.

The story of Zamperini’s survival of not only a plane crash during World War II, but his enduring weeks lost at sea followed by two year’s of abuse as a POW is rich with conflict.  The book was named by Time magazine as the best book of 2010 and it spent several weeks atop the New York Times best seller list and even now after 21 weeks on the list it is still number two.

One of the reasons that I think the book Unbroken connects with people is not only because it is a great story well told, but because it’s a timeless story that resonates with people in difficult times. While we may never have to survive a plane crash or being tortured as a prisoner of war, we have our own battles—our own scars. And we are surrounded by a world at war.

And it is inspirational in the truest sense to read a survivor’s story. To learn about somebody who was once an Olympic runner who not only had his dreams ripped away, but was taken to depths that few humans will ever have to endure. To see somebody rise from those ashes is a story of hope.

From a writer’s perspective one of the great things to learn from Hillenbrand is her success comes not from telling original stories. But to build and add life to old stories. Her first book was the bestseller Seabiscuit. (The movie poster of the movie based on the book is the only movie poster I have in my office.) And just as Seabiscuit was once a story of national fame that had largely faded from memory, the same is true of Zamperini.

Though Zamperini had twice written his autobiography (Devil at My Heals) I don’t recall ever hearing his name before Hillenbrand’s book. Like documentary filmmaker Ken Burns, Hillenbrand has a way of tapping into stories that enrich our lives.

And for whatever reason Hollywood has not been able to bring Zamperini’s story to the big screen. Not that they haven’t tried—back in 1957 Tony Curtis was set to play the young Zamperini. More recently Universal Studios bought the rights to Hillenbrand’s book, and when I least heard Scott Copper (Crazy Heart) was set to write the script and Francis Lawerence (I Am Legend)was lined up to direct.

P.S. It’s also worth noting that Hillenbrand, who has her own afflictions, took seven years to write Unbroken.

Related Posts: Writing “Seabiscuit”

Seabiscuit Revisited in 2008 

Scott W. Smith

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The Starter Screenplay

If you’ve written a couple screenplays and are a few steps down the road in your screenwriting journey, it would be easy to dismiss Adam Levenberg’s book The Starter Screenplay. But unless you’ve had a six-figure script sale, it’s worth a read. Because until you get past that point you’re still essentially at the staring point.

And if you inspire to write screenplays that become movies like Inception, The King’s Speech and The Social Network then The Starter  Screenplay is an excellent book for you to read. Because while writing those kinds of movies may be your goal, it’s not where you start.  In the beginning of his book, Levenberg defines his basic concept:

A Starter Screenplay is a script that gives you a shot at breaking into Hollywood.

Starter Screenplays are simple and practical. There is one hero. Events take place in present day reality, preferably in the United States, usually in a neighborhood or contained locations. The hero is provided a love interest, a ticking clock, a clear cut goal, and depending on the genre, either a life and death or family and career on are on the line.

In other words, you’re going to be writing a movie that executive want to make and audiences want to see, featuring characters we’d like to be. The creative energy you’ve wasted in the past trying to ‘be original’ with your structure and characters will be re-directed towards writing amazing dialogue, exciting situations, and stocking your spec with ideas and moments of value that display your talent as a screenwriter.

He then spends the rest of the book filling in the blanks going over things like what not to write (‘No struggling writers or actors as heroes”), his 10 commandments of your starter script (“one hero only”), ten essential elements of your hero (“your hero should be 25-40 years old”), and some practical nuts and bolts on the script itself (“Don’t shift the story away from the hero for anymore than three pages”).

You won’t agree with Levenberg all the time, but you probably don’t even agree with yourself all the time. If you haven’t had a major script sale then it’s worth a read just to shine a light on your writing to date and see if there might be a couple gaps in your thinking.

I’ll give you one more example from The Starter Screenplay that might save you a couple months (or years) of your life. Do you have a dark, edgy story about the miserable condition of the human race?

“Screenplays are for movies that people want to see. Farmers in Iowa don’t want to wash up after a hard days work, drive forty miles and pay $20 for a ticket, settle in to a cushy chair, munch on popcorn and soda, and watch a kid get raped.”
Adam Levenberg

His point is not that stories of drug addition, domestic violence, and other hard topics never get made into movies, just that that is a difficult place to find success in the spec screenplay market and your energies could be better spent elsewhere.

Related Post: Starting Your Screenplay (Tip #6)

Scott W. Smith

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Screenwriting Books

“We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”
Ernest Hemingway

SCott & Scripts 1725

Many years ago I went to a production seminar that had a money back guarantee if you weren’t satisfied after the first day. I left after lunch and got my money back because I didn’t think I was learning anything new. An older and wiser video producer/director I knew later told me, “Scott, you don’t go to a seminar to learn what you already know, you go to learn the two or three things you don’t know that will help your career.”

That simple exchange helped me realize how arrogant I’d been. Because I knew a lot, I thought I knew everything.  Now I gladly welcome any opportunity to learn, knowing that I’ll never know it all but just maybe I’ll pick-up two or three things that will help my work.

I know many screenwriters who pride themselves on never having read a book on screenwriting. But usually these are gifted writers who were directly mentored by other writers, directors and the like. Most people don’t have those opportunities so books and CDs on screenwriting are other option to learn.

Don’t take my word for it, here’s what screenwriter Terry Rossio (Shrek, Pirate of the Caribbean) wrote on one of his Wordplay columns:

“Learn the basics. There’s some stuff that, walking into any story meeting in town it’s assumed that you’ve read, so you’d better make sure you’ve read them. ‘Adventures in the Screen Trade’ by William Goldman. “Hero with a Thousand Faces” by Joseph Campbell. Syd Field’s book ‘Screenplay.’ ‘The Art of Dramatic Writing’ by Lajos Egri. ‘Making a Good Script Great’ by Linda Seger… Truby’s story structure course, which I have on audio cassette. There’re so many more I’ll have to make a separate list. Anyway — get this stuff, read it, know it.”

These books usually go for $10-20 new and often times you can find them for $1-10 used on Amazon. In every book you’re sure to pick up two or three things that will help you improve your writing.

This entire blog was started years ago from highlighted sections of books and magazines over the years that I had just organized for myself. Someone invented blogging and I thought, ‘hey, maybe some other people could benefit from this stuff.”

That was over 3 years and 300,000 words ago. It’s been quite a journey and I’m still learning. And I’ve finally embraced that learning is a life long process. This year I’ve decided to start a new category where I review some of the books that I’ve learned from over the years.

But know that in your own pursuit of becoming a better writer that those big breakthroughs will come more often in your own writing than from reading books about writing.

Even though I’ve read well over 200 books on screenwriting and film & video production, graduated from film school, went to Robert McKee’s famed Story seminar as well as other workshops at AFI and UCLA extension, I still learned a few things from the last book I read on screenwriting.

That book is called The Starter Screenplay by Adam Levenberg. I’ll pull some quotes from it in the next couple days, but what’s most refreshing about this book is it comes not from an academic or a screenwriter, but from the perspective of a film executive. Levenberg is a USC film school grad and has ten years of experience in development including working for Vin Diesel’s company.

You won’t find well crafted Joan Didion-like essays in this book. It’s more of a blunt look at the film business with quick sound bites. It also has the least sugar-coated view of screenwriting contests and agents you’re likely to find. Much of the book focuses on what executives are looking for in spec scripts from new screenwriters and what things you should avoid writing.

Since I’m in the process of marketing a new script I’ve written I particularly liked Levenberg’s section called “Five Steps Getting in the door.” This is the kind of stuff I’ve never heard or read before:

“Here’s how to identify a real literary agent who can sell your screenplay or get you work in the business: Are they within 5 miles of Beverly Hills 90210 zip code?”

Levenberg follows that up with more probing questions for potential agents such as do they have “1 but preferably more than 3 clients who make a living off of selling screenplays or writing or television.” Levenberg is obviously not competing in a popularity content with agents in Hollywood (especially those in the San Fernando Valley).

Similarly, he takes on script consultants by saying before you pay them to give you notes on your script and advice on furthering your career ask the consultant, “Who do you know at CAA? WME? ICM? Gersh? Paradigm? APA?”

According to Levenberg’s book he’s, “transitioning from development to private consulting” where he’s evaluating books for “a variety of professional clients.”  Since he is also doing some script consulting through his website hireahollywoodexec.com it’s fair to turn the tables on Levenberg and see just how connected he is. A quick search on the internet I found that he is connected to Christopher Lockhart who is the story editor at WME and has even been a guest blogger on Lockhart’s blog The Inside Pitch.

While I can’t vouch for Levenberg’s script consulting abilities I can say I did learn more than two or three things from his book and the WME connection is a good sign.  And if you’re a Blake Snyder/Save the Cat fan, you can sample more of Levenberg’s writings in an article he did for them titled, Do You Need a Consultant?

It would be interesting to hear Levenberg’s take screenwriter Craig Mazin’s (The Hangover Part II) now legendary post Screenwriting is Free.

Update 5/17/13: Since this post is getting a bump today via the Screenwriting Spark post The Best Screenwriting Books Chosen by Screenwriters I thought I’d follow-up my now two-year old post by saying Adam   Levenberg did contact me after this article and said he’d do a free consultation of a script of mine to provide his worth (he does normally charge for his services) and I now can say that he does know his stuff and did give me the single best notes I’d ever been given. Read all about it in the post Script Consultant Adam Levenberg.

And at this moment if someone asked me to recommend three screenwriting books I’d start with Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade then recommend 1) Story by Robert McKee, 2) Save the Cat Goes to the Movies by Blake Snyder and 3) Your Screenplay Sucks! by William M. Akers. (Though Walters, Seger, and Iglesias could be in that mix on any given day.) And for non-screenwriting writing books I’d go with 1) The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri, 2)  On Writing Well by William Zinsser, 3) On Writing by Steven King. But more importantly I’d tell especially young writers to dig into reading writers they really like in fiction and non-fiction and write everyday to develop their own voice. Even if it’s just following this simple advice:

“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.”
Ernest Hemingway
A Moveable Feast
Page 22

Scott W. Smith

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