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ACTOR'S LIBRARY : Writers

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By J. Brenna GuthrieEasy

Can script-writing be learned from a book? Two new tomes break down the craft convincingly.

The old joke is that in Los Angeles all the waiters are actors. There remains truth in that, of course, but a new twist on the joke is that your waiter at any restaurant in town is more than likely a struggling screenwriter. Every year thousands of people start writing screenplays and stage plays, hoping for their rise to stardom in Hollywood or on Broadway. This phenomenon is evident by perusing the shelves of your local bookstore: There are aisles solely devoted to writing a winning screenplay or play.

But can you really learn to write from a book?

Surprisingly, the answer could be yes. For while you can't learn creativity from a book, Robert McKee, in his new book Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting (ReganBooks, 1997, 466pp, $27.50), lays out the basics of creating a well-written story. And while many writers who think creativity should have no boundaries or rules may fight against what the book expouses, McKee convinces otherwise.

The book is essentially a bound version of the three-day seminar McKee has been teaching in Los Angeles, New York, and countless other cities for a number of years. I have taken the class, and although it is truly something any writer should experience, the cost is prohibitive. McKee has been urged for years to turn the seminar into a book and he has done such a good job of it that he may have written himself out of a lucrative business. Not only does the book contain everything McKee discusses in his class--sometimes even word for word--but the book has a singular advantage: It's concrete. It's a tool a writer can read, reread, refer to for reference, and keep as a security blanket.

The book follows the structure of McKee's seminars, breaking the building blocks of writing fiction--be it screenplay, play, novel, or short story--into three distinct sections. The first section deals specifically with story structure, starting with a strict analysis of what McKee terms "classical design" along with its cousins, "miniplot" and "antiplot." Next, discussions of how structure relates to setting, genre, character, and meaning allow the writer to gain understanding of creating a strong story arc.

The next seven chapters detail how to flesh your story out, from building a strong protagonist, creating a compelling "inciting incident," fashioning complex act and scene designs, controlling the pacing of your script, and shaping the perfect climax and resolution to your story, as well as a detailed chapter illustrating how to analyze each individual scene for effectiveness.

McKee's final chapters cover what it takes to transform the skeletal structure into a compelling story. This is where he tackles such nuts-and-bolts issues as how to handle exposition and build strong characters. He also delves into specific areas that can cause problems, such as point of view and adaptation, and gives specifics for writing an effective screenplay.

Although the book is mainly geared toward screenwriters, novelists and playwrights would be wise to add this book to their library, for what McKee is ultimately demonstrating is how to craft a great story--any story, not just the next Hollywood blockbuster.

Some final words of warning before you delve into the text: McKee assumes a certain knowledge of cinema on the part of his readers. Therefore, if you aren't an avid movie watcher, you might want to refer to the filmography at the back of the book. If you haven't seen at least a third of the films on the list, you might want to make a few visits to your local video store before beginning. (Chinatown and Casablanca are two must-sees. Trust me.)

Also, for the time it takes you to read the book, you might want to limit your film experiences to movies you have already seen; I found myself applying the concepts I was learning to new films I was watching, thereby ruining the magic of the moviegoing experience.

One final note: The book is a must-buy for any writer, but there is only one Robert McKee, and I suggest that if the book strikes a certain chord in you, you might want to look into the live seminars. While the material is the same, the seminar has its own charm, including a scene-by-scene breakdown of Casablanca, which is one of the most fascinating lectures I've ever sat through.

Six Elements

Although covering much the same territory as McKee but in a slightly different way, Jeffrey Hatcher has given aspiring playwrights a solid guide book in The Art and Craft of Playwriting (Story Press, 1996, 216pp, $18.99). Hatcher's approach is slightly different than McKee's, as he bases his book explicitly on Aristotle's six elements of drama: character, action, ideas, language, music, and spectacle. By using examples from well-known texts from Shakespeare and Ibsen to Guare and Mamet, Hatcher also explores setting, finding ideas, the distinct structure of a play (including where to place an intermission), how to write great beginnings, middles, and ends, as well as creating compelling dialogue.

The book is structured like a class, with each section ending in exercises. Each set of exercises is crafted to help the reader understand ideas previously discussed and to incorporate these techniques into the writer's experience. Like McKee's, Hatcher's book also requires a certain knowledge of great plays throughout the years. To that end, he sets forth a list of 14 plays that should be studied and analyzed while working with this material, and includes his own detailed analysis of Ibsen's Hedda Gabler.

Finally, at the end of the book, Hatcher includes interviews with three well-known and celebrated playwrights: Lee Blessing, Marsha Norman, and Josƒ Rivera. The interviews invite the reader into the experiences of three different artists, including how they find ideas, how they've run their careers, and what they have learned over the years. These are insights writers can not only relate to but also learn from. BSW

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