Sunday, October 26

Screenwriting for Teens

The 100 Principles of Screenwriting Every Budding Writer Must Know
by Christina Hamlett
Michael Wiese Productions 2006

It's been a while since I've run across a book that leaves me running hot and cold depending on my mood when I pick it up. On the one hand what we have is a thorough course in film media awareness, a textbook for exploration of writing for television and film; On the other hand the aim seems to be driven toward raising an army of teen screenwriters armed with the skills to keep turning out the same sort of studio drivel that has been cranked out for decades now. In the end I find myself forced to admit that had this book been around when I was a teen I would have owned it and probably would have been a different writer as a result, for better or worse I couldn't say.

Hamlett presents each of the principles on the right side page with a clear explanation and examples. Flip the page and there is a "look and learn" segment recommending films, TV shows, and even commercials that support the principle at hand. There's also a "brainstorming" section that provides three different exercises to reinforce the lesson and provide young readers with a broader background in understand how to write.

The book opens with a lesson on the differentiation between books and movies, with a brief study of classic story structure, and quickly builds up to short studies on cinematic structure and the Hollywood method for developing a marketable screenplay. In these bite-sized segments a young writer will learn much of what is taught in most other books and seminars on screenwriting and it is highly accessible. The examples are, for the most part, well-chosen and the exercises are solid enough even for experienced writers to get something from them.

Where the book falters for me is how it seems to go out of its way to not look like a textbook or something equally formidable, but in doing so treats the serious student too casually. "If you're not already keeping a daily journal, start one" seems like something that should come at the beginning of the book and not as an aside eight chapters in. Additionally, there is an unspoken assumption that the reader has an endless amount of time and access to watching television shows and movies without really letting the budding writer know what they're getting into. Granted, the serious student will devour these assignments and hunt down whatever looks interesting to them, but just as many might find the task daunting part way through and be tempted to give up.

With the ever-changing television line-ups and cultural phenomena there are references to television shows no longer on the air, as well as films that even most film students have never seen (to say nothing of older films they probably never heard of). And very quickly it becomes clear that this is a book that one cannot breeze through in a month or even a few months. Watching the recommended films and programs, following through on the activities will take time. What Hamlett hasn't also adequately prepared the budding screenwriter with is a lesson in patience.

Yet, I still like what this book does. It says to the teenage screenwriter "Okay, this is what it's all about" and plows ahead with its challenge to keep up. Those who think that writing for television or movies is a shortcut to fame will quickly learn that the modern screenwriter's craft is no less arduous than any other writer's. Serious teens who believe this is truly their destiny should make this a first test of their strength and endurance. This would only be a first stop because there is much more about character and scene development that a solid screenwriter needs to know and should learn from other books on the craft. Syd Field's books, and Robert McKee's Story and, just to get some perspective from a master in the field, William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade.

For the first-timer, the student looking to make solid short films and develop themselves as screenwriters, Hamlett's book is a step in the right direction.
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