Sunday, June 24, 2012

Opposing Opinion to By the Book - by Ruth Atkinson

I first met Jamie in Twitterverse (if you’re not already following her you should!). Her funny, entertaining and informative tweets got me hooked. I then had the good fortune of meeting her this June at The Great American Pitchfest where I was teaching a class. It was wonderful to finally have a face to put to the tweets. While our meeting was all too brief I could see that Jamie’s on-line personality was a true reflection of the live version. She’s witty, smart and an all round good peep. I’m honored to have an opportunity to contribute to her blog.

Recently Jamie posted a challenge to writers to choose their favorite screenwriting book and follow it to the letter, exercise by exercise, from first page to last. I couldn’t yell, “Don’t do it!!” loud enough. I’m a script consultant and story editor and I have a shelf full of “go to” books on screenwriting but I would never recommend someone undertake this task. “Why?” you ask. “Doesn’t Robert McKee sing the gospel? Isn’t following Blake Snyder the fastest way to write a Hollywood blockbuster?” In short, NO.

Don’t get me wrong I have enormous respect for many of the screenwriting gurus out there (Field, McKee, Seger, Synder, Vogler, Aronson, Bonnet, Truby among them) and what they say will give you the building blocks you need to write a screenplay. There are absolutely required reading. But they differ widely in their theories and approaches, many of books flat out contradict each other and everyone claims to have “the secret” to writing a screenplay that is not only amazing but will sell! At the end of the day they might be chock full of useful information that will help you write your script but none of them have all the answers. There simply isn’t a magic bullet. Success in screenwriting is based on many intangibles including productivity, talent and connections. You have to write (and rewrite a lot), you have to be good at it and you have to get your material to the right person at the right time. These are things that can’t be found by following a book to the letter.

So should you bother reading them at all? Well, YES. Because you still need a broad understanding of screenwriting theory in order to have a successful career as a screenwriter. Reading books on screenwriting will: 

  • Give you the building blocks you need to craft a screenplay – most importantly the three act structure.
  • Offer valuable tools and tips for developing characters, conflict, dialogue and theme (among others).
  • Introduce you to the format, language and jargon of screenwriting.
  • Guide you in the way to properly develop a script from log line and outline through to rewriting.
  • Give you ideas to improve your productivity and get to know your individual process of writing.
  • Introduce you to the varied approaches to screenplay development from Christopher Vogler’s take on The Hero’s Journey to Blake Snyder’s beat sheet for writing a high concept commercial blockbuster.
  • Explain the business of screenwriting from getting an agent to how deals are structured.

There’s a lot to be gained from immersing yourself in screenplay theory. Reading the “experts” is an absolute must for any new screenwriter. As you read you’ll also get a sense of what approach makes sense to you on an intuitive level. As you write you’ll see what ideas float back into your consciousness and what tools seem to be useful along the way. But don’t worry too much if things don’t add up exactly as you’ve been instructed. Trust your instincts and keep writing. If you’re stuck go back and reread that chapter that resonated for you. Find guidance and inspiration but don’t get too focused on any one idea or believe that any one of these theories have the secret solution. Ultimately you have to trust yourself more than any particular theory or book. This is why I wouldn’t recommend following any one book from first page to last because at the end of the day the only sure fire way to write a script that will sell is to sit down and write it!  

Ruth Atkinson is a Los Angeles-based script consultant and story editor with over 20 years of experience in the film and television business. Originally from Canada Ruth’s work in post production and on set led her to Los Angeles to work in development. Films Ruth has consulted on have won awards and been distributed around the world including The Perfect Family starring Kathleen Turner which was in theaters this Spring, the Genie nominated Who Loves the Sun, celebrated indie The People I’ve Slept With and the New Zealand hit Predicament. Ruth also reviews submissions to the Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program and was this year’s screenwriting instructor for FIND’s (Film Independent) Project:Involve which developed six short films that screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Ruth recently taught a class at The Great American Pitchfest on theme. She is available for script consulting, story editing and workshops and can be reached at

Blogger's Note: That means Jamie's opinion on this blog post. I love that Ruth had this reaction to my "By the Book" blog post. She's right! Which is why I didn't want to say which book I'm using. No book is a be all end all, but there is a lot to be gleaned from many books. "Take what works for you and leave the rest" is my favorite saying. But I'm still trying my experiment, mostly because I'm using it to get to the FADE IN: stage, not to write the script.


  1. Awesome post and so true. We have been blessed to not only have our novel published (the sequel is in the wings) we have also been asked to convert book one to a screen play. Having done this, it is being shopped around now, and though we are newbies, no one has dismissed it. Our manager and agent love it, and they say it is timely material. We did research how to's, but always came away with contradictions. So, we pooled the best advice from each of the authors as best we could and dove in. One of the things that really helped us was to compare an actual written script to an actual film. An eye opener for sure! Thanks again for the great tips.

    1. It's so important to read as many "good" scripts as you can get your eyes on. That is the real teacher!