All Screenwriting Books are Bullshit

All screenwriting books are bullshit. All. Watch movies. Read screenplays. Let them be your guide.

Brian Koppelman
Professional Screenwriter
Knockaround Guys, Ocean’s Thirteen, & National Treasure 3

I co-wrote a screenwriting book, so it probably doesn’t make a whole lotta sense why I’d be posting this. Of course, it’s more analysis than “how-to” and the essence of what I preach on this site. But I’ll get to that in a bit. The point is — and I sure enjoy hate being a contrarian — if I could rewind the clock and start my screenwriting education over, I’d still recommend four books to myself. I wouldn’t hold everything they say as the gospel, but these undoubtedly helped at key points in the process:

Hyperbole is a powerful device, though. His words certainly gave me pause. I’m sure there’s bullshit in all of those, but you don’t have to be a professional screenwriter to teach. There’s about the same amount of truth to his statement as someone who says something must happen in a script. Plus, get involved in development and you’ll soon discover movies are a director’s medium. Reading scripts is important, but I’d place far more value in writing what you hear and see on the screen. After all, it’s what made it to the finish line. It represents the collaboration. And now, more than ever, you can write what’s happening on the screen pretty damn easy. A computer isn’t horribly expensive. You can even write on a pad and paper if money or ambivalence to debt was an issue. Blu-ray and DVD prices are dropping like stones. Netflix is only $8 a month. Amazon has tons of titles you can buy and/or stream. Practically any script you want is online, so you can even read the script while you’re watching and writing. Knowledge is literally at your fingertips! Which brings me to my personal Lord and Savior, Mr. Malcolm Gladwell…

No one succeeds at a high level without innate talent, I wrote: “achievement is talent plus preparation.” But the ten-thousand-hour research reminds us that “the closer psychologists look at the careers of the gifted, the smaller the role innate talent seems to play and the bigger the role preparation seems to play.” In cognitively demanding fields, there are no naturals. Nobody walks into an operating room, straight out of a surgical rotation, and does world-class neurosurgery. And second—and more crucially for the theme of Outliers—the amount of practice necessary for exceptional performance is so extensive that people who end up on top need help. They invariably have access to lucky breaks or privileges or conditions that make all those years of practice possible. As examples, I focussed on the countless hours the Beatles spent playing strip clubs in Hamburg and the privileged, early access Bill Gates and Bill Joy got to computers in the nineteen-seventies. “He has talent by the truckload,” I wrote of Joy. “But that’s not the only consideration. It never is.”

If you have the ability to practice forty hours a week on screenwriting, Mr. Gladwell believes your preparation will start to sparkle after five years. Screenwriting has been a part-time gig since 2006, so don’t take my word for it. I’ve only had one of my scripts optioned. What the hell do I know?

William Robert Rich
William Robert Rich

William Robert Rich is a story analyst, screenwriter, and co-author of Story Maps: The Films of Christopher Nolan. He's currently based in Austin, Texas.

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