Friday, October 19, 2012

Making Screenwriting (sort of) Painless: Joseph McBride’s Writing in Pictures

The other day I had occasion to drive past my old high school, Alexander Hamilton High. Like many places in Southern California, Hami High has its own Hollywood connection. Years ago, it was used as the location for a popular TV series, Mr. Novak, starring James Franciscus as an idealistic English teacher who butts heads with the educational establishment. Needless to say, we actual students didn’t much like our campus being invaded by TV folk, especially those actors our own age who had been cast as “typical” students. Seeing TV make a mockery of us encouraged us to feel just a trifle rebellious. But we were more than a decade too early for Rock ‘n’ Roll High School.

I mention Rock ‘n’ Roll High School -- that classic youth rebellion musical from Roger Corman’s New World Pictures –- because the writer who dreamed up the original screenplay has a new book out. Ironically, Joseph McBride is now a member of the faculty, not of Vince Lombardi High School but of San Francisco State University, where he teaches screenwriting and film history. He’s written such respected biographies as Searching for John Ford and Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, as well as a collection of interviews with Howard Hawks. His latest, though, is for the would-be screenwriters among us. It’s called Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless, and it’s the most out-of-the-ordinary screenwriting book I’ve ever encountered.

Sometimes it seems there are as many guides to screenwriting as there are aspiring screenwriters. Most of these books methodically plod through the various aspects of the screenplay, devoting chapters to such well-worn topics as characterization and structure. (Screenwriting guru Syd Field famously decreed precisely where the first and second act-breaks should fall, and generations of screenwriters have been lining up their stories to his specifications ever since.) Today’s typical screenwriting book (like Blake Snyder’s exasperating Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need) is written in snappy contemporary prose, cites lots of current box-office hits, and provides a slew of exercises to keep the writing student busy on his (or her) way to making it big in Hollywood.

McBride’s book is all the better for being less a primer and more a meditation on film as a medium. He includes delicious quotes from such cinema masters as Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Robert Towne, and Larry McMurtry. His examples are often drawn from classic films like Grand Illusion and On the Waterfront, at the same time that he’s smart about how (for instance) Diablo Cody’s dialogue in Juno shows teenagers cracking wise as a way to avoid expressing genuine emotion. Before he ever gets to dialogue, though, he emphasizes the special power on screen of small non-verbal moments. His respect for what actors bring to scripts shines through on every page.

McBride’s approach is also unique in arguing that a great way to learn screenwriting is by going through the process of adapting a short story into a screenplay. Using his own adaptation of Jack London’s “To Build a Fire” by way of illustration, he moves the reader through a story outline, a treatment, a step outline, and finally a completed draft of a filmable script.

It’s an unusual approach, but a valuable one. And you’ve got to love someone who quotes the great Dorothy Parker: “If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second-greatest favor you can do them is to present them with copies of [Strunk and White’s]The Elements of Style. The first-greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.”


  1. Back to Amazon!

    Mr. McBride is a fine writer - and it's terrific that his students are getting to learn from someone who's truly been in the trenches. I will be checking in to getting his book!

    I have given Elements of Style several times as a gift to a young writer. I've refrained from shooting any so far - let them suffer with the rest of us!

  2. Mr. Craig, I think you'll find Joe's book fascinating, and a nice change of pace from the same old same old.