What Do You Do All Day? (or "Stop Me Before I Volunteer Again")
Friday, October 25, 2002
What I Finished Reading Today:
Secrets of Screenplay Structure by Linda J. Cowgill
A few days ago, I reviewed Michael Hague's Writing Screenplays That Sell, a beginner's text which has a few very useful things to say about creating convincing character motivations. In contrast, Cowgill's book is a much more advanced screenwriting book, so it does help to have at least a passing familiarity with screenplay structure and other elements of screenplay construction before tackling it. Also, because of its depth, it will probably be most useful to people who have already written at least one or two screenplays, and have a bit more than a rank beginner's understanding of the process.
Now, having said that, if you do have some basic screenwriting knowledge and experience, do already understand concepts like "dramatic unity," and are looking for something that digs much deeper into the intracacies of screenplay construction than most introductory texts, then this is definitely your book. In fact, it's probably the single most useful book of its kind that I've read in 15 years.
While most screenwriting books worth their salt do touch on all the basics, Cowgill's book does much more than touch. She positively digs into each critical element of storytelling in great depth and detail. So, while many intermediate or "advanced" screenwriting books devote a few paragraphs or a page or two to subjects like theme, subtext, dialogue, subplots, foreshadowing and building dramatic climaxes, Cowgill gives each of those elements their own full chapters, proving with that attention just how much more there is to writing a truly great script than just carving out three basic acts and a few interesting characters.
Also, in addition to the detailed information on the various individual elements of screenwriting, Cowgill includes chapters on how many of these various elements interact -- for instance, how subplots reflect theme, and how subtext dramatizes theme in your story. Finally, as with any good screenwriting book, Cowgill presents extensive examples from classic films...but in this case the films used truly are worth the study (as opposed, for example, to many of the examples in the Hauge book mentioned above). And the book includes not only beat-by-beat breakdowns of the example stories, but very interesting notes about how the original script draft differed from what finally ended up on screen.
This book is so detailed and so complete, in fact, that I would recommend it both to people still learning the basics of their craft, and as a terrific touchstone for much more advanced and experienced writers, who can always use a few good reminders when polishing the latest fruits of their labor.