Learning From the First Great Screenwriting Book Ever Written: Part 3
What can screenwriters learn from one of the first screenwriting books ever written? Welcome to Part 3 of this ongoing series.
Believe it or not, the first screenwriting book was written more than a decade before the Hollywood sign was erected in 1923. During the early days of what would eventually become a major entertainment industry worldwide, “screenwriting” wasn’t even part of the general terminology in filmmaking.
Back in the early days of film — circa the 1890s — scenario writers (not screenwriters) would write scenarios (not screenplays) for short films that debuted in theaters, which were few and far between. Movies were only a couple of minutes long, and scenarios provided brief explanations — written by writers and filmmakers — primarily utilized for marketing and as explanations for audiences that weren’t used to experiencing entertainment in this then-revolutionary technology.
As films became more narratively complex, they went from just one scenario to many. The term scenario evolved into photoplay, which more resembles what we know today as screenplays. One of the first examples of the modern screenplay was from George Melies’ iconic 1902 film, A Trip to the Moon. The photoplay had thirty-some lines of basic descriptions that provided action and locations.
As these cinematic narratives grew, so did the film industry. The first movie theater opened in the year 1905. Five years later, there were ten thousand movie theaters in the United States alone. And as with any budding industry, the more popular cinema became, the more people wanted to be involved.
Technically-speaking, the book we feature here is not the very first screenwriting book — but it’s the best of that first bunch. There was a book written in 1910, then in 1911, and by 1913 a few more were published. As the cinema grew, so did the secondary industry of screenwriting education.
To discover talent, studios began to hold the very first screenwriting contests for cash prizes.
Read The Script Lab’s The History of Hollywood Screenwriting Competitions!
Which brings us to Anita Loos’s How to Write Photoplays, written in 1920. Anita was one of the top screenwriters of her time. She wrote over 137 films and produced 8 of them with her husband John Emerson (he is also credited as an author of this book).
Through a series of multiple posts, we will go through this book cover-to-cover and explore the lessons that can be learned, which amazingly apply to art, craft, and business of screenwriting today.
1. "[At the beginning of the script], keep your important characters on the screen long enough in the first scenes so that the audience will recognize them clearly in future scenes."
There are clearly exceptions to this, but most of the time you want the audience to be introduced to your lead protagonists as quickly as possible. Many screenwriters try to weave a compelling ten-page introduction to hook audiences and then cut to their protagonist in their own world after that tenth page (give or take). It's a common occurrence — and a common problem.
Yes, there is a dramatic element to shocking the audience with non-lead characters and cutting to the protagonist, knowing that the conflicts introduced in that otherwise engaging introduction are obviously going to affect this character's life somehow. But this often backfires.
Non-lead characters in those opening pages may come into play later on in the script, but when you, a novice screenwriter, have just five to ten pages to capture the interest of a reader, cutting to a whole different character after they've invested their attention on what turn out to be supporting characters leaves the reader confused and their interest misdirected.
If you want or need to open elsewhere, narrow it down to just three or four pages, and then cut to your lead protagonist in creative fashion. Then build up that supporting character in the ensuing few pages to let us know that this is our protagonist.
2. "The trouble with the most inexperienced continuity writers is failure to get into the plot soon enough."
Whether it's "continuity writers" or screenwriters, this is one of the most common mistakes that screenwriters make — failing to get to the plot as quickly as possible.
Remember, there's a difference between an undiscovered screenwriter like yourself and a seasoned vet with some hits under their belt. Slow burn openings can and do work, but you don't have that freedom in your situation. You need to put everything into the context of your situation, not how other movies written by seasoned professionals are written.
Thus, you need to get to the plot within the first few pages of your script — even if that's just introducing your character in their world and featuring their struggles within that world. Then, by page 10 or a little before, you can introduce that conflict that will force them into the plot of your story.
Yes, we know, there are many movies that don't do this. There are many movies that work the character in their world for twenty minutes or more before the core conflict comes, but, again, you have to think within the context of your situation.
The script reader is reading a script from an unestablished screenwriter. They have a stack of other scripts to read as well. There is no escaping the fact that if they are not interested and engaged within the first few pages (however you do that), chances are they'll start skimming.
That's the difference between a spec script (written under speculation that it will sell) and a studio script (one written by a pro). Too many screenwriters don't think like this and it costs them a much-needed read.
3. "Be careful not to let your imagination run away with you. Stick to the story and avoid padding."
It is very easy to let your imagination run away with you. You're a creative mind and you are hopefully a very visual writer. If you write comedy, you think of a lot of jokes and gags. If you write action, you can craft amazing action sequences. If you write drama, you can concoct outstanding melodrama that gets our emotions flowing.
But if you're doing all of that to just make jokes, action, and melodrama, you're padding your script instead of sticking to the story. Every scene and moment in your script has to move your concept, story, and characters forward. Never lose sight of that.
Learn the best way to structure your screenplay with this free guide.
4. "Attend your local motion picture theater regularly and take a count, with pencil and scratch paper, of the number of scenes and sub-titles which are used in the pictures."
The best education you have on screenwriting is located at your nearest movie theater, streaming device, or your own movie collection.
Studying movies that are similar in genre, tone, or subject is key to growing your knowledgebase.
How do you craft a compelling opening scene?
How do you introduce characters?
How do you create suspense and tension?
How long should scenes be?
How long should dialogue go on for?
How do you know where to place plot twists to keep the story moving?
Answers to all of these questions and more can be found by watching and studying movies. Either by memory or by notes (but no smartphone screens on in the theaters please).
Time code the movies and see how long it takes for certain story and character elements to be introduced. Remember that one page generally equals one minute of screen time. That's a good barometer to follow.
Use movies to find the answers you need.
5. "The title of the photoplay is most important from the point of view of the exhibitor."
There are two phases of conjuring marketable titles for screenplays.
The first phase comes during the spec writing process.
The second phase is after the fact, when a screenplay has either been purchased by a studio or production company and is being produced, or after a concept has been specially developed by a producer or development executive, leading to the hiring of a screenwriter for the assignment.
In the first phase, the purpose of creating a strong screenplay title is to stand out from the thousands of other spec scripts being distributed through the over-saturated spec market.
Unwise advice that often makes the rounds is the notion that when you’re writing on spec, the screenplay title doesn’t matter because it’s likely going to be changed anyway down the line. It’s true that if your script makes it to the second phase, the title could and probably would go through any number of variations based off of marketing and creative input from many individuals.
However, the screenwriter still needs to use their title as a weapon in their literary and cinematic arsenal to call further attention to their script for it to be considered in the first place.
For more on titles, Read ScreenCraft's How to Write Screenplay Titles That Don’t Suck!
You drastically increase the odds of breaking through with a strong, well-conceived title because that is the very first element of your script that people will see. A compelling title that is enhanced even more by an accompanying logline can sell the production company or studio early on in the process.
You still need to have an outstanding script, but that great title can flip the switch for the reader. It can get them invested early on by capturing their immediate interest.
6. "Don't send along any personal letters to the editor telling him how good your story is, and how important you are in your home town, and how long it took you to write the script. An editor seeing this kind of letter usually surmises that a particularly poor story is ahead of him."
In these contemporary times, the "editor" would be the producer, development executive, manager, or agent that you are marketing your script to through email queries.
This act still happens today in most query emails (snail mail is dead, as is the fax machine approach). It's a true sign of an amateur when the content of the email goes on and on about how good the pitched story is, how much you love movies, and all of the work that went into writing this script.
It's a sure sign of a terrible script to come.
When you're writing your queries, keep it short, sweet, and to the point. Industry insiders don't have time to read through biographies and personal rhetoric. And they certainly don't have time to read an extended synopsis, treatment, or outline. If you send these types of emails, they will be trashed within seconds.
Tell them your name, give them your logline, and close by saying thank you for taking the time to read everything.
Read ScreenCraft's Writing the Perfect Query Letter for Your Scripts!
7. "The best method is to carry your characters about in your imagination for a few days before you start your story, to think about them until they become, to you, flesh and blood. When you have reached the point where you can say to yourself, 'That's wrong, Mary would never have done such a thing,' you can be sure your characterizations are crystallizing in the right way."
Great characterization is a must for screenplays. You can have the best concept in the world, but if you can't deliver on that concept through compelling characters, your screenplay will fail.
A common mistake screenwriters make is using dialogue to get their characters through the plot. So and so has to say this and that in order for them and theirs to get to the climax of the story. Script readers see it in a majority of spec scripts in the market or within contests and competitions.
The characters come off as bland with little to no personality. That's a tell-tale sign of a writer not creating characters that are living and breathing within their imagination.
Instead of jumping into the writing, take some time to let your characters grow in your imagination. Think about them until they are flesh and blood. Your mind will do most of the work for you, taking little bits and pieces of characters you've seen and people you know and building living, breathing characters that will come to life on your pages and hopefully on the big screen.
This is just Part 3 of our ongoing series of posts pulling inspiration and screenwriting wisdom from an almost one-hundred-year-old screenwriting book. Stay tuned for more and read Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven’t already!
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies