While Alexis and I were staying in my parents' house last week in what used to be my bedroom, I scanned the bookcase and noticed the impressive-bordering-on-embarrassing collection of screenwriting books that occupied most of a shelf. Well, actually, more like embarrassing-bordering-on-incredibly-embarrassing. It wouldn't be so bad if the books had been acquired over a decade or so, during which time I had diligently churned out a succession of scripts and, on occasion, felt the need to turn to an outside source for guidance. But that's neither the timetable nor the circumstance in which they were purchased. In reality -- hilariously enough -- they were all purchased before I turned twenty-one, and (with one exception) before I'd actually written a single screenplay.
Let's go through some of them, shall we? The Screenwriter's Problem Solver? What screenwriting problems did I need to solve, exactly? I suppose "not having written anything yet" could be considered a problem, but offhand it strikes me as a relatively solvable one.
How to Write a Selling Screenplay. I think that's the first one I bought. The author has no screenplay credits on IMDb. He probably just hasn't read his own book yet.
Screenplay. Like many books of its ilk, about 200 pages on why Chinatown is the best screenplay ever written and all you need to do to write a good script is duplicate it word for word. (Also written by the Screenwriter's Problem Solver guy.)
The Screenwriter's Bible: A Complete Guide to Writing, Formatting, and Selling Your Script. This one's a fucking page-turner, let me tell you. As I recall, there's at least one chapter on margins and probably two or three on font choices. Might have been slightly useful if I wasn't already, at the time, enrolled in a two-semester screenwriting class that devoted about 70% of class time to margin and font sizes.
The Screenwriter's Workbook. Subtitle: "Exercises and Step-by-Step Instructions for Creating a Successful Screenplay." The Chinatown worshiper, again. I hear his next book is a concise guide to being elected president. Sadly, Bill Richardson has already ordered an advance copy.
Making a Good Script Great. The author knows whereof she speaks: she was a script consultant on Neverending Story II: The Next Chapter. I'm dubious, though... I have a feeling that script was already pretty great before she got her hands on it. I purchased this book immediately upon completion of the first draft of my first screenplay. Taking the first mature step in my writing career, I thought about it for a year or so and then chose never to work on it or think about it ever again. Yes, it was that bad. No, you may not read it.
And now we come to the granddaddy of them all. Story, by Robert McKee. General consensus posits this as the definitive book on screenwriting, if by "definitive" you mean "most pretentious" and by "pretentious" you mean "you can't read it without involuntarily putting on a fake British accent." This book and its accompanying seminars achieved true immortality when they were brilliantly spoofed in Adaptation, the one good Nicolas Cage movie in the past
Quite a different experience, I must say, to be reading them from the perspective of "let's see if this guy can tell me anything I don't already know" as opposed to, like, "Hey, this book will show me how to write screenplays!" I have to admit, it's at least somewhat useful. Instead of spouting out crazy quasi-mystical stuff about the inciting event that needs to plot-pointize the culminating protagonist on the bottom third of page 29, he just talks about things you need to keep in mind while you're writing... like if you set up X, then people are going to expect Y, and so forth. And it all pretty much makes sense, pretentious or not.
I have no real conclusion to this series of thoughts, so there you go.