Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade - A Review

Screenwriting Tricks of the TradeScreenwriting Tricks of the Trade
By William Froug
Silman-James Press

As a novelist, I've been walking on the wild side for about a year now, reading more books about screenwriting than about novel writing. It all started with Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder (which I review here.) Much of what I got from these books that I couldn't get from books about writing novels involved story structure, but there were lots of other valuable things as well.  Snyder even included a few "tricks of trade" such as the save-the-cat moment (hence the books name) and Pope-in-the-pool. These ideas weren't new to me. I'd pretty much figured them out on my own, but it was nice to have validation. It would have been much nicer if I'd read about them sooner and hadn't had to figure them out myself. So that's what I was kinda hoping that this book would offer.

In that arena, this book is a disappointment. There are no little tricks of the trade like Pope-in-the-pool* that was offered in Save The Cat! That doesn't mean this book doesn't have value. It just doesn't deliver what the title promises.

I have to say that I’m disappointed in this book.  I just didn’t see anything here that made me feel like I was being let in on any professional secrets for story writing. Neither is there much that’s new or unique.

That doesn’t mean this author doesn’t have worthwhile advice; it just means that you can find most (if not all) of what he has to share elsewhere, and generally in a lot of elsewheres.  Mostly, what you’ll find here is an attitude that you need to write the best story you can and that you should be willing to take risks by going against standard wisdom.

For instance, though he acknowledges that the most common story structure is the three-act structure, he thinks it stifles creativity. He may be right, but like any other rules, I think it’s important to understand the “rules” so you know when and how to break them. As a reader and movie viewer, I’m less excited about the avante guard stories I suspect result from this idea. Maybe that says more about me than it does about those who want to break away from the standard structure.

Among other things, he says:
There is no “one-size-fits-all” method of writing.

Don’t revised during the first draft. Notes in the margin are fine. Once started, press on like there’s a pack of wolves nipping at your ass.

The criteria for a scene are: Does it (1) advance the story, (2) increase the dramatic tension, (3) deepen our interest in the story and/or the character, or (4) create laughter? Of the 4, the most important is (2) increase the dramatic tension.

What else does it deliver?

It has some thought provoking things to say. For instance, the author, W, doesn't believe your protagonist has to be likable. He does believe you must create a fascinating, compelling, interesting, and understandable protagonist. I think that's reasonable. It doesn't work 100% with the romance genre, which is what I write, but in many other genres, fascinating works.

I do like what he says about villains. They can't be straw men. They must be the most dangerous villain imaginable. The villain or opposing force must seem much stronger than your protagonist...The danger of a weak villain cannot be overstated... Unless the threat is deadly serious, it's a joke and your protagonist will be ridiculed. He goes into more detail, of course. Most intermediate and advanced writers already get this, but it's something I've seen newer writers struggle with. Anything that helps reinforce this knowledge is worthwhile.

The rest of the book contains lots of worthwhile information, but frankly, I've seen all of it done better and covered in more depth elsewhere, so while this isn't a bad book, it's nothing special.

If you'd like to see other writing resource reviews, they're here.

*The Pope-in-the-pool (mentioned above) gets its name from a screenplay (unproduced as far as I can tell) where the plot calls for a lengthy but necessary information dump. To keep it from being boring, the scene was set at the pool at the Vatican (your guess is as good as mine about whether such a pool actually exists). The idea is that, if there's something interesting going on alongside it, the info dump won't be as boring is it normally would be.

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