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While reading JJ Murphy’s book this week I tried to think back on all of the screenwriting manuals I have had to read over the course of my life. I was able to come up with six, excluding Murphy’s. I might as well have read only one because as I thought back on it they were all really pushing one core concept: you have to have an story that is engaging, and these are the steps to ensure that it will be engaging. It is so frustrating for me when I write because story is rarely the most interesting part of a film, it is the characters and their interactions that are always paramount to me. As a result these are the films that tend to attract me. I recently re-watched Steven Soderburgh’s breakout film, sex, lies and videotape and one of the striking things about that film, especially when viewed in the context of the readings on character and dialog (and independent film), is how easily you can sum up the story: an old college friend moves into town and as a result complicates all sorts of relationships. That’s it. But that isn’t what makes sex, lies, and videotape a wonderful film. What makes it a wonderful film are the character’s Soderburgh populates his storyworld with and the ways in which they interact with one another. I think it is telling that a film like The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford can sum up its┬ástory IN THE TITLE(!), and yet the film is still engaging on so many other levels.

To a certain extent, screenwriting manuals are just doing their job. Their job is to tell you how to sell a screenplay, and their formula (presumably) works. Screenwriters generally don’t direct the films they write, so it is difficult for them to follow through on a screenplay that is “execution dependent” to quote Murphy. Still, though, for screenplays to privilege story above all else means the relegation of engaging characters or dialogue to the screen.

As I understand it, the authors of these screenwriting manuals were inspired to write many of these manuals because they saw films as moving away from telling stories, and so they came up with ‘principles’ upon which a person could construct a halfway decent story. The problem is that the pendulum seems to have swung in the opposite direction. The film market is saturated with films that fit into the neat, little three-act structure, but are populated with characters you couldn’t care less about, and these characters are given dialogue that inspires (!) you to jam a freshly sharpened pencil in your ear. Hopefully more books like Mr. Murphy’s will be assigned in screenwriting classes and we might see big studios tossing out films that look, sound, and feel more like independent films.

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