We receive many films each year from filmmakers who wanted to break all the rules and make their own film, which I’m a total fan of, provided you know the rules first. Unfortunately, many of these filmmakers do not understand the actual foundations of good screenwriting, so they go out into left field, trying to wing it until they get to a satisfying ending. Unfortunately, that’s like winging it until you paint a masterpiece or winging it until you compose a masterpiece. Some folks have an inherent knowledge of structure and can do that, but most cannot.
When I try to explain this to filmmakers, many bristle and respond sullenly that using “paint-by-numbers screenwriting structure” removes all the originality of their work. What they fail to understand is that the creating a film isn’t like creating a painting, it’s like creating tent. The structure is like the tent poles and pegs that hold the tent’s shape. After it’s up, you can paint it any color you want and infuse it with any pattern you want, allowing you to go wild in showing your creativity. And, once you’ve put up a tent or two, you can even modify the tent poles and come up with all new structures. However, if you try to start without understanding how to build the tent’s structure in the first place, you’ll just end up with a mess of paint on a limp tent shell that bears no resemblance to an actual tent, and, more importantly, doesn’t fulfill the purpose of a tent. Just as a tent needs to protect you from the rain and the elements, a film needs to convey a story that viewers can follow, understand, and gain some insight on some topic from.
The Short Screenplay is a book that explains this concept in a very concise and easy to follow manner. Dan Gurkis shows how structure propels both plot and story without requiring the sacrifice of creativity or inspiration.
With that said, let’s break down the book.
I found this book to be very understandable. At times, Mr. Gurskis would take things right to the edge of losing me, but then tie everything together in a manner that clicked and made me nod in agreement. With that said, this book is designed to appeal more to a logic-based brain than an emotional-based brain, with concepts of films structure that almost are mathematical in nature. Rather than finding that this caused the book to be too formulaic or paint-by-the-numbers, I actually found that it made concepts of proper screenwriting clean and concise. Once you have a clean understanding, then modification and adjustment for creativity is a hundred times easier.
One thing that I personally found helpful is the inclusion of “Buzz Word” pop-outs. Whenever an industry “buzz word” was in a page, a pop-out box on the page included the definition to make it easier to not get confused. I found this far superior for understandability than relying on a glossary in the back, as that requires so much back-and-forth flipping that you just stop bothering looking up words. (Despite it’s lack of reliance on a back glossary, the book does include a full one for ease of looking up words when you’re not actually reading the book, which is a very logical redundancy!)
Covering everything from the development of script ideas through writing drafts and finally into full production, The Short Screenplay really covers a lot more than you would expect it to from it’s cover. Plus, although it’s designed for short films, Mr. Gurskis actually provides a pretty large amount of information on feature length films, to the point where I would recommend this as a scriptwriting primer for any filmmaker who is going to make a film, regardless of its length.
I personally found his chapter on the comparison of film dialogue to stage and television dialogue very interesting. While I chaffed a bit under the amount of brevity he suggested on dialogue, I had to admit that it’s far easier to add elements of dialogue to a too spare script than it is cut dialogue from an overweight. (I learned that with nightmare clarity on my first film, which, in addition to being bloated with dialogue in production, ended up having audio problems and having to be entirely redubbed. Overly long, rambling dialogue in a dubbing studio will make you consider either turning your film into a silent film or eating a shotgun barrel!)
While there were a few times where the book started to get a bit dry, Mr. Gurskis conciseness and understandability kept me interested and plowing right along. In my opinion, if you understand attention captivation well enough that you can make a writing how-to guide interesting, then that speaks volumes for your right to tell people how to make films that hold people’s attention. (After all, films have lots of moving images that books don’t!)
This is a book that you’ll definitely reuse, as many of the concepts are ones that you’ll want to refresh from time to time. Additionally, because of the way each chapter deals with a different part of the screenplay crafting process, you’ll probably want to use those chapters as references when you’re actually in the process of writing. Finally, the sample scripts, the glossary, and the suggested viewing short films in the back will keep you flipping back through this book for verification and reminders.
Since The Short Screenplay is a soft cover book, I would like to see the $24.95 price tag dropped to $19.95. Still, the depth of information found in The Short Screenplay makes it a good value at either price.
Possibly the most concise script writing book I’ve
ever read, you would be highly recommended to pick up The
Short Screenplay and see how it can improve the structure
of the tales you tell in film.