The best gifts come unexpectedly, sometimes in unlikely wrappers. My journey as a writer has been typically long, arduous, ecstatic and occasionally both painful and fruitful, and along the way I’ve studied the craft in various forms. That journey has required several business cards, in no particular order (because I do them concurrently and intermittently): copywriter, creative director, freelance writer, novelist, screenwriter, writing teacher, blogger. Every named category here has a shelf full of how-to books, and I’ve read most of them. One of them changed my life.
Here’s the unexpected part: the best book I’ve ever read about writing novels was a book about writing screenplays. A little background: as a younger man, I wrote six novels that failed to find a publisher. They were all high-concept stories (like, what happens when all of the geezers who were hiding the truth about the Kennedy assassination began to die off, and what if one of them wanted to buy his way into heaven by outing the truth?), and while I received the occasional encouraging note from an editor advising me to learn the craft, I didn’t really understand what that meant, and as a result, why those books didn’t sell. Then, thanks to a fortuitous convergence with a small-time movie producer, I was given the chance to write a screenplay and actually get paid for it (well below Guild minimums, I assure you), and having never written one before, I decided it wise to read up on the subject.
And that’s when I found the book that changed my life. Because with screenwriting, it’s all about character and story, and very little about nifty sentences (which most new writers cling to, as I did, as their primary passion and weapon, which is why, as I did, most new writers color their narrative with too much purple). This book illuminates the structure and standards of storytelling, and to this day I’ve never seen a workshop instructor or a book do it as well.
Storytelling is storytelling. Don’t let anybody tell you that screenwriting isn’t writing, or that it differs from writing novels in terms of storytelling basics. It doesn’t. The only people who say that are elitist novelists who can’t sell their screenplays and the handful of successful screenwriters with prose like cardboard.
The book is simply entitled SCREENPLAY, by a iconic fellow named Syd Field. It’s in its bazilliionth printing, and is largely considered the bible of screenwriting by the multitude of wannabe screenwriters, which outnumber wannabe novelists by orders of magnitude.
The moment I applied the principles of storytelling as defined and taught in SCREENPLAY by Syd Field, I suddenly understood why my novels hadn’t sold, and then, why my screenplays suddenly began getting some attention in Hollywood (two options, seven big-time contest placements).
My wife, Laura, had the brilliant idea that I go back to my original passion, writing novels, and apply what I’ve learned as a screenwriter. So I adapted one of my own screenplays, called “In Darkness Bound,” and wrote it as a novel, using the same structure, character and thematic arc.
The novel sold immediately, first submission. The first draft required only twenty minutes of editing to get the editor at Penguin Putnam to sign off on it, and that’s the version that was published and became a USA Today bestseller.
Syd Field changed my life. His theories – which he doesn’t claim as proprietary, only as proven truths – are the basis of not only my writing, but of my instructing. To my knowledge I’m the only novel writing teacher who has adapted that developmental to novels, and luckily I have the war stories to prove it valid. Many of my students say that, after decades of workshops and study, it’s the best and most liberating, encouraging, and valid thing they’ve ever heard. Syd Field, through me, changed their writing lives, too.
The book is called SCREENPLAY. The author is Syd Field. If you can’t get your head around great storytelling, if you’re looking for a blueprint to tell a story in the same way that a builder needs a blueprint to erect a structure, this is the book.