Adventures in the Screen Trade

Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my fath­er. Prepare to die.

The man who wrote these words is William Goldman. They are taken from his clas­sic movie, The Princess Bride. He is also the screen­writer behind Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, All the Presidents Men, The Great Waldo Pepper, and A Bridge Too Far. In short, he’s been around the block a few times, and he knows what he’s doing—although he would have you believe that he does not.

The notion that nobody knows any­thing about movies, least of all Goldman, per­meates the book Adventures in the Screen Trade. It is not wholly a prac­tic­al guide on screen­writ­ing. That aspect of the pro­cess is covered in a short but inform­at­ive sec­tion towards the end of the book. Rather, for the most part it is a record of his jour­ney from nov­el­ist to screen­writer. As you can ima­gine, the jour­ney is not a smooth one, and in the pro­cess, Goldman has col­lec­ted many anec­dotes.

I won’t relate any of them here. Indeed, I don’t really remem­ber them in any detail. Dustin Hoffman does not come out well. Laurence Olivier does.

The really inter­est­ing thing for me about the book is that Goldman finds a way to speak enter­tain­ingly about the cre­at­ive pro­cess behind screen­writ­ing. His main mes­sage is that the screen­writer is a some­what impot­ent fig­ure with­in the movie mak­ing pro­cess, con­stantly usurped by the dir­ect­or, the pro­du­cer, and any friends of the dir­ect­or all pro­du­cer who wish to improve his screen­play. It’s not a happy situ­ation. He recom­mends that the screen­writer try to make as much money as pos­sible from his scripts, and then return to some kind of prop­erly cre­at­ive pur­suit, such as nov­el writ­ing.

Nothing very new here, then. But the book is enga­ging non­ethe­less. The real value in this book lies in its final chapters. In these, he begins with a short story that he pub­lished many years before and then con­verts right there into a screen­play, out­lining along the way his struggles in trans­form­ing it. He goes on to inter­view a cine­ma­to­graph­er, edit­or, pro­du­cer, and dir­ect­or to get their impres­sions on pro­du­cing a movie from the final­ised screen­play. The inter­view with the dir­ect­or is worth the price of admis­sion alone. The dir­ect­or is not a big fan of the screen­play. Indeed, he rips Goldman a new one. It’s a great illus­tra­tion of the com­bat­ive pro­cess through which a movie is con­struc­ted.

How does a working writer keep improving?

John August, suc­cess­ful Hollywood screen­writer and blog­ger, posts some thoughts on how to raise your game as a writer while work­ing.

My advice for you is to ded­ic­ate one day a week to dis­as­sembling good movies. Take exist­ing films (and one-hour dra­mas) and break them down to cards. Think of your­self as an ordin­ary mech­an­ic giv­en the task of reverse-engin­eer­ing a space­ship. Figure out what the pieces do, and why they were put togeth­er in that way.

Visual storytelling is a crit­ic­al skill in the novelist’s arsen­al too, and one that is, I think, often under­developed.