Spielberg Thinks You Should Read More

I couldn't agree more with what Mr. Spielberg has to say!

Spielberg Thinks You Should Read More

Posted by: Angela , June 25, 2015 via http://la-screenwriter.com

by Fiona Wheeler

Joseph McBride writes in his screenwriting manual Writing in Pictures,

The fragmentation of the TV-watching experience, the influence of the Internet and YouTube, and the effect of our amped-up video culture on feature filmmaking have resulted in a modern style relying more on moment-to-moment sensation than on the traditional pleasures of coherent storytelling.

Culture is turning away from books in favor of the visual media in recent decades, the related decline in reading skills also have had damaging effect on our storytelling skills.

Steven Spielberg was speaking in an interview about the Golden Age of films from the 70s and early 80s, considered by many the greatest period of American cinema. The interviewer asked why it was that great films like those aren’t being written any more. Spielberg replied,

They read the great words of great minds… In our romance with technology and our excitement at exploring all the possibilities… I think we’ve partially lost something we now have to reclaim… for only a generation of readers will spawn a generation of writers.

Is that right? Are screenwriters who have dropped classic reading from their “to do” lists to blame?

[Read Steven Spielberg’s Curriculum, the 200 films Spielberg thinks every filmmaker should watch.]

How The Blockbuster Began Its Reign

The Paramount case of 1948, during those paranoid post-War times, saw the enforced separation of production, distribution and exhibition. A single company could no longer make movies secure in the knowledge that each new title would be passed along and shown (by the various branches of the parent company) to a ready-made domestic and international audience.

Budgets were tightened, studios became more cautious. A film now had to rely on the pulling power of great stories and well-known actors. Actors, that is, who increased and maintained their screen appeal by their savvy choice of well-written, complex characters.


To write such multi-faceted characters, studios sought to hire well-known authors. Writing critically-acclaimed novels has never exactly paid well, so it is was that many great writers and playwrights of the day, with their vast reserves of cultural and literary knowledge, turned to screenplays. Being well-read became the screenwriter norm.

The rise the French New Wave and its knock-on impact on American culture meant that by the 70s in America the film director “auteur” was dictator. But, as any historian will tell you, no dictatorship lasts forever. A series of mega hits saw studios giving directors as much rope as they wanted, and inevitable massive losses resulted.

During this dictatorship of the directors, the studios had been working behind the scenes to repeal the “divorcement” decree of 1948. In 1985 they were successful. Finally, global conglomerates were once again allowed to make, distribute, and exhibit their own product (movies). Plus, they could exclusively use songs from music labels they owned, as well as license, manufacture and sell movie-related merchandise in their various food and retail outlets.

Knowing they stood to make so much in value-added income, studios could once again afford to bankroll the blockbusters. Suddenly story and nuanced, complex characters weren’t important anymore. Special effects and related technologies were where the investment dollars were funneled.

But that doesn’t explain why we, the screenwriters, stopped reading.

The Modern Screenwriter

Societal shifts and the rise of the literary savant (first-time novelists whose self-style rebel image was built upon their refusal to read the classics, or any written works) meant that for the first time writing became an accessible, and acceptable, dream for not just the cultural elite, but everyone. And what’s more accessible than film and TV? Thousands, tens of thousands, who were intimidated by the very idea of great literature, felt comfortable sitting down to write their very own screenplay or teleplay.

Then came the next tsunami: the digital revolution. Almost overnight the prohibitive cost of making a (celluloid) feature film disappeared. To the non-professional, unaware that a film production is a myriad of perfectly balanced moving cogs, writing a feature seemed even more possible than ever before.

Does it matter that filmmakers with no formal training in writing, directing or cinematography are making features?

Some would argue that that’s exactly what the French have been doing all along.

What works for one nationality, doesn’t necessarily work for another. Firstly, 80 percent of French box office is for American, not European, films. Secondly, the French are educated in an entirely different way than Americans. Philosophy and the culture of knowledge are fundamental to the French way of being.

If you grow up in Paris, you live only a train ride from the place where the first ever declaration of Human Rights was penned. From there you can stroll down to the Seine River and gaze across at Notre Dame, which was saved from crumbling to ruins because an author, Victor Hugo, wrote a novel set there. When a French director says they read “no more than most” and have no great focus on literature, culture or ideas, it’s relative.

So what are American writers, and those who wish to write for American producers/studios to do?

Read, Watch, Experience, Enjoy

Julian Hoxter, author of the screenwriting manual Write What You Don’t Know says, “Engage with culture, politics and the world… your characters don’t live in a vacuum and, if you want to make them come alive, neither should you.”

We all agree that a screenplay is the blueprint of a film. For an architect to be judged knowledgeable enough to create a blueprint for a building, they must first study other great structures and understand why it is those landmarks have withstood the tests of time. I agree with Spielberg: only a generation of great readers will spawn a generation of great writers.

So read. Read the newspaper. Read classic novels. Read pulp fiction. Read your friend’s scripts. Read produced scripts. And watch and experience and revel and enjoy, as well. Surround yourself with art and knowledge, and your craft is sure to benefit.


Really enjoyed reading this. It goes to show there is not one simple answer to how to do things, or more specifically write your screenplays. Just make sure to listen to your instinct and it will guide you. I believe one can always trust it!

via Raindance by JOHN TRUBY

It has been estimated that at least 50,000 scripts are written every year. Yet only a few hundred are bought and made. Why do so many writers fail?

Clearly, there is a limit to how many scripts the business can support. But in the vast majority of cases, scripts do not sell because the writer has not written a good script.

I have taught and worked with literally thousands of writers. Every one of those writers was an intelligent, dedicated and determined person. Those who failed did not lack brains, heart or will. In every case, failure was due to the lack of training and professional technique.

Most writers have had no training at all when they try to write a script that will sell. Great screenwriting is more difficult than brain surgery, yet most people think that they can write a great script because they watch a lot of movies or they did well in school.

When they do decide to get a little knowledge, most writers go out and buy a couple of books on screenwriting. And what do they learn? Almost invariably, these books tell them about the so-called 3-act structure. These writers have just killed any chance they had of writing a script that will sell.

The so-called 3-act structure is the biggest, most destructive myth ever foisted on writers. I would like to call it obsolete. But that implies that it worked in the first place. It didn't. Let me explain why.

The 3-act structure exists for one reason and one reason only: a story analyst declared it into existence. He found that something important seemed to happen in some successful scripts on page 27 and on page 87. He called them plot points, said that based on these plot points every screenplay had three acts, and incredibly, everyone bought it.

Such has been the sad state of screenwriting training and the desperation of screenwriters themselves that no one noticed that the emperor was in fact naked. Instead, a lot of people who should know better joined in the chorus and wrote screenwriting books (over 100 to date) agreeing with this silly idea.

Some have gone so far as to say there are three acts in all fiction - there aren't - and insist that it was Aristotle who first "discovered" this "fact." In fact Aristotle never said anything about three acts. He said there is a beginning, middle, and end to every story, and that is the extent of your knowledge when you use the 3-act structure.

Using the 3-act structure to explain why one script was successful and another failed is like saying that most moneymaking scripts have a happy ending. Most do, but so do most films that fail and most scripts that don't sell in the first place.

Now anyone can divide anything into three parts. It is often the first step in taking a big mass of something and breaking it into a manageable process. In fact, I refer to the 3-act structure as the "Training Wheels School of Drama." It is a confidence builder for beginners to help them start writing. The problem is that thousands of people trying to write professionally are still riding around on their training wheels!

Why is it impossible for the 3-act structure to help you create a great script?

First, the concept of the act comes from theatre where we must open and close a curtain. Why would you want to take a relatively clumsy technique from theatre and apply it to the much more fluid medium of film?

Second, dividing a film into three acts is far too general and simplistic. The standard terms that this "method" uses - act, plot point, reversal, climax, resolution, etc. - are so broad as to be almost meaningless.

And that means these terms are difficult to apply to your particular plot and characters. For example, say your hero is being chased down a dark alley by some bad guys. Is that a plot point, a reversal, a climax, a resolution, or just another scene? Who knows? Our story concepts are our tools. If our tools are imprecise, we are bound to fail.

Fourth, the 3-act structure places no emphasis on character. Notice that none of the standard terms listed above has anything to do with character. Nor is there any mention of how character connects to plot. Not surprisingly, scripts written this way tend to have shallow characters.

Fifth, the 3-act structure almost guarantees that your script will have a weak plot. The 3-act structure says you need two or three "plot points." Big mistake. Especially in the last few years, Hollywood has been emphasizing tightly-plotted stories. Take a look at the film "Presumed Innocent." This film doesn't have two or three plot points, or story turns. It has no less than twelve! Imagine competing in the Hollywood sweepstakes against scripts like "Presumed Innocent" with your three plot-point story. Yet that is precisely what most writers are doing.

Finally, the 3-act structure doesn't work because it is arbitrary. Give a script to ten people and ask them to tell you where the plot points and the act breaks are. You will get at least ten different answers. And they will all be correct. Act breaks are wherever you say they are. Sometimes, writers reluctant to move beyond the 3-act structure ask: What will I say if executives ask me where my act breaks are? Tell them whatever you want. The executives won't know the difference, or care. They just ask the question to make it look like they know something.

Why not say that all scripts are really divided into four acts, or five or six? Preston Sturges, a far better authority than most on great writing, used to divide his scripts into eight acts, or sections, as he called them.

Using the 3-act structure to explain the success or failure of a script is like "experts" explaining why the stock market went down or an earthquake occurred when it did - after the fact. Notice the experts never predict successfully before the occurrence. Why? Because their tools are too inexact.

The key distinction here is: what tools will you use to create a script vs. what tools will a story analyst use to evaluate a script. Story analysts can use the 3-act structure if they want, although most of the good ones I know moved beyond this simplistic formula a long time ago. Sure, even the good ones may still use some of the old terms. But that's just a convenience. Their analysis and evaluation is based on a different set of principles for understanding plot and character.

But writers facing the blank page need a far more precise set of story tools to create compelling characters and tight plots. Here are some of the hallmarks of the training necessary to write professionally.

Professional writers are not members of some mysterious priesthood. They are masters of a craft, which, though complex, can be learned. Professional writers use techniques that are fundamentally different than other writers use. These techniques fall into two major areas: story structure and genre.

Story structure on the professional level doesn't involve a simplistic three-part structure. A professional script almost always involves a journey of learning by the main character. This journey covers a number of steps, and includes numerous false starts. To express this complex journey, professional story training doesn't involve imposing some false set of false plot points from the outside. Instead professionals always make sure that the character drives the plot. Indeed, the plot is simply the playing out of the character's actions and personal development.

Professional training in story structure, then, involves learning how to map the character's journey in a very detailed way. (By the way, this journey is usually not a mythical one.) I cannot emphasize enough how detailed this map must be for a professional script. Why do most 3-act structure scripts fail in the "middle?" Because the 3-act structure gives you absolutely no map to the middle.

Unlike the one-size-fits-all approach of the 3-act structure, this professional approach is always unique to your particular story because it uses a map that details your unique hero.

The other aspect of professional training that the 3-act structure completely disregards is genre. The first rule of Hollywood is this: Hollywood buys and sells story forms. If you want to succeed you simply must master your particular genre better than anyone else. Each genre has its own set of story beats - another map - that you must hit if you are to tell that story in a satisfying way. The trick is to hit those beats as originally as possible.

For example, you could say that "Tootsie" is a perfect case of the 3-act structure. But does anyone really believe that the tight comical spiral of "Tootsie" was created by writers using the one-size-fits-all approach of the screenwriting books? Or was it the result of highly-trained, professional comedy writers who knew their genres cold and tracked a chauvinist through a series of tightly-plotted farcical events leading him to his change of heart?

When you answer that question you are on your way to realizing what you need to write professionally in the brutal competition of the entertainment industry.


John Truby

John Truby is regarded as the serious writer’s story coach and has taught his Anatomy Of Story and Genre courses to sold-out audiences in Los Angeles, New York, London, Paris, Sydney, Rome, Toronto, and other far-flung locales.

Over the past twenty years, more than 30,000 students have taken Truby’s scriptwriting class and rave about the insights and direction it has given them.

His students include the writer/director/or producer for the following films:

Shrek, Pirates of the Caribbean, The Mask of Zorro, Nightmare on Elm Street, Outbreak, Scream, Sleepless in Seattle, Back to School, The Addams Family, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Beetlejuice, Valley Girl, The Negotiator and Star Wars

John Truby has brought his acclaimed "Anatomy Of Story Class" to Raindance London since 1995.