“How to Write Photoplays” by John Emerson and Anita Loos

March 11th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early history of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote perhaps the earliest book on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”.

Here are the chapter titles:

I. Let’s Write A Movie

II. Tools And Trades

III. Getting The Story Across

IV. The Photoplay Writer’s Dictionary

V. The Theme

VI. Star Sympathy

VII. “Action! Camera! Grind!”

VIII. The Synopsis

IX. The Continuity

X. Titles and Sub-Titles

XI. A Model Scene

XII. Marketing The Story

XIII. Writing For The Camera

XIV. Scenery For Scenarios

XV. The Actor’s Angle

XVI. Character On The Screen

XVII. The “Interest”

XVIII. The Kind Of Stories That Sell

XIX. What To Write — And Not To Write

XX. Cutting The Picture

XXI. Writing For The Censors

XXII. The Pictorial Element

XXIII. The Denouement

XXIV. How To Begin

XXV. Midway In The Photoplay

XXVI. The Final Close-Up

XXVII. The Love Expert

Okay, maybe not Robert McKee or Syd Field, but isn’t it remarkable how many of those topics have relevance for today’s screenwriters?

Gee, wouldn’t it be kind of fun to flip through this book. But come on, it’s 92 years old. There’s no way you could possibly find it, right?

Wrong. Check this out: You can read the book online for free!

But you know what? I shall save you the trouble. Each Sunday for the next several weeks, I will post key excerpts from the most applicable chapters of this book. And you will be absolutely amazed at how little things have changed in terms of the fundamentals of the screenwriting trade in nearly a century’s time.

Here is a short film called The New York Hat (1912) written by Loos, directed by D.W. Griffith, and starring the biggest star of the era Mary Pickford.

Screenwriting wisdom from Loos in the weeks to come.

7 thoughts on ““How to Write Photoplays” by John Emerson and Anita Loos

  1. Holy smokes! I’ve never seen such a young John Barrymore before!

    Sing it with me, “I love technology…” 😉

    1. Oops. Sorry not John, Lionel. :/ I always get those two mixed up.

  2. I followed your link to google books but there was no online viewing of the book allowed. Guess I’ll have to wait for your posted excerpts. *sigh*

    1. Scott says:

      Daniel, not sure what the issue is for you as the book is completely available to me. Are you outside the U.S.? Does Google do the same thing Yahoo does – or used to – where they would restrict some videos to non-U.S. residents?

      1. I think you’re right–I’m out of the US and it says “not available in your country”.
        I’ve had this problem with videos before, but this is the first time I’ve seen it in Google Books.

  3. I had the same problem. I clicked on the link and it showed the title and book cover but there was no way to read it.

  4. David Joyner says:

    “Writing the Photoplay” by J. Berg Esenwein and Arthur Leeds, was published a bit earlier:

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