Screenwriting Advice From The Past: The Kinds Of Stories That Sell [Part 1]

September 9th, 2012 by

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

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. I have been running a weekly series based on the book. You can access those posts here. Today: The Kinds Of Stories That Sell [P. 72]:

Amateur photoplay writers, if they hope to attain success, should first direct all their creative efforts toward coaxing a check from its lair, although, of course, they must never lose consciousness of their artistic ideals.

Once they have achieved fame, they can afford to go into art for art’s sake alone. It should be remembered that in literature and drama alike there is an artistic side and a practical side. Often the real masterpiece lies unnoticed for years, while the potboilers sell like hot cakes.

This one of the best chapters in the book as it is remarkable how similar the ideas behind the practices of the movie business are today compared to 1920. Here, for example, the tension between movies as commerce and movies as art. Studios will make prestige and award type movies, but by and large, they are in the “potboiler” and popcorn movie business.

Moreover this perspective quoted here is very much in sync with a post I wrote: Write what they’re buying or sell them your dream.

Next week, more screenwriting advice from 90 years ago.

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

4 thoughts on “Screenwriting Advice From The Past: The Kinds Of Stories That Sell [Part 1]

  1. blknwite says:

    Thanks for the post, yes amazing how nothing changes and everything changes.

    1. Scott says:

      blknwite, that has been a recurring theme in this series. Yes, a few differences here and there, but amazing how the underlying assumptions are so similar to what Hwood practiced 92 years ago.

  2. As you’ve written before, action, comedy and thrillers (or a combo of the three) are what the people want most — with a dash of romance sprinkled in if possible. It’s been that way since the Coliseum games… since the time of Shakespeare.

  3. Shaula Evans says:

    > Often the real masterpiece lies unnoticed for years, while the potboilers sell like hot cakes.

    I have some “big” stories I’d like to write, and they are on the backburner for now. I don’t have the connections to get them made, and I don’t yet have the writing chops to do them justice. I’m happy having those projects to look forward to, though, as a reward for working through the career and skill stages it will take to get me there.

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