Screenwriting Advice From The Past: What to Write and Not to Write [Part 1]

October 14th, 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: What to Write and Not to Write [P. 76]:

Every photoplay writer goes through approximately the same stages in apprenticeship, dreaming the same fancies that thousands have dreamed before, and falling on the same ancient ideas in the delusion that they are brand new discoveries. Nearly half the stories that come to any office are rejected because they are “old stuff.” Sometimes this is because the writer unconsciously is repeating what he has seen or read in the past; but more often it is because the same solution to the problems of life occur to all of us.

It takes hard work to create a new plot, so beware of the one which comes too easily. By way of helping you we will try to pass on to you the most valuable attribute of any scenarist–namely, the knowledge of what has already been overworked.

This goes to the heart of Hollywood’s longstanding criterion when it comes to acquiring and developing scripted projects: “similar but different.” Too similar, it comes across as “old stuff.” Different, then it’s a variation on a theme and something a movie studio can market.

Takeaway: You need to pay attention not only to what movies are being released currently into theaters, but also what the buyers are buying.

If only there was a free online service that provided this information…

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.

2 thoughts on “Screenwriting Advice From The Past: What to Write and Not to Write [Part 1]

  1. Shaula Evans says:

    I really love this series, Scott. Thank you for running it.

    > “Sometimes this is because the writer unconsciously is repeating what he has seen or read in the past…”

    You know, the funny thing here is that when I catch myself making weak or predictable choices in my own writing, quite often it’s because I’m writing a “TV cop” or a “movie heroine”–but the people I know in real life are SO much more interesting than anyone I typically see on TV or in movies.

    When I fall into the trap of writing from second-hand experience, I try to stop and ask myself, “Who do I know like this in real life? What would they really do?” The writing choices I come up with this way are consistently stronger and more interesting.

    I realize everything I have just written is dead obvious, but it still amazes me how easy it is to fall into regurgitating tropes and cliches from pop culture. Is it because we swim in so many stories and because there are such solid, established tropes in modern storytelling?

    I hope that being aware of that tendency is a good start toward warding it off. Certainly observing myself and the fascinating people around me and listening to their stories are the best sources of stories, conflicts, motivations, and insights into characters for me.

    Another way to deal with this is to ask, “Where’s the truth here”? (I’m really hung up on truth in writing at the moment–my current writing phase.) Looking for the truth of the character, the situation, and the premise is also a good way to get past facile story choices.

    In short, how to avoid “the same old” choices?
    - pay attention to the world around me
    - write from life
    - look for the truth

    I’d love to know how other writers deal with this, too.

    1. Scott says:

      Shaula, I think you are right: just having an AWARENESS of cliches and tropes is key, so we actively think of ways to explore characters in different ways. I find the key is simply getting to know characters. Human beings are by nature multilayered individuals [on a psychological level], so it’s oftentimes a matter of just digging deeper, digging deeper, etc.

      It’s also fun to work with archetypes. A Mentor who is an Addict is different than one who is a Martyr, or a Warrior compared to a Prostitute. We can use these sub-types to explore all sorts of alternative ways of spinning characters.

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