Screenwriting Advice From The Past: What to Write and Not to Write [Part 2]

October 21st, 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. 77]:

Almost every conceivable situation has occurred to a writer somewhere in the past. You can, however, get a new story by adding a new theme to the old situation, or an original character or by other combinations of the elements of the plot.

Okay, if Loos and Emerson were saying this back in 1920, considering the tens of thousands of movies that have been produced in the last 9 decades, imagine what their perspective would be nowadays.

Face it, friends: There is no such thing as a ‘new’ story. Every story is a variation of something that has come before.

So you work with ideas and do things like gender-bending, genre-bending, and use the old reliable ‘what if’.

Reminds me of an anecdote about Woody Guthrie. Guthrie, who wrote over 4,000 songs in his life, was once asked how he came up with his melodies. He said [paraphrased], “Well, I take one I like, twist the notes a lil’ bit here, a lil’ bit there, and make it my own.”

That’s basically what writers do. Take a story idea, twist it around a bit, make it our own.

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.

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