Screenwriting Advice From The Past: What to Write and Not to Write [Part 3]

October 28th, 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. 78]:

In closing, let us add a word of encouragement suggesting what to write. At the present time, the material most in demand is the story with the emotional woman as the star, good light comedies, satires upon society, plots dealing with the wave of mysticism now sweeping over the world (new thought, spiritualism or the power of the human will), American business stories, small town tales with plenty of local color, and wholesome tales of adventure and romance in any form.

Well, for just about the first time in this lengthy series, we clearly have sensibilities in the past that have little relevance to the present. There’s not one of those story areas that would light up a prospective buyer’s eyes nowadays. Of course, they didn’t have computer generated imagery in 1920 nor a long history of comic book superheroes to create the glut of those type of franchises. Nor the contemporary capability to do or interest in action movies or thrillers. Even “good light comedies” probably wouldn’t cut it much in today’s world, preferring SNL-type or R-rated humor. And if you pitched anything “wholesome” and your name wasn’t Pixar, you’d likely find your way heading out the door pretty quickly, the interest in deeply flawed Protagonists and dark narratives so prevalent now.

Times change. Cultural sensibilities evolve. But as this series has demonstrated, much of what the writing process is about is similar. 1920. 2012. Come up with a strong idea. Write a great story. Entertain readers.

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.

One thought on “Screenwriting Advice From The Past: What to Write and Not to Write [Part 3]

  1. Shaula Evans says:

    I think there might be a little more wisdom here than first meets the eye if we do a little digging:

    “the story with the emotional woman as the star” = a story with a protagonist that conforms to socially-sanctioned gender roles

    “good light comedies” = comedies that reflect the comedic sensibilities of the day

    “satires upon society” = stories that tip the currently in-vogue sacred cows

    “plots dealing with the wave of mysticism now sweeping over the world (new thought, spiritualism or the power of the human will)” = stories that give people hope, and/or stories that threaten the status quo; stories that build on the Zeitgeist

    “American business stories” = stories about the economic and employment sectors that hold the most interest to the public (e.g., the rise in sports stories)

    “small town tales with plenty of local color” = stories that reflect the “real America”, which then was rural, for some time has been urban, and going forward, may yet under the influence of the Tea Party movement’s rhetoric skew back towards small town and rural (at least in some US domestic markets)

    “wholesome tales of adventure and romance” = tales of adventure and romance framed in the mores and values of the day

    The short version: know the age and time you live in and write for that audience.

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