Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
November 28, 2023

Author dishes on how to write for the silver screen

By Buddy Sola | April 21, 2012

There's a strange logic surrounding the concept of teaching the art of writing. Unlike virtually every other field out there, young artists just kind of do it instead of starting with a baseline of rules with which to write. And Writing in Pictures: Screenwriting Made (Mostly) Painless by Joseph McBride follows this to a tee, which, altogether is a strange new approach for screenwriting how-tos.

See, that approach doesn't work very well. It's like putting someone in an algebra class, giving them algebra tests, but never actually teaching them algebra. They make all kinds of rookie and beginner mistakes because they've never been given a framework out of which to work.

Instead, they're flailing around trying to find some kind of bearing, while professors reem them for not doing it right.

But generally, screenwriting is very different. You can't hide behind figurative language, artistic quality tends to come second to storytelling strength and structure is either there and strong, or not and terrible.

Thus, most books on the subject tend to explain concepts like act structure, character arc and thematic content in an easy-to-use way. Some books assign page numbers for certain story beats, saying, "Alright, something happens to your protagonist that sets him in motions; put that on page 10." And, yeah, some people reel against this method of being told what to do, but most actually take it very well, or at least, most at Hopkins.

It's hard to think outside the box when you're never given a box. And that's Writing in Picture's biggest problem. It starts by assuming that every other screenwriting book out there is a waste of time.


It's there to trick you, get you to write bad action movies or pigeonhole your creativity and artistic depth. And that pretention flies throughout the rest of the book. Every page drips with an off-putting elitism in not only the prose, but also in the content. No one jumps out of the gate and writes a masterpiece. And, sorry every writing professor ever, but reading great stuff doesn't translate to writing great stuff. It's like being taught trigonometry and pretending that will teach you algebra.

It won't.

And Joesph McBride makes that mistake right from the get go. But it's not all bad.

In truth, his superiority complex keeps him fresh, to a certain nauseating degree, and it gives a somewhat unique perspective on the craft.

This book feels like a perfect counterpiece to Syd Field's Screenplay, widely recognized as probably the best how-to book out there. Syd Fields sticks to his act structure paradigm. A character is challenged, begins to hurdle obstacles related to the challenge and finally defeats (or gets defeated by) the challenge in the climax.

And for any beginning screenwriter, hell, any writer in general, this book is a godsend. It lays out very specifically, "This is what works," and it takes you through all the intricacies therein. But Fields isn't the be-all and end-all. He never claims to be, but many of his critics do.

And if you're somewhat experienced as a writer, you've written that formula a dozen times and it kills you. That's where Joseph McBride comes in.

His approach, which actually starts with him acknowledging the importance of the three-act structure, doesn't spend all its time there. He moves into further reaching material and gives you tools with which to build larger, more experimental stories. And that's this book's power.     

If you read it as your first screenwriting book, you may get a sense for a framework, but most likely, all the high concept talk will be seen as aloof and off-putting. But if you come here after two or three others, it's a much more rewarding experience.

 This is not some writer rehashing Syd Fields with a gimmick, like most how-tos do. Joseph McBride, in his apparent revulsion for every other book out there, has actually expanded on Fields and given us, as writers, a little more room to breathe and stretch our wings.

And that's the best recommendation I can give. If you're really into high-brow, down-your-nose criticism of the film industry, you might just like all the passive aggressive jabs. But if you're anyone else, that tone can definitely be, well, off-putting, to say the least. And if you're someone who has a good sense of the formula and understands where act structures come down and go up, then McBride will guide you through the next phase of that development.

However, people aren't at Hopkins because they know how to write; they're here because they want to know.

And this, unfortunately, would be a terrible place to get started.

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