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The ‘building-block’ nature of screenwriting is such that any screenwriter needs a selection box of varying skills. As you’d expect then, different screenwriters tend to find themselves drawn to, and more skilled at, certain aspects of the process.
Whether it’s creative story ideas, unique characters, or a structure so tight, there are perks and pitfalls to any of these distinct skillsets and precious few screenwriters have a mastery of all of them.
And whilst one – as a screenwriter – can through ferocious hard work, years of watching and reading and analysis of narratives and screenplays of every kind, achieve magnificent improvements in one’s self, the core ingredients will out.
- Could James Cameron write the “how do you like them apples?” scene from GOOD WILL HUNTING?
- Could Cameron Crowe cook up a surgically precise, Swiss-watch of an opening act such as the one that opens THE TERMINATOR?
- Could the Wachowskis nail the quick-witted banter and iconic ‘climax’ of the diner scene from WHEN HARRY MET SALLY?
They’re all different from one another. So different, one could argue, that they could be entirely different breeds or even species of screenwriter.
So, dear reader, which species of screenwriter are you?
These different species of screenwriters include…
1. The Character Wizard Screenwriter
The term “wizard” is appropriate here, because there’s no more creative, sprung-from-nothing facet to screenwriting than building a wonderfully original character.
If you’re a bona fide character wizard or “CW” writer, you’re in the game in a big way from the off. CW screenwriters have an ace up their sleeve that everyone in the film industry will be clamouring for.
Think how many plastic, forgettable characters you’ve seen in your screen life – a CW screenwriter immediately has one-up on a swathe of other screenwriters. It boils down to ‘voice’.
Even a writer with the skills to write the snappiest of snappy dialogue can often fall into a kind of ‘uniformity’ trap, whereby all their characters in the screenplay ultimately sound like slight variations of the same person.
That’s where writers like the Coen brothers shine through.
In both THE BIG LEBOWSKI or O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU?, for example, we have a core trio (The Dude, Walter, Donny and Everett, Delmar, Pete) of equally strange but utterly different characters.
They’re masters of evading uniformity.
“You love all your characters, even the ridiculous ones. You have to on some level; they’re your weird creations in some kind of way. I don’t even know how you approach the process of conceiving characters if in a sense you hated them. It’s just absurd.” – Joel Coen
On the subtler end of the spectrum are screenwriters like Sofia Coppola, whose script for LOST IN TRANSLATION is a perfect example of downplayed but emotive characterisation.
CW screenwriters typically have very strong dialogue skills to go with their alchemic characterisation abilities, but can sometimes struggle to give their magical creations a suitable canvas to explore (read: the premise of the whole film/show can be weak).
Some might argue the whole Mumblecore sub-genre is rife with Character Wizard screenwriters, high on psychological insight but slightly lower on pure narrative ability.
One of the greatest CW screenwriters of recent times would have to be BREAKING BAD creator Vince Gilligan who, with characters as original as Gustavo Fring and Walter White, and the precision plotting skills of a cartographer, miraculously delivered an all-court screenwriting masterclass that’s already taken on legendary status.
PROS: Typically CW screenwriters will be good with dialogue, too, and as plot is character their scripts will generally be structurally robust.
CONS: To be a CW writer you generally have to be a student of human nature – a professional observer, almost. This might not translate to quick-witted pitching in the room. In fact, pitching can often prove a bit of an obstacle overall – concepts are a much easier sell than characters.
FAMOUS CHARACTER WIZARDS: The Coen Brothers, PT Anderson, Quentin Tarantino, Sarah Treem, Vince Gilligan, Wes Anderson, Sofia Coppola, Alan Ball, Paul Schrader
2. The Concept King Screenwriter
The Concept King is one of the most important species of screenwriter in Hollywood history – they’re the architects of the ‘blockbuster’.
After all, the likes of SPEED, SE7EN, JAWS, TOP GUN, ALIENS, JURASSIC PARK, HOME ALONE, TITANIC and so many more have delivered literally billions of dollars into film industry coffers.
And all these cinematic oaks sprang from the acorns of their screenwriters’ little (big) ideas. As with the CW writer, above, if you’re a great concept person (and at least an adequate screenwriter overall) it’s probably a matter of when – not if – you make the breakthrough.
Why is this?
It’s because producers, executives and financiers are (sometimes coldly) pragmatic creatures – they believe that if the core idea, the foundation premise of a screenplay, is strong enough, they can fix everything else either through manpower (i.e. working with you on the script), truckloads of cash, a new writer or a combination of all three.
They’ll just back themselves to get it done. All they need from you, as the writer, is that succulent central idea.
Unlike the CW writer, though, who may struggle to “sell” a series of great characters, The Concept King screenwriter can make a tremendous living simply by cooking up quite outstanding core ideas, drafting them into treatments or even 1st drafts, and then selling the rights to the screenplay.
This is because concept is all about potential, and potential is seductive.
But it also has it’s risks. As screenwriter Max Landis puts it:
“When you actually have to write it down and do the work, what do you risk? You risk doing it, and seeing it, and having it, and looking at it, and guess what? It’s bad.”
It’s imagining a chandelier and building a fairy light. This is the fatal trap any Concept King writer may one day topple into.
PROS: Concepts are easy to pitch and easy to sell. No delving into characters’ deepest neuroses. No descriptions of the crushing mundanity of working life. Just ‘So, it takes place in a celestial Bermuda triangle…’
CONS: Unlike character above, the issue with concept is that it’s purely foundational. Written some great characters? You’re already halfway there. Created a great concept? The work’s still largely ahead of you, and a Holy Grail of a concept can end up looking like a baby’s beaker with the wrong execution in the actual screenplay.
FAMOUS CONCEPT KINGS: James Cameron, Christopher Nolan, Amanda Silver, George Lucas, Joe Eszterhas, Jane Goldman, Stanley Kubrick
3. The Structuralist Screenwriter
The Structuralist is a master of form. It’s often said that great screenwriting is structure, so those screenwriters with a penchant for narrative construction are on a bit of a writerly podium.
A Structuralist’s work is often characterised by its fantastic simplicity. Everything falls perfectly into place, allowing the screenwriter’s core ideas, dialogue, characterisation to shine through in the screenplay.
Think Dan O’Bannon’s ALIEN or James Cameron’s THE TERMINATOR – clean, clear structures elevate every other aspect of those stories.
Perhaps the best generic showcase for a structuralist’s talents is the thriller. Thrillers live and die by how well the screenwriter controls the flow of information within the script:
- Clue the audience into what’s really going on too soon, or, worse, let them figure it out for themselves too early, and they lose any sense of tension.
- Keep them too in-the-dark for too long, and they lose interest.
Structuralist screenwriters know when to reveal and when to withhold.
Gillian Flynn’s GONE GIRL is a perfect example, constantly shifting the dramatic landscape by revealing extra tidbits of information about what Amy’s really up to (helped along by the neat narrative device of the anniversary treasure hunt).
Vince Gilligan is another solid structuralist writer – BREAKING BAD often opens an episode or series with an out-of-context image (a burnt bear in a pool, a haggard Walt putting a shotgun in his trunk), giving the audience information they can’t yet connect to the narrative then slowly showing them the road there.
There are, of course, some structuralist screenwriters who like to play with the narrative form, be it Nora Ephron’s five-year leaps forward at the start of WHEN HARRY MET SALLY or Kubrick’s fractured THE KILLING.
Nonetheless, even with fractured narratives a Structuralist writer is able to ensure that the dramatic peaks and troughs come at roughly the same places in the runtime that they would were the story a straight line.
ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND technically unfolds forwards (Lacuna wiping Joel’s memory in his bedroom) and backwards (Joel experiencing those memories in reverse order) simultaneously, but the key structural beats are still there within the screenplay.
PROS: The Structuralist screenwriter has mastered the essential element of a good screenplay.
CONS: The difficulty for Structuralist screenwriters is that the better they do their job, the less overt it should be (unless they’re really playing with it a la Tarantino). It’s ultimately a more invisible skill than that of, say, the Character Wizard writer, which means there’s more pressure on them to perform well in other areas. An amazing character might somewhat salvage a slightly shaky structure, but the tightest structure in the world won’t save a screenwriter from flat characters and a boring premise.
FAMOUS STRUCTURALISTS: James Cameron (again), Vince Gilligan, Gillian Flynn, Andrew Kevin Walker, Michael Mann, Nora Ephron, Steven DeSouza
4. The Genre Chef Screenwriter
Genre Chef screenwriters are perhaps a less heralded brand of screenwriter, purely because their genre-focus tends to ‘niche-ify’ their potential audience.
But this is also part of the benefit. There’s an existing audience for the work of any Genre Chef screenwriter, because genre, as broad a term as it may be, is often something of a selling point in and of itself. It functions almost like a ‘soft’ concept, some pithy indication of the nature of the story that helps its marketability.
It’s rare to hear someone claim to be an inherent fan of something nebulous like ‘family drama’. Sci-fi, fantasy and crime have the benefit of inherent appeal to specific groups, and this is the ace in the Genre Chef writer’s (very figurative) hole.
Focusing on a specific type of story like this tends to hone those skills to a knife point, something you can see clearly in screenwriters like, for example, Alex Garland, whose sci-fi (and sometimes horror) screenplays – 28 DAYS LATER, SUNSHINE, DREDD, EX MACHINA – are meticulously structured and consistently gripping.
The risk you run being a genre screenwriter is ending up a slave to convention or cliché. There’s an immensely fine line you have to tread, a line governed by audience expectation:
- In a romantic comedy, we expect two characters, initially a tad caustic to one another, to overcome their differences and enter a relationship.
- In an action film, we expect a lone character (or occasionally a concerted group) to be pitted against some pretty insurmountable numerical odds – government conspiracies, intelligence agencies, terrorists, crime gangs etc.
- From a horror, we expect a group of characters to face an antagonistic, often supernatural force that will likely kill the majority of them before whoever’s left manages to overcome it.
A genre screenplay has to at least partially adhere to these conventions or it risks alienating that core audience. But this poses its own problem. As Robert McKee puts it:
“The challenge is to keep convention but avoid cliché.”
PROS: A pre-existing audience to tap into and an ability to play with audience expectations. A good Genre Chef writer can build anticipation via convention only to completely and dramatically subvert it.
CONS: It’s much easier to fall into cliché, and the flipside of the established audience is the fact that there are also people who will categorically avoid certain genres, so there’s something of a mass appeal issue here (not necessarily the conniest of cons though).
FAMOUS GENRE CHEFS: Joe Eszterhas, Jim and John Thomas, Melissa Rosenberg, Michelle and Robert King, Billy Wilder, Shane Black, Alex Garland, Edgar Wright, Linda Woolverton
5. The Conversationalist Screenwriter
For these screenwriters, dialogue is everything. Characters can sometimes feel a little stylised or similarly-voiced, but as long as that style is a good one, this kind of screenplay is a joy to read, a joy to perform and ultimately a joy to watch.
Conversationalist screenwriters really shine when it comes to scene structure. They’re able to present us with two characters with clear but not-too-overt motivations and pit them head to head in a searing battle of quick-wits, underhand digs and quotable lines.
For other examples, look no further than Aaron Sorkin‘s opening exchange in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, a masterclass in multi-strand dialogue.
Or look to Diablo Cody, whose debut screenplay, JUNO, owes its charm to the rhythm and construction of her characters’ unique-sounding dialogue, something we see again (though much more subtly) in her screenplay for YOUNG ADULT.
The risk any Conversationalist screenwriter runs, however, is to lean too heavily on their clever dialogue. As a medium, screenwriting affords a pretty varied storytelling toolbox.
Let’s say Mary is angry. We can illustrate this by having her shout at someone, but we can also:
- note the way she’s sitting
- whether her knuckles are white on the armrests
- whether she’s repeated a certain ‘tick’ we set-up back on p.5 last time she lost her temper
It’s perhaps an over-simplified example, but the point is that The Conversationalist writer can occasionally leave a few too many tools in the toolbox, leaving too much to dialogue and, at worst, resorting to clunky exposition.
PROS: Musical dialogue makes for a quotable film, but is also great for pacing, keeping the story moving by keeping the dialogue sharp.
CONS: Can rely too heavily on dialogue and therefore skimp on the visual storytelling. Pushed to the extreme, this gives you something more like a play than a screenplay.
FAMOUS CONVERSATIONALISTS: Aaron Sorkin, Diablo Cody, Quentin Tarantino, David Mamet, PT Anderson, Woody Allen, Lena Dunham
These are screenwriters who primarily focus on character to lead the story of their screenplay. Character wizard screenwriters construct those memorable characters that live on far longer than the series or film they are part of.
Think of Christopher Nolan and Steven Spielberg. These are screenwriters who let their imaginations run wild and put big, bold ideas at the forefront of their screenplays.
These screenwriters typically excel in the thriller genre. They follow the rules and law of screenplay structure closely. These writers know how to play with structure too and how to manipulate the audiences’ expectations and emotions.
The screenwriters are cine-literate and know how to both subvert and fulfil genre expectations. Think of Edgar Wright or Alex Garland. These are screenwriters who embrace niche genres (like sci-fi or horror) and use them to tell compelling, well disciplined stories.
The screenwriters in this category let the talking do, well…the talking. They are experts at crafting dialogue and they utilise this skill, letting characters talk to each other. Dialogue features as a main asset of how their screenplays come across and audiences love them for this reason. Think of Lena Dunham, Quentin Tarantino and Aaron Sorkin.
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