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by Brian Koppelman
January 2, 2014 11:57 AM
34 Comments
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Six Second Screenwriting Advice and Why All Screenwriting Books are a Con

Anchor Bay David Levien, Jesse Eisenberg and Brian Koppelman on the set of 'Solitary Man'

Back in September, we wrote about writer, director and producer Brian Koppelman's six second screenwriting tips on Vine (he just posted tip #122). His #1 tip was "All screenwriting books are bullshit, all. Watch movies, read screenplays. Let them be your guide." The statement created a bit of an outcry -- especially from authors of screenwriting books and their devotees. Koppelman recently posted an extended response to the critics on his blog and has given Indiewire permission to republish it below:

A few months back, I started making Vines. I called them Six Second Screenwriting Lessons. The name meant to be ironic, of course, a statement on the absurdity of anyone teaching anyone else to write a screenplay, a way of calling out the screenwriting gurus who make money by sharing the 'secrets' of the trade with anyone willing to pony up a few (or a ton) of bucks. The way I felt then is the way I feel now: all anyone in a creative field can do for anyone else is to be an example, to encourage, to be honest about the challenges and rewards of attempting the same path.

I'm glad that some of you have gotten something of value out of these messages. To those who have gotten in touch with me to say that they are writing again after a long hiatus or finally finishing that screenplay, I want you to know that I'm thrilled for you. And I hope 2014 brings you even more accomplishment...

Now that 2013 has come to a a close, I want to revisit two of the most controversial Vines.  

On the first Six Second Screenwriting Lesson, I said, "All screenwriting books are bullshit. All. Watch movies. Read screenplays. Let them be your guide. And then on the fourth one, I said, "The so-called screenwriting guru is really the so-called screenwriting con man. Don’t listen to them, if you don't know their movies."

Since then, I have been asked many times, "Do you really mean all screenwriting books? Aren’t there any of any value?" And, "Are you including Robert McKee in those statements?"

There's a safe way to answer those questions, and it's an answer I've given, "I haven't read every book. There are parts of McKee's book that are interesting. Some screenwriters I respect, including Billy Ray and Akiva Goldsman have told me that they've gotten a lot out of McKee's course..."

"If you love and want to make movies about issues of social import, get your hands on Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay for Network."

But if I am being honest, my real answer is that I fully believe what I said in the Vines. 

Yes, McKee has been able to break down how the popular screenplay has worked. He has identified key qualities that many commercially successful screenplays share, he has codified a language that has been adopted by creative executives in both film and television. So there might be something of tangible value to be gained by interacting with his material, either in book form or at one of the seminars.

But for someone who wants to be an artist, a creator, an architect of an original vision, the best book to read on screenwriting is no book on screenwriting. The best seminar is no seminar at all.

To me, the writer wants to get as many outside voices OUT of his/her head as possible. Experts win by getting us to be dependent on their view of the world. They win when they get to frame the discussion, when they get to tell you there's a right way and a wrong way to think about the game, whatever the game is. Because that makes you dependent on them. If they have the secret rules, then you need them if you want to get ahead.

The truth is, you don't.

If you love and want to make movies about issues of social import, get your hands on Paddy Chayefsky's screenplay for Network. Read it. Then watch the movie. Then read it again.

If you love and want to make big blockbusters that also have great artistic merit, do the same thing with Lawrence Kasdan's Raiders Of The Lost Ark screenplay and the movie made from it.

If you love horror movies and want to make those, read and watch those.

Think about how the screenplays made you feel. And how the movies built from these screenplays did or didn't hit you the same way.

This sounds basic, right? That’s because it is basic. And it's true. All the information you need is the movies and screenplays you love. And in the books you've read and the relationships you've had and your ability to use those things.

But basic does not mean easy. Or simple. It's not enough to read and watch. You have to really think, And try. And fail. And work harder. But if you do, and you have a knack for it, you can get there.

If you don't, I can assure you that it won't be because you didn’t read Save The Cat.

Does this mean that there are no legitimate resources for someone who wants to write for a living? Absolutely not.

When I say, "Don't listen to them if you don't know their movies," I'm saying it for a reason. There are people out there who are not giving false testimony, who are, in fact, successful screenwriters, filmmakers, novelists who aren't full of shit. Guys like Craig Mazin and John August, whose podcast Scriptnotes explores the screenwriting career accurately and with honesty. Both Mazin and August are working screenwriters, in the trenches, and have written screenplays that have turned into movies time and time again.

I know Craig and John. Like them personally (even if Mazin is maddeningly unbeatable in an email putdown contest, which he is). I don’t always agree with everything they say, don't always think about screenwriting the way they do, but I am sure that for the aspiring screenwriter, what they offer has tremendous value. Because they are actually experts. They write movies for a living. Instead of giving advice for a living.

So they have no incentive to lie; they are only in it to give back, to teach.

This is how I have always felt about William Goldman's books. And David Mamet's. But if you check these out, you'll note that none of them offer dictates on how your screenplay must read, where it must fit in the market, how it must be structured. They are, in other words, written without bullshit.

And there are wonderful books on the creative process too, on getting through creative blocks, on what it means to live the life of the writer, books like Steven Pressfield's War of Art and Stephen King's On Writing that I have read more than once. And plan to read again.

Once more, these are written by people who have DONE it, at the highest level, and who aren't trying to limit you in the guise of guiding you.

So. Do I stand by the statements that all screenwriting books are bullshit? And that screenwriting gurus are con men? Yeah. I do.

And I think you should save your money and your time and spend both on someone much more likely to impact your success.  You.

Here's Koppelman's latest advice on Vine. Follow him on Twitter.


34 Comments

  • Andrea | February 26, 2014 7:37 AMReply

    You need to know the 3 act structure in order to write a script because this is what the readers know and what they will be searching for in your script. It's like with everything: there are rules an professionals want to see that you know these rules, except when you are genius like Quentin Tarantino and you can turn around those rules, play with them and transcend them.
    But if you read my book " Script selling in Goodluckland" ( to be found on Amazon) You won't even bother to learn those rules because you'll understand that selling your script will be even harder than writing it.

  • Kim J. | January 30, 2014 2:36 PMReply

    Not all screenwriting books are worthless, but many are. Wise writers study moves, screenplays and read books and WRITE. But you need starting points and tools such as books, format guides and scriptwriting software. I recommend "The Bare Bones Book of Screenwriting: the definitive beginner's guide to story, format and business." - here's a book that offers beginning script writers important data without overdoing it or underdoing it. After you read that book, pick up a more advanced screenwriting book. And keep writing!!!

  • j pierce | January 4, 2014 8:04 PMReply

    I just read Make Your Story a Movie and have decided to write a book from which I can write am movie. This book gave me the proportions/percentages of where all important points should be. Since I don't watch ALL the movies and quantify them, I am grateful for the logic behind writing. I have the creativity to write, it is the industry I didn't understand. It is, also, nice to to know why to have a lawyer, producer or manager and how to get maximum traction from the beginning of the effort. I prefer not to reinvent the wheel.

  • Jeff | January 4, 2014 7:30 PMReply

    Anyone who claims that "all" of ANYTHING is bullshit is making an absurd statement. As someone who is on the receiving end of screenplay submissions, I can tell you that there is good AND bad in those books. But there is also craft. And the advice "Just watch movies, read screenplays and let them be your guide" is the worst advice I've ever read. That leads to copycat CRAP that perpetuates the problem. The problem is that there is no right or wrong in screenwriting (as in all art), so it's a very difficult craft to teach. Books do the best they can. Gurus emerge because people need help when there are literally no rules. Writers must always listen to their own internal compass and find their own unique voice. But to reject guidance and ignore craft will only make you as weak a writer as the vast majority of your competition.

  • jean vigo | January 4, 2014 3:25 AMReply

    Look at Koppelman's resume and you'll affirm Goldman's Golden words of wisdom - "no one knows anything," especially Koppelman. Just because someone is a "produced" writer bears NO correlation between someone being a "good" writer. It's the biggest horse shit people in this biz like to sling around. There's Chayevsky and there's Koppelman = HUGE difference.

    If anything, read Koppelman's scripts, study them, watch the films, and write like that: you won't win any accolades but you could make boatloads of money. Oh, and be wary of his "better" ones; he CO-wrote them, so it would be hard to tell what he contributed.

  • Koppelman | January 4, 2014 7:05 PM

    1) I am not telling anyone to write like me. Please, do better than all of us. World needs better and better films. I want you to write and make them. I recommend reading Network b/c it's highest level. Nowhere will you find me telling anyone to emulate anything I've written. 2) As for your cowriting allegation. I have written most of the screenplays with my filmmaking partner David Levien. For accuracy, let's note that we are the only writers on Rounders (fresh on RT), Ocean's Thirteen (Fresh), Knockaround Guys (rotten--but I'm proud of it, to tell you the truth), The Girlfriend Experience (fresh) , Runner Runner (rotten). I wrote Solitary Man (certified fresh) alone and Dave and I directed it together. That film is 90 per cent top critics on Rotten Tomatoes and 82 overall. If you don't dig any of those films, no sweat. Don't watch em and don't watch my next one. You probably won't like that either. Walking Tall (rotten) and Runaway Jury (fresh) were rewrites we did. We were credited with other writers. Judge as you will 3) I like that pseudonym you used, Vigo. It's classy. Has historical heft. Good one.

  • Jennine Lanouette | January 3, 2014 11:02 PMReply

    As one who soon plans to publish a book on screenwriting, here's where I agree and disagree with Brian Koppelman's rant:

    Agree:
    1. A lot of screenwriting books are bullshit, certainly. Perhaps most. But that’s not the entire problem. The problem is that a rather sizable industry (not just books, but magazines, seminars, conferences, contests, “reader services”) has exploded in the last 10-15 years to fan people’s dreams of selling a spec screenplay to Hollywood while neglecting to mention that Hollywood doesn’t much like to buy spec screenplays. Talk about a con. All of these resources are aimed at writing the script that will sell and then result in a blockbuster movie. They are little concerned with actual artistic expression but have no problem exploiting the creative urges of nonprofessional people.

    2. Network is a masterful film. One can learn a lot from it. But not simply by watching it over and over. You have to disengage from passive enjoyment and actively engage in deep study to get its artistry embedded in your unconscious. Sometimes a little guidance in how to do this is helpful.

    Disagree:
    1. You don’t have to have written a produced screenplay to have something insightful to say to a screenwriting aspirant. Some of us just happen to love studying the form and upholding the art. And a few of us detect a little too much (dare I say) bullshit in the Hollywood industry to want to sully our love with cowtowing.

  • Mike Hurley | January 3, 2014 1:46 PMReply

    what is amazing to me is how many people think they can write a screenplay, want to write a screenplay, want to be that guy.... so of course that desire feeds and creates an industry to service their needs... sort of like "would you like to be a model?" ads attracts girls like honey. So yes it is all baloney and no of course it isn't... there's good practical "how to" information to be had. But after that? Nothing will make a bad writer, a wannabe, a poser... be a gifted artist or a hard working hack. But it does buy them this small cache'..... "I'm working on a screenplay."

  • Nayan | January 3, 2014 11:55 AMReply

    I agree with Brian. I learned the basics (core basics as in formatting and a semblance of structure) from Lew Hunter's first book. After that, I took a lot of classes, and read everything I could find - scripts and books on screenwriting. The most important lessons were learnt from reading quality (and shitty) scripts (what to do and what not to do).

    I have friends who swear by Save the Cat, and I don't send them my scripts to read anymore because when I used to get notes from them - they were basically telling me that I wasn't hitting the prescribed checklists. It took me years to unwind and unlearn the "formula". Some of these books cause more harm than good, and account for terrible scripts and terrible movies.

    Want to learn from the best? Read produced scripts. Even the shitty ones.

  • marc | January 3, 2014 10:11 AMReply

    Was the Coen Bothers' Llewyn Ravi really an homage to " Save the Cat"?

    There are many successful films that buck the recommended structure, and many screenplays burned even though the follow structure. What counts is the story, and the characters. Writers need to find their unique voice....

  • Wolfsenior | January 3, 2014 8:39 AMReply

    Screenwriting books, filmmaking books or any "how to" books generally fall into one of three categories. You have your "pure" technical manuals that are high on systems and metrics and will usually look to cement a workflow standard or to establish a new order. You'll see the experience-driven books written by industry veterans and household names that bank on tested methods, successful approaches either from a critical or box office perspective. Finally you'll get your "specialists" and "insiders" who end up writing more books about screenwriting than actual screenplays and vary dramatically in terms of credibility.

    Whichever you end up reading will at the very least give you some workable template to use if you are a beginner or seeking a more strategic approach to screenwriting. As mentioned by others however, no book can teach you authentic style (in my view) or give you a voice. The books can help you create useful checklists and become more organized but that's about it.

    As always, the best approach is often to take everything with a grain of salt and try different combinations to see what works. At the very least these books will often help you put the right dressing on your work to help it register on the industry radar.

  • Jon | January 3, 2014 5:06 AMReply

    Mazin (toilet humor king and former Disney exec) and August? And you have a problem with Goldman?

    Your article is total bullshit. All you guys do is earn money, and that's all you care about.

  • Sonja | January 3, 2014 9:02 PM

    Not sure if this is the same guy but doesn't Koppelman write with someone who studied at Writers Boot Camp? There's a guy listed on the screenwriting school's website who is credited with same movies. If true then his partner did a lot of work learning from this "guru." No?

  • Koppelman | January 3, 2014 9:43 AM

    I won't engage other than to say to john: I admire and celebrate Goldman and Mamet. That's what those two paragraphs are saying. They are masters and should be read. Thank you for reading.

  • Am | January 3, 2014 2:17 AMReply

    One of the better known Guru's read my screenplay and thought it was unique and inspiring and with a little help could be great. Of course that little help would cost me 10K. Thank you Mr. Walter for taking the time to read my script, but for less than 10k I'm making my first feature.

    No one can teach you how to write a good story, and that's all that matters in the end, a good story. Just write and remember writing is a life choice not just a pastime. Dedicate your life to it and you will get somewhere. These people have dedicated their lives to teaching not writing.

  • GOD | January 2, 2014 11:17 PMReply

    Hey, God here,

    Listen everyone, you can't teach someone how to write well and you cannot teach someone how to tell an interesting story. You can have all the ingredients in your kitchen and a recipe but unless they have an understanding of how all the ingredients work together, it's no dice. This takes trial & error and EXPERIENCE. Write write write write write the hell out of you ideas and produce produce produce. There is no such thing as natural talent when it comes to making movies. Sure, some folks get lucky but most people work on their craft for YEARS.

  • David | January 2, 2014 8:15 PMReply

    All screenwriting advice is bullshit – including Koppelman's.

  • Jon | January 3, 2014 5:07 AM

    yup

  • Hans | January 2, 2014 5:26 PMReply

    He might be good at writing screenplays (matter of opinion), but who is he to say what is the best way to learn... Or the worst? And why does he care so much that he defends such an irresponsible and unfounded statement? Sounds like he's avoiding his own work.

  • Jon | January 3, 2014 5:10 AM

    He sucks. He writes articles about screenwriting to tell people not to read stuff about screenwriting.

  • Solo | January 2, 2014 5:28 PM

    You are right on! You have no idea.

  • Ben | January 2, 2014 5:03 PMReply

    Hi

  • Kill | January 2, 2014 3:55 PMReply

    Yes and no, sort of. DO NOT BUY a screenwriting how to book. All the basics you need to learn are online. Read all the free stuff you can online, watch the youtube videos then follow Koppelman's advice. You can study the craft of screenwriting without spending a dime.

  • hollywoodlion | January 2, 2014 3:27 PMReply

    I was told almost the exact same thing from a very famous screenwriter who has helped many in Hollywood. He said get a sample screenplay you like...and write your screenplay. Watch movies...brilliant advice!

  • Bob Van | January 2, 2014 2:11 PMReply

    Most people are stupid and impressionable., but those people can still write amazing screenplays. If, however, they've been poisoned by the typical "rules" of most screenwriting books, they may never write the creative/original piece they could have. Instead, they'll think they MUST write something using the 3-act structure or the 5 key points. These writing tools can be useful aids IF you take them with a grain of salt, but lots of people are dumb (don't get offended on behalf of dumb people, it's a waste of everyone's time) and will consider them rules rather than suggestions.
    Think of some of your favourite films that don't fit the so-called "tenets of screenwriting." What if the writers of those stories had been influenced negatively by a book or seminar?
    In closing, relax. Not everyone is smart enough to take the good and leave the bad. Those people could be hindered creatively by these gurus.
    Thanks for your time,
    Bob.

  • shelly | January 2, 2014 1:59 PMReply

    I think we should all take advice from the dude who wrote Runner Runner… oh wait...

  • Will | January 2, 2014 1:53 PMReply

    This guy just sounds like another arrogant guy trying to tell you what to do with the craft of screenwriting, just like most of the 'successful' people who write 'How-Tos' on screenplay writing. Every art has a craft; I have yet to see a successful concert violinist pick up the violin and teach him/herself the foundations without the guidance of a teacher. Screenwriting books teach you the basics to the craft of writing. That is all they should teach, because in the end, as Joseph Campbell discovered, every successful story follows a basic foundation. But, to give this guy in the article some credit, in the end, the story is yours to tell, but, the structure and foundation remain important nonetheless. When you learn the rules, only then can you break them.

  • Gustav | January 2, 2014 7:51 PM

    Yes. Reading a How To Write a Screenplay book is like having a conversation with an intelligent friend who shares your aspiration. It's a back and forth. A way to test your ideas against parameters you may not have thought of. Highly valuable.

  • Joe H. | January 2, 2014 12:35 PMReply

    Very interesting perspective. As for me, I tend to try to learn in as many places as I can. That includes books about screenwriting, but it also includes a hell of a lot of screenplays and a hell of a lot of movie watching. Books about screenwriting can only be dangerous if you take them as sacred truths. But if you're careful and read everything with an open and analytical mind, you will find that they too have a lot of wisdom to share.

  • Robert Grant | January 2, 2014 12:32 PMReply

    I've never been able to understand why people decry screenwriting books. It's yet another thing that shows how maligned the writing part of making a film is and makes no sense. You wouldn't expect someone to act in a movie without training as an actor, you wouldn't expect someone to operate a camera, design the costumes, do the make-up, edit the footage or produce and market a film without some kind of training so why all the hate for those that teach screenwriting?

    I appreciate that there are a ton of screenwriting books out there and they are of varying quality but if you can't afford - in time or money - to go to film school for 3 years , or college for a year, or do several weekend classes then books are one of the best ways to help 'crack the code' of screenwriting structure. And they're cheap. Or else libraries are still free. To the best of my knowledge Stanislavski never won an academy award for best actor but his methods are still taught today, and I'm sure that they're are a multitude of teachers in all disciplines of filmmaking that have never won an award or worked on a major motion picture or a really successful indie but they are great teachers. My driving instructor was incredible but he's never won the F1 championship! Telling someone to watch movies and read screenplays is akin to asking someone to "Watch your mother..." if they want to learn to be a chef. It'll get you so far, but eventually you will need some advice and guidance from someone who understands the stuff you're struggling with.

    Seriously, the hate towards screenwriting teachers is only serving to give Brian Koppelman more column inches in places like this.

    Just stop it.

  • Rob | February 4, 2014 7:46 PM

    Do you know why you can't just "Study" films and scripts? It's called Cliché! And if you don't learn how to structure or tell a story yourself you will only copy others.

  • Joe Mahma | January 2, 2014 5:30 PM

    Parkino, watching a movie or reading a screenplay isn't "studying" screenwriting. A film is a pretty complex thing. It's not like pottery or basket weaving.

  • Parkino | January 2, 2014 3:05 PM

    Koppelman recommends quite emphatically that you should study the craft of screenwriting ... for yourself. By reading screenplays, watching films, and thinking about how they work. What else is there to understand, Robert?

  • James Nelson | January 2, 2014 12:21 PMReply

    In theory, this is true, but not for certain types of learners. A lot of what goes into a really good screenplay is like a very good magicians trick, you don't notice it, and the better the screenplay is, the even harder it is to spot. It's like trying to learn Argentine tango by watching youtube videos, much of what is going on is invisible to the "untrained" eye.

    A good book on screenwriting (or filmmaking) can help you to know what you are looking at, and how it all fits together, and watching the films can show you how those things are executed. It's a much faster method of learning than trial by error. If you are truly opposed to screenwriting "how to" books, than I'd have to say even better is to read many of the screenwriting diaries by the writer that tells you the process they were going through when they wrote a particular screenplay. These are like a fantastic commentary tracks that tell you why certain decisions were made, and other useful info that you wouldn't get by just reading the screenplay alone.