Stories in the making
Reading this book may make you want to throw away your carefully nurtured career in teaching and head to Hollywood, with your script in hand. It renders an art shrouded in mystique into an attainable set of skills, working from inspiration through to practicalities of format and marketing.
Bicat and Mcnabb's approach to screenwriting is rooted in storytelling - which makes it as interesting for English as it is for media teachers and professionals - while comprehensively covering aspects of the screenwriters' craft. The title is apt because creativity is at the core and practice informs the activities. The rationale is given on the first page - to prepare writers for "whatever producers and script executives can throw at you". This works equally well in the classroom, as students must also show deliberate crafting and be prepared to evaluate and possibly defend their linguistic and creative choices.
The opening chapter asks us to consider "What makes a writer" and the following sections move on to look at the shaping of a screenplay - from concept to creation, down to the knotty issues of agents, producers and copyright issues. Sections include story, character, structure and dynamics, time, and endings. All these are as relevant to English and literature courses as to media studies.
Some of the chapters covering practical issues in presentation and marketing, such as Writing and Screenwriting, Defining and Selling Your Story, and The Reel World, will be of most use in the media classroom for the insight they provide into media roles and the industry. The book also includes appendices, giving sample scripts and treatments, and offering models for deconstructing linear and non-linear narrative.
The book's appeal works on the principle that the best way to learn is by doing. There are well- structured creative activities, such as the Character Log and Irrational Botticelli game, for teasing out details in character creation. Tips from professionals add interest, such as this from Patricia Highsmith:
"On Likeable Criminals: I can only suggest giving the murderer hero as many pleasant qualities as possible - generosity, kindness to some people, fondness for painting or cooking, for instance. These qualities can be amusing in contrast to his criminal or homicidal traits."
Creative activities are supported by analysis of examples, though teachers may wish to substitute examples of their own choice or that of their students. Some sophisticated concepts are introduced via clearly explained and structured activities. I particularly liked the diagrams in the Structure and Dynamics chapter as these are great for visual learners, and will enable teachers to introduce complex ideas about genre and dramatic principle through practical and engaging activities. The text is refreshingly jargon-free and any professional or critical terms used are clearly explained.
Buying this book may not make you the next Lydia La Plante, Andrew Davies or Joss Whedon, but it will give you an interesting and thought-provoking classroom resource.
Michele Paule lectures in film studies at Westminster Institute, Oxford Brookes University