Book Review: Alternative Screenwriting: Beyond the Hollywood Formula

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Publisher: Focal Press

Release Date: March 13, 2013

“We outline conventions and then proceed to suggest practical ways to undermine or alter those conventions. We use specific examples to illustrate the points we’re trying to make. Our ultimate goal is to help you develop better screenplays. To do this, we talk about form, content, character, and language, while pressing you to develop alternative narrative strategies that prompt you to write the best screenplay you can write… We want you to look beyond the surface of scriptwriting, beyond form. You’ll be surprised what you find.” –Ken Dancyger & Jeff Rush (excerpt from Chapter 1: Beyond Form)

This 5th edition of “Alternative Scriptwriting: Beyond the Hollywood Formula by Ken Dancyger and Jeff Rush may be the best book on screenwriting that I have ever read. While most screenwriting manuals focus on the traditional three-act structure, this book goes far beyond structure and focuses on many other aspects of the scriptwriting form. The text also challenges the belief that the 3-act restorative structure is the only effective writing method. Other alternatives are presented to the reader, and these alternatives are elaborated upon in vivid detail. We learn what is gained and lost by challenging the traditional form. This book is recommended as a chaser for manuals by Syd Field and Robert McKee. It might make these more traditional texts easier to swallow.

Review by: Devon Powell

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Book Review: Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work

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Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic

Release Date: March 15, 2007

J.J. Murphy’s Me and You and Memento and Fargo: How Independent Screenplays Work is a study of the screenplay structure used in twelve successful independent films (Stranger than Paradise, Safe, Fargo, Trust, Gas Food Lodging, Me and You and Everyone We Know, Reservoir Dogs, Elephant, Memento, Mulholland Drive, Gummo, and Slacker). Murphy compares the structure of these films to the ‘traditional’ three act paradigm that is taught in the manuals. Syd Field, Linda Seger, Robert McKee, and other notable manual writers are discussed and quoted at length. Murphy often does this in order to compare the structure of these independent films to traditional structure that is taught by screenwriting manuals. These quotes are often associated with the films discussed in the book, but while the manuals tend to explain why these diversions from typical structural paradigms are a mistake, Murphy argues that these diversions are actually responsible for the success of the film. Murphy claims that these unusual diversions from the structure taught in manuals subvert audience expectations in original ways (and actually add resonance to the themes covered in these films).

While this book isn’t a screenwriting manual, it has the potential to serve future scriptwriters by validating the desire to digress from traditional paradigms. It makes a nice companion to the more rigid manuals on the market. This text will also be of interest to fans of the various films discussed in these pages. Before reading Murphy’s book, this reviewer had only seen seven of the twelve films discussed. It created a strong desire to watch the other five films, and managed to raise my appreciation for the seven films that I had previously seen.

Review by: Devon Powell