Screenwriting Down to the Atoms: Digging Deeper into the Craft of Cinematic Storytelling

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Michael Welles Schock. There are many books on screenwriting that claim to have all the answers. Unfortunately, quite often the more aspiring writers read, the more confused they become as they encounter contradictory statements, incomplete perspectives, and methods that fail to do more than scratch the surface. Screenwriting Down to the Atoms was written to end all the confusion. It picks up where the best leave off and makes up for where the rest fall short by looking closer and digging deeper to reveal the true principles beneath great cinematic stories.

No confusion. No contradictions.

Atoms provides a light in the dark to give a full, simple, and truly effective understanding of the craft. Screenwriting Down to the Atoms takes the basics far beyond the basics.

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Questions these books would not or could not answer. I soon realized that the vast majority of guides suffer from the same flaw: superficial approaches based on speculation or imitation that fail to do more than scratch the subject's surface. The biggest problem with how screencraft is taught to young and aspiring writers is not one of technical instruction, but one of philosophy. Many teach the subject as if they were telling readers to build a house. Only they build these houses without first laying the foundation.

Without a firm understanding of the principles beneath the principles, any attempt at screenwriting will remain rickety, rootless, and ready for collapse. Screencraft is like an iceberg. Most of its substance lies under the surface. If writers wish to find success, they must be allowed to dig deeper. Dramatists usually approach screencraft from the outside-looking-in. They take a collection of films considered successful, find similarities, and then command writers to copy the formula.

Unfortunately, this approach only suggests what seems to work for the particular films under analysis. Every cinematic story is unique, with its own particular problems and needs. This ends up locking readers into a rigid mindset where they can only imitate and not innovate, rendering them incapable of adjusting their knowledge to the special requirements of their individual stories. The rules of screencraft must be flexible enough to adapt to the needs of the story, not the other way around. In contrast, this book approaches its subject from the inside-looking-out.

It seeks to explain not only how screencraft works, but more importantly, WHY it works. To do so, it puts the entire field under the microscope to seek out the most basic of the most basic of the most basic. When scrutinized, much of what we assume to be true proves untrue. What we believe to be simple turns out complex. Meanwhile, many areas which at first seem quite complicated reveal themselves to be elegantly simple at heart. This is what screenwriting down to the atoms means.

This is what this book intends to do. This guide is not meant as the be-all, end-all of screenwriting knowledge. It only provides a suitable starting point from which to move forward. Much of narrative study remains uncharted territory. This book picks up where its predecessors have left off, and makes up where others have fallen short, by not only expanding upon proven concepts, but by pushing forward with new discoveries that illuminate the mysteries of the craft in clearer detail than ever before.

With this knowledge, developing screenwriters take a giant leap forward in their ability to comprehend and execute their craft, paving the way for the next generation of cinematic storytellers. Whether this be your first introduction to screenwriting, or the continuation of years of study, this author hopes to give all the knowledge and inspiration you need to create powerful, effective stories audiences cannot help but love and enjoy.

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Where to begin? The path from unseasoned amateur to skilled professional is a long journey, and as with any journey, those most likely to succeed are those who are the best prepared from the start. In my experience, the greatest stumbling block in the way of developing screenwriters is not what they have learned or have yet to learn, but the harmful misconceptions they bring with them before they even begin.

The longer these notions go unchallenged, the more harm they will do the writer, so it is best to expose and eliminate them from the start. You may find some of what follows encouraging.

How Does A Professional Screenwriter Approach The Craft? - Scott Myers

Other material you may find difficult to accept. Regardless, a writer free of illusions is the most ready to learn, and most likely to reach healthy, productive results. As anyone who has ever made a serious go of screenwriting will attest, writing movies is the only skilled profession in the world in which seemingly everyone believes they are already an expert.


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A casual mention of his or her work at a cocktail party will have the screenwriter cornered by everyone from grocery clerks to dental hygienists trying to impart some sort of million-dollar advice. Most people assume that just because they have seen a lot of movies, they know how to write one themselves. However, this is that same as believing one can be a gourmet chef simply because he or she has eaten a lot of good meals. Moviegoers see only the finished product. Most viewers know nothing about the complex processes that went into making that film such an entertaining experience.

Behind every good screenplay lies a complex collection of rules, logic, and structure that took the writer years to master. Anyone who wishes to write movies must accept that, like any other field of study, screenwriting takes time and effort to learn. You will not learn how to write a great screenplay overnight.

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Hollywood itself took decades to figure this out. The cinematic stories of today are the result of a gradual refinement of ideas that took over a century to develop. The good news is most of this knowledge is now available for you to learn. The bad news is, the bar has been raised much higher for those seeking entry into the profession.

If one wishes to compete, one must first know the rules of the craft and become their master. To start things simply, movies are a form of storytelling. All forms of storytelling share the same basic rules. In addition, each form also follows unique rules, specialized to its mode of telling. The storytelling found in cinema is not the same as that found in a book.

Nor is it the same as a play. A screenplay is written to be dramatized by actors, photographed with cameras, pieced together through editing, and then presented as a finished whole to an audience. This mode of execution forces cinema to tell its stories with strict rules different than any other storytelling form. Feature-length films the films you see in the local theater and the subject of this book have an established running time of minutes, although the expected norm is This required length forces a feature-length film to follow different rules than a minute television episode, or a 9-minute short film, or a second commercial.

Because of such physical requirements, screenwriting becomes just as much of an intellectual and analytical pursuit as it is a creative one. I will not be so bold as to claim screenwriting as the most difficult form of writing, but I will say it is the most complex. Screenwriters must not only follow more rules and limitations than any other type of storyteller, but are also expected to fill those boundaries with fresh and original content audiences will find entertaining.

The demand for originality, met with the necessity for order, forces a balancing act that takes a screenwriter years to master. Do not be discouraged, however. Although screenwriting is far from easy, anyone can learn it with proper patience. Screenwriting is not a talent. A talent is something with which one must be born.

Screenwriting Down to the Atoms: Digging Deeper into the Craft of Cinematic Storytelling

And skills can be learned. All one needs to write a great movie is, 1. A good deal of creativity which can be nurtured , 2. A desire to learn the craft, combined with the dedication to become its master. This book can give you the knowledge, but it is up to you to supply the dedication. Those who find success are those who want it the most, and are willing to take the time and effort to get it. Which reminds me of a story Here is a tale many of you know well. A Tortoise and a Hare decide to have a race. The speedy Hare thinks the race will be easy, so it quickly becomes lazy and distracted.

The Tortoise, on the other hand, keeps its head down and plods forward, one step at a time. Because the Tortoise handles the long haul with focus and dedication, it reaches the finish line, while the Hare does not.