From the Classroom
There is a saying that there are many paths to God. When learning to write, it seems, it is a similar journey. For author and screenwriter, Steven Womack, becoming a better writer made sense when he discovered screenwriting. He learned to build a story much like building a house, beginning with laying the foundation. Womack shares his story and how he continues to learn…from watching movies.
What I Learned About Writing From The Movies
By Steven Womack
I was around 15, maybe 16, when I decided that I wanted to spend the rest of my life writing. I had always been a reader, a lover of story. Even as a child, I tried to make sense of my own life by reading about other lives, both real and imaginary. When an English teacher in boarding school assigned Robert Penn Warren’s All The Kings Men, I was toast. That was it for me. This was the book that made me a writer. For the rest of my life, I was going to try to do to other people what Red Warren had done to me.
Unfortunately, that school experience was in the 1960s and my college time was in the early to mid-1970s, a period now characterized as one of “anti-literature”. Academics and writers alike were experimenting with new kinds of stories, stories that were unstructured, all about voice and emotion, stories that defied logic and rebelled against tradition, against craft.
Stories that broke all the rules…
However, in the process of being taught how to break all the rules, I somehow never learned the rules themselves, which is pretty much the opposite of the way it should be done.
As a result, even though I was motivated and driven and wrote lots of pages, I was going nowhere. In fact, over the course of my early years as a writer I wrote at least five completed novels, with uncounted others dying on the vine.
It was incredibly frustrating. I collected rejection slips galore, many with some fairly complimentary responses to the writing itself, which had become increasingly flowery and literary. I even had one editor—and this is hard to believe—who told me my work was too “good”, too literary for her. Readers want action, she explained, not literary writing with a bunch of thought and reflection and philosophizing.
She was right, of course. My stuff had come out of college creative writing classes and my own heady reading. What I was failing at was connecting with readers and giving them the experience that readers want.
I worked in publishing at the time—it was the mid-1980s by now—and one day, I got laid off. I was downsized before downsizing was cool. At the time, I was single, no kids, no mortgage, no debt other than a little of the usual, and was in my early Thirties. This, it seemed, was a good time to take one last shot at full-time writing. So I took the leap.
One day, while taking a break from my daily page output, I saw a newspaper ad for a screenwriting course in the Continuing Education Department at Tennessee State University. It was taught by Rick Reichman, a local Nashvillian who had gone to University of Southern California.
“Screenwriting,” I said to myself. “Now there’s something I’ve never tried. I’ve watched a lot of movies. How tough can it be to write one?”
In retrospect, this was an astonishing level of arrogance. It’s roughly the equivalent of walking onto Southwest Airlines Flight 8653, sauntering up to the cockpit, and saying to the pilot: “You know, I’ve ridden on a lot of airplanes. Why don’t you let me fly this sucker?”
What I very quickly learned was that writing movies is a hell of a lot harder than I thought. For one thing, screenplays are very leanly written. In terms of word count, screenplays are more like long short stories or novellas—every word counts. There’s no room for sloppiness, distractions, sidebars or lack of focus. If writing a poem or a short story is a sprint and a novel is a marathon, then writing a screenplay is somewhere along the lines of an 800- or 1500-meter run, which as any runner will tell you, are the hardest races of all to run.
But there’s another consideration for a writer brought up in the counter-cultural, anti-literature, and non-traditional days of the 1960s and 1970s. Screenplays—movies—tell stories that are very, for lack of a better term, old fashioned. In fact, commercial Hollywood filmmaking is the last vestige of classical, three-act dramatic structure—the stuff of Greek drama, Shakespeare, and the classics.
The stuff Aristotle figured out about 2,400 years ago…
For the first time, I had a writing teacher who wasn’t concerned with sitting around in a circle on pillows reading our crap to each other and telling us how good it was, then opening a bottle of wine or lighting something up. Rick was all about craft and structure, as well as voice. “You start here, with an event, something actually happens that the audience can see… And it leads to something else, then another event, then another, and so on and so on, with increasing tension and rising stakes, until finally there’s some kind of climax and resolution.”
Stories, I learned for the first time, are about characters who want something, are willing to take action to get it, and encounter some kind of obstacle or conflict.
You build a story, I learned for the first time, the same way you build a house. First, you have to pick where you’re going to put the house; in other words, the setting. Then you have to have some kind of design you’re going to follow. Then you lay a foundation, frame up the skeleton. Then, layer by layer, you put in the systems, the electrical and plumbing, the walls, the ceiling. Then you dress it out, paint it, lay the carpet, do the trim work… Finally, you go through what contractors call the “punch list”, which is what writers call “rewriting and copyediting.”
I wrote a feature-length screenplay during Rick’s course, even though it was non-credit, continuing education and I didn’t have to. It was talky, overwritten, not very good… But it had something no other work of mine had ever had: an underlying structure.
I kept working and learning, even after Rick’s course was over. I took other courses (probably the most influential being Bob McKee’s weekend-long story structure boot camp for writers), and read stacks of books. I studied the Five Components of Narrative Structure that McKee talks about: The Inciting Incident, Progressive Complications, Crisis, Climax, and Resolution. Then I read Joseph Campbell’s Hero With A Thousand Faces and really got an education in mythic structure, of how myth crosses all racial, ethnic, and gender lines. I studied Campbell’s Twelve Steps of the Hero’s Journey, then read and reread Christopher Vogler’s excellent expansion on Campbell’s work, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure For Writers.
Then I started teaching screenwriting, something I’ve now been doing for over twenty years. And as any teacher will tell you, if you really want to learn something, teach it.
The life principles embedded in story, I learned (and continue to learn), teach us how to live our own lives. This is why story, why novels and movies, are so important to us as human beings. It’s not just entertainment or distraction; it’s the very stuff we’re made of. It’s something deeply ingrained in our collective unconsciousness. It’s in the gene pool.
This was all a revelation to me. During this time, as an experiment I wrote a romance novel that actually got me my first literary agent. Unfortunately, the agent was getting nothing but turndowns on the book.
So out of desperation as much as anything else, I took a novel I’d written twelve years earlier—a manuscript that had been turned down twenty-two times—and rewrote it. Only this time, I actually imposed some craft concepts, an actual dramatic structure, over the book.
Six weeks later, my agent called me and the first words out of his mouth were: “Sit down.”
That book became my first published novel, Murphy’s Fault. The year it was published, it was the only first mystery on the New York Times Notable Book List.
Now this is not to say that if you read these books, memorize the Twelve Steps of the Hero’s Journey and fill in the blanks, you’ll have a story that works. There’s still a lot more to it. You’ve got to actually have at least a little talent as a writer, as well as a premise that works, characters that are appealing and compelling, and some kind of an ear for dialogue. This isn’t about formula; it’s about form, an underlying dramatic form to storytelling that has served us well throughout the human experience.
It’s a roadmap for the journey, but you’ve still got to be headed someplace interesting.
Thirty years after taking my first screenwriting course, I’m still on a lifelong journey of studying story and trying to understand it, master it, and produce it. I’ll never figure it all out, but as Faulkner said in his Paris Review interview, if he ever figured out how to write, there be no point in writing. He’d just break his pencil…
So study the movies. You can learn more than you think, even from a bad movie (want to see a truly, horribly bad movie that perfectly hits the Twelve Steps Of The Hero’s Journey? Watch “Con Air”).
And good luck on this treacherous, exciting, whirlwind of a journey…
Five Books On Screenwriting Every Writer Should Read
The best books on screenwriting aren’t just about writing for the movies. They’re about storytelling and how to make it all work. Every writer—no matter what medium or genre you work in—can learn from studying screenwriting and movies. With that in mind, here are five books* that I consider the essential:
Steven Womack is the Edgar and Shamus Award-winning author of By Blood Written and Dead Folk’s Blues, as well as about a dozen other books. His latest novel, Resurrection Bay, was co-written with Wayne McDaniel. Womack is also a screenwriter and has taught screenwriting at the Watkins Film School in Nashville, Tennessee, for the past twenty years. StevenWomack.com
*Killer Nashville is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program. If you purchase a book from the links on this page, Amazon will give Killer Nashville a small percentage of the total sale.