So my genius sister, Pamela Kay, made a series of YouTube videos on how to write screenplays. She won a Nicholl Fellowship from the Academy and knows her stuff. Heed her words, even if you don’t write screenplays, because this field is crazy useful for any sort of writer.
Why? The secret to all writing is structure–and nobody is better at structure than screenwriters.
Not because they’re magical and amazing, though many are. It’s because you can hide bad structure with pretty words in a novel or feature story.
With screenplays, you can’t hide the bad bones of a story, because that’s all people see: the bones.
Writing today has far too many silos, mostly focused on little details, with few notions on structure at all:
- Writing to inform: Journalists are stuck inside the inverted pyramid, a structure that’s inherently boring for anything of length, which is why journalists typically stink at novels
- Writing to persuade: Speechwriters know the structure of rhetoric, but it’s not really meant for writing anything to inform or entertain
- Writing to entertain: Novelists, playwrights, poets and screenwriters all have their own jargon and tricks, like they live on different planets
This reminds me of boxing, wrestling and martial arts before the days of MMA, with everybody doing their own little thing and swearing they’d whip the lesser disciplines. Except boxers got destroyed by the wrestlers, who got owned by the jujitsu people, who later on got wrecked by the boxers who learned how to sprawl. To be truly good fighters, fighters had to set aside their pride and train in every discipline.
I believe the same is true for writers today. There’s never been more content out there, with scads created every second all around the world, so there’s never been more competition to get read.
From having a toe in journalism, speechwriting and novels, I know you could slave away in one of these fields for years and still miss out on core fundamentals. Not learning from other disciplines is like building a house when all you know is drywall and plumbing–the thing is going to fall down.
Screenwriting is key because structure is why 99 percent of bad drafts are bad. Go look at a bad draft. Line by line, the words are plenty pretty. Structure is what vexes us all.
So: I hope this video gives you a taste of screenwriting and her series sparks something in you. Not so you can write LETHAL WEAPON 7: DANNY GLOVER AND MEL GIBSON BUST OUT OF THE SANTA MONICA NURSING HOME, but so you can learn how to pour the foundation of any sort of story, making it stands strong so you can move on to the wiring (dialogue), plumbing (setups and payoffs) and drywall (description).
Any sort of writing with strong bones will beat the stuffing out of the prettiest words with a weak foundation.
If you want more, here are two of the basic texts, the guide stars: STORY by Robert McKee is a deep dive on structure, while SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder is a breezy little look at genres, beat sheets and story, using movies we all know.
P.S. Pam did a ton of these videos, so I’ll try to post one every Tuesday as long as she keeps making them.