Listeners of the This Is Horror podcast have probably heard me mentioning a book called Crafty Screenwriting: Writing Movies That Get Made by Alex Epstein. Though not an actual writing reference guide, this book influenced my writing quite a bit. Epstein’s brutal honesty and eye-opening approach to the script writing business isn’t for everyone, but the man does know what he’s talking about, as he’s made a career of screenwriting in Hollywood.
The one thing readers need to know right off the bat is that this book offers very little in terms of formatting your screenplay. Instead, Epstein spends most of his time focusing on the fundamentals of story, characterization, and dialogue, as well as some tough-love insider information about the movie business. There’s only one chapter devoted to rewriting and script format at the end of the book, while the rest dives down deep into subjects like Hook, Plot, Action, Dialog, Genre, and getting help. Most of the book spends a lot of time showing you ways to develop your story idea before you ever begin to write the story. By defining what a screenplay actually is, Epstein breaks down the process for building your idea into something you can actually work with, something that shifts from an idea, into a story.
The concepts that have stuck with me more than anything else about this book are shifting your idea into a hook, and how to make your characters come alive on the page. Without a hook, which is a single sentence that tells agents, editors, and producers exactly what your story is about, there’s really no reason to begin to write the story. Think of all the books you love, and the movies you watch over and over again. Each one of those stories can be told in basically one sentence. But a hook isn’t just a long sentence, meandering through your plot. A hook is succinct, and compact. A hook has bite. Once you get that concept down, Epstein insists that you work on it even more. He explains why this is so important by breaking down all the ways you could get a deal without a hook, and trust me, the view from below isn’t so pretty. His knowledge of the business gives you a behind-the-scenes look at movies, why they’re made, and what you can do to get yours made, if you’re willing to put in the work. Building characters takes a little more work, and Epstein’s section about reverse engineering your characters can really help flesh out your story people to make them come alive.
The book is not without its flaws. Epstein believes if your hook and pitch are strong enough, you should begin querying right away, before actually writing anything. This may work for some people who have had some experiences with screenwriting in the past, but trust me when I say to use what you can from this book to help you write your story before even submitting it for publication to an editor, or querying an agent. If you’re idea is for a novel, and an agent bites but you don’t have any of the book written, well … you’ve probably wasted two people’s time: the agent’s, and your own.
Now, surely some of you are thinking that you’re not interested in writing scripts, you want to write fiction. These same concepts apply to any kind of writing, whether prose, plays, or scripts. These are basic tools needs to conceive, test, and strengthen your ideas into a story. Start with a hook, work your pitch, and get the work done. Regardless if you’re writing a script or a novel, Crafty Screenwriting by Alex Epstein is one book you should add to your reference shelf. His no nonsense approach to scripts, and the business of making movies, is different than anything else you’ve probably read on the subject, and can really help you improve your writing, and turning ideas into stories.