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Saturday, September 13, 2008

Screenwriting Gurus

Apply that term to me or anybody else and I get really uncomfortable. One definition of guru is "a person who is regarded as having great knowledge, wisdom and authority in a certain area, and uses it to guide others." but I can't help but associate the word with its other definition: "a teacher or guide in the religious sense." I always picture a prophet of some kind, with supplicants gathered round, listening to every word as if it were inspired by god. The shoe! The gourd! As if screenwriting "gurus" are in some way magical or holy. Gimme a break.

Interestingly, whenever I see screenwriting gurus referred to, it's usually in the negative, as if they themselves have chosen that label and see themselves as above the screenwriters they serve.

Serve is the operative word for me, personally. I have something I'm good at and I serve others by bringing those insights to bear when it is asked of me.

Like my script consultant peers, I’m a professional – meaning I analyze stories for a living. Just like a mom who is professional and an expert at making four lunches, waking everybody up and getting them to school on time is really good at that because she does it every freaking day. You want some advice from her? She’ll tell you how she does it. If that works for you too, terrific. If not, ask another mom or figure it out your own way. Either way, the kids have to get to school on time, dressed and prepared for the day.

Some people are fans of McKee, Blake Snyder or Christopher Vogler. Whatever speaks to YOU. At the end of the day, let’s be honest, nobody really has anything particularly new to add to the topic of how to write a great script. It’s just HOW it’s taught. Some writers really like to go in for a very academic approach. Others like Blake’s lighter, more playful tone.

Personally, I like to keep it real and simple. And Wavers know that I strongly feel that a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down. You have to be able to laugh and not take this so deadly seriously. It’s not rocket science – but it is an art, this screenwriting thing.

I don't think script consultant "gurus" should be put on a pedestal but rather, like any professional - a good mechanic, a doctor, a web designer - be respected for their knowledge and put to work by you only if it's a good fit for you. In fact, I vote that we dispense with that stupid "guru" term altogether and replace it with Friendly Script Helper Person. I'm all for it.

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Anonymous said...

110% with you on this. I, too, tire of people pointing at screenwriting books like some did with the Bible (pun intended). How about just effing entertaining me like you said in other post?

E.C. Henry said...

Julie, the monkier "Friendly Script Helper Person" makes you sound like you're a parent helping a teacher at some GRADE SCHOOL function. So let's NOT call you as that. How 'bouts something catchy like, "professional script consultant."

"Professional," 'cuz that that's what you edeavor to be. "Script," 'cuz that's what you're dissecting (like Biology class frog). "Consultant," 'cuz that's what you do; you're the person whose advise is sought on a matter.

I am with you on the misdirection the word "guru" implies. It just after you hear it a few times, and it's an established term, I never felt empowered to challenge it. Glad to know there are still a few free thinkers out there who are willing to question the status quo. Ever thought of running for office?

- E.C. Henry from Bonney Lake, WA

Batman said...

When I saw the title of this post, I thought you were going to recommend one....

I do agree with you on listening to the one that speaks to you. Or in this case, me.

Christina said...

I personally make a distinction between script consultants and readers (like you and Scott Mullen) and "gurus" like Blake, Robert McKee and John Truby. Script consultants give you their educated opinion about whether or not a particular script is working and make suggestions for improvements. Gurus, on the other hand, are selling a method - their method - usually in the form of a book or a course.

One day I was procrastinating on writing actual pages and I make a spreadsheet that maps Blake Snyder's 14 beats to beats in John Truby's 22-step outline to my former UCLA instructor's 7 beats, etc. It's pretty funny - they ARE all saying the same thing, i.e. a good screenplay barks like this.

Julie Gray said...

Okay, E.C., how about Professional Script Consultant: Comes With Cupcake :)

Michael said...

I just had this conversation this morning with a friend and fellow writer. We agreed that the only way to know what works for you is to keep writing and writing and when you think you're ready - write some more.

We felt like everything you learn (by example, through books, schooling or through a mentor/coach) is important but only by doing can you figure out what tools/tricks/nuggets you'll need and when to use them.

For me, I learn by doing -- And also by surrounding myself with smarter people who can help me.

Above all, know your limits - don't be afraid to ask for help from professional "Gurus"...

Julie has helped me tremendously b/c we "get each other". I've worked with Blake too and he's awesome.

Trust yourself and your abilities and then trust your "Guru" even more...


Dave Shepherd said...

The biggest problem with gurus is when people take their advice as a law that can not be broken.

What you should do is figure out why that law is there -- and as soon as you know why it's there, you know why you'd break it.

In theory there's no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there is.

Laura Reyna said...

I don't mind the label GURU since I take to be, at least in part, ironic.

What's irksome about SWing book authors is thier absolutism. The attitude that THEY have the answers, or that there are absolute rules you have to follow.

Some seem to be saying "My way is THE way...."I have the method that will make you a success"... "If you're doing something different, you're doing something wrong". etc...

Some don't allow for different philosophies or methods.

I've concluded that they need to project this sertitude so that novices can be convinced they have THE ANSWER & thus buy their books, DVDs & services.

You never hear the same absolutist attitudes coming from produced writers.

The best teachers are professional screenwriters & their work-- and you THE WRITER. We're mostly all self-taught.

Luzid said...

I usually hear guru used by writers with a grudge - those who aren't receiving the response to their work that they hoped for. It seems it's a defensive thing.

I have to disagree about one thing, though - in my view, screenwriting is a craft, not an art. The craft might help produce art, but is not itself art.

Anonymous said...

Hey Luzid,

You got it wrong. Screenwriting is an art!

To make a script a page turner, that's an art.

To write so that the director/producer (for example Ron Howard) will read the whole script in one sitting, that's an art.

To write so you sentences in your script is not boring or amateur sounding, that's an art.

To combine style with substance and with simple prose, that's an art.

Why don't you read some of the scripts found in the 'black list".

Read them. All those writers are true "artists". They will not and cannot explain how they write, because it's an art.

Hey buddy, one day you will realize screenwriting is an art.


Désirée said...

Guru is not a religious title and is just as you describe someone who knows a great deal about something and teach and help others.

If someone starts to adore a guru and only listen to his/hers voice, and noboy elses, that is not the guru's fault.

If the guru says that his/hers teaching is the only true teaching, then he/she is no longer a guru.

If someone thinks of you as a guru, just be flattered. It is - in my opinion - the best title you can get in a profession.

Christina said...

Blake has a sense of humor about the title of "guru." I have a friend who teaches screenwriting in the Bay Area and is skeptical of popular screenwriting methods like John Truby's or Blake's. I decided to give her an autographed copy of Blake's book to shake her up. I told Blake she was skeptical, so he signed the book, "Dear XX, Drink the Kool Aid! -Blake" Blake and I laughed for five minutes. He's definitely not a smug person!