It's always felt to me that most books on screenwriting seem designed to filter out the writer's voice by prescribing a set of sacrosanct structural rules. Yes, these books are hugely helpful in structuring your narrative and formatting your screenplay, but should only be used after a first draft. If you start with them as a template you won't allow your voice to appear and therefore your script will feel empty, technically perfect perhaps but it's voice as much as story that draws people in. This is rarely mentioned because often the people reading the scripts don't even realize this is what they're responding to, but it usually is.
As always Kurt Vonnegut put it best when he said:
“It is very simple: There are two kinds of artists, and one is not superior to the other. But one kind responds to the history of his or her art so far, and the other responds to life itself.”
You can be the first kind and respond to the films you’ve seen but I’d argue there are too many of these sorts of screenwriters already, and there are too few of the latter. So read as much as you can, go to plays, listen to music, watch a great TV series – it’s all nourishment. And of course, life itself! This sounds like a very basic piece of advice but it’s amazing how easy it is to forget. Surrounding yourself just with movies can actually be detrimental to your craft, just in the way that I found having to read a pile of scripts every day made me overly critical of my own writing before I even put pen to paper (hand to pad?).
It makes logical sense too - the only unique thing you have in a crowded marketplace is you! Not only will it help sell your screenplay but it will also mean that no-one can really rip it off as there's no fool-proof way to copyright a screenplay unless you're rich enough to have a team of lawyers on retainer, but the more idiosyncratic your voice, the less possible it is for any other writer to claim your screenplay as their own. I mean, could anyone else have written Being John Malkovich?? Except Donald Kaufman of course.
Also, if you take inspiration from many other sources no-one will ever connect up the dots to work out what you've done. 'Borrowing' a scene, line of dialogue or character from another film will always be detected by the cunning cineast (is there any other kind?), but from a song, play, novel, TV series or poem?! Never!
The old adage goes: 'If you're going to steal, steal big', but I'd alter this slightly to: 'If you're going to steal, steal sideways!'.
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