Developing a story. Some believe it to be a magical process best handled within a vacuum. Toss aside education and personal development and write write write. Others believe it can thrive and potentially excel when mixed with the influence of those well-versed in narrative structure.
Professional screenwriters John August and Craig Mazin host a podcast for screenwriters and things screenwriters would find interesting called Scriptnotes. August wrote many of Tim Burtons films. Mazin wrote the hugely successful Hangover movies. Both rightly claim the authority to speak story.
Unfortunately both look down on script consultants.
The Scriptnotes podcast is an enjoyable listen. Both screenwriters bring a wealth of experience and intelligence to the conversation and genuinely make you feel like you’re getting the inside scoop on what it is like to be a Hollywood screenwriter. I’m an avid listener. The show sits high atop The Essentiasl list in Overcast.
But I cringe when they start speaking narrative structure.
In the past month two script consultants, John Cork and Danny Manus, felt the need to voice their concerns regarding the duo’s attack on their businesses.1 While Mazin’s venom stands out as the most prominent, August has proven to be not much of a fan either;2when Craig goes off, John often stays silent. The experience listening to their rants is one of disappointment and frustration. Here are two people you respect and admire basically trashing the one thing you think you do well: construct stories. Blog posts, like the ones Manus and Cork published, are often a great way of dealing with the cognitive dissonance and a terrific remedy to the pressure build-up.
Script consultant Danny Manus’ post ended with this thinly veiled rant against August and Mazin:
Those who spout off about how THERE ARE NO RULES – but then continue to tell you exactly what to believe and think and how to act and who to do business with – are either wildly hypocritical, or completely oblivious.
He has, of course, denied specifically calling out August and Mazin, but anyone who has listened to their podcast knows otherwise. Manus has since taken down the article (thanks to Google cache it will forever be available here), but the point he brings up is a good one: August and Mazin don’t believe there are any rules … except the ones they give.
Mazin and August are not oblivious—they simply have a different take on what rules are allowed. If it comes from someone who has worked in the industry, someone who has a couple films under their belt, someone who is well respected among his or her peers then yes, those rules count. If instead the rules come from frustrated screenwriters, narrative theorists, or unpublished writers who love discovering what makes great stories work and sharing that with others—then those rules should be ignored. Rules from Mazin, August and Brosh McKenna are OK; rules from Huntley, Phillips or Snyder are not.
The hypocrisy comes from the mandate to ignore anyone who says there are rules of telling stories, but then proceed to list rules within the very same podcast. Explaining how to handle “two-handers” stands out as a rule that they frequently call upon.3 Either stories have base elements to them or they don’t. The professional status of who discovers or presents these components should not matter. As someone fascinated with the rules as presented by the Dramatica theory of story, this preference for the professionals over the insightful ones is disarming.
Our definition of rules may be different. Mazin and August may be rallying against the page-number set, those unique group of theorists, readers, and narrative junkies who believe Act turns happen at set page amounts. If this is the case then yes, they are right, there are no rules. But if they want to discount the thought-provoking revelation that competent stories are simply analogies to a single human mind trying to solve a problem, then they are dead wrong. There are rules.4
And it’s OK to learn them.
Manus posits another observation:
You denounce outside education, classes, advice, feedback, podcasts or knowledge from anyone other than yourself or those you have personally endorsed and deemed as worthwhile. And you discredit other people’s information or advice not based on how true it might be, but on the basis of how it supports your party line.
Consultant John Cork challenges this attitude in his two post spectacular Craig Mazin is Lying: Part One and (Part Two. Claiming Mazin’s Princeton background granted him special privilege, Cork defends access to veteran screenwriters and readers as a reasonable replacement for collegial community. Mazin defended this accusation in a recent tweet barrage:
No one in Hollywood, and I repeat - NO ONE - ever gave an ounce of shit where I went to school. And why should they?
True, no one cares about the name of the school, but they do care what you learned there, what knowledge you gained. Mazin, I think, misinterprets Cork’s point about access to knowledge as claim of nepotism.
Having gone to CalArts in the early 90s I can tell you that I absolutely have experienced special privileges in the animation industry. Many of my classmates went on to very successful careers and have been in positions to hire me and I’ve enjoyed the benefits of those classmates recognizing me. I’m very thankful that I had an opportunity to go to that school and had a chance to make so many great friends with so many talented people.5
But this wasn’t the point of Cork’s diatribe.
Cork calls out the access to knowledge, the means towards a higher education and one geared specifically towards writing and narrative structure. If you can find the same information, perhaps better information somewhere else (and at a much cheaper price), why wouldn’t one take advantage of it?
And why is the one offering it a deceiver?
Mazin inspires most when he says this:
Be careful, work hard, trust in your talent, be honest with yourself, and don’t let anyone convince you that you need them to succeed.
But can’t stand statements like this:
The truth is… without paid consultants, you’ll have the same damn chance you’ll have with them. But one thing is definitely for sure: you will be poorer with them.
Maybe some consultants don’t work with the intention of educating the client. I do. My site Narrative First offers hundreds of articles on story structure and analysis intended to help make better writers. My consultancy extends that thinking towards a client’s specific work. How this differs from a collegial education or an established guru workshop like McKee’s Story class is beyond me. You’re learning something, and in exchange you are paying the teacher for his time and knowledge.
Should I feel guilty that I am flying to Idaho at the end of May to teach one of my Introduction to Dramatica Workshops? Am I a charlatan if I was invited? I admit that at times I feel like a snake-oil salesman, especially after listening to one of Mazin’s impassioned pleas.6 But then I receive word that an attendee of one of my workshops last year was so inspired by my class that he rallied his own local writers group to fly me out there and that all goes away. I love teaching story and revealing all the great things Dramatica says about story.
I understand being upset at those who promise industry insider access or the secrets to making it big in Hollywood. That doesn’t seem right. I only promise to reveal the secrets of competent and effective narrative—the success is still up to the artist’s talent.
The Dramatica approach to developing a story is one of learning. A process of developing one’s understanding of narrative structure and how great stories work. Twenty years later and I’m still learning fascinating things about story I never knew existed. 7
Writers have a better chance of succeeding when they have a greater storehouse of knowledge to draw upon. How is this even something to be debated?
My feeling is that Mazin, like his podcasting co-host August, participates in a form of magical thinking when it comes to writing. That the artist triumphs by summoning a mystical spirit guide or muse to show them the path, and that every achievement stems from within. That they alone possess a special ability that can’t be taught or can’t be analyzed. That writing is a spiritual event.
Screenwriters and writers unfamiliar with or inept at Dramatica are very uncomfortable with the idea that what they know about story doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface. They succeeded without greater knowledge…why shouldn’t everyone else?
Dramatica is not an attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of wannabe writers. In truth, it’s there to lift the veil on magical thinking.
Even Manus takes time out from vilifying Mazin and August to attack someone else:
You create your own terminology for words and concepts that don’t require new terminology (or perhaps your own FONT because the font others use aren’t good enough for you?).
This is almost certainly a reference to Dramatica.8 It showcases the kind of ignorance that accompanies superficial evaluations of the theory and is, in its own way, another attempt at hindering education.
Dramatica redefines concepts like Protagonist and Main Character because it has identified the need to look at a story’s problem both objectively and subjectively. The dissonance between the two creates meaning and provides the Audience with something hey can’t find in real life (the opportunity to hold big perspectives within the same context).
Huntley and Philips didn’t do this to sell software, they did it because they identified something that no one in thousands of years ever considered. Damned if they do, damned if they don’t. If they came up with new words they would have met resistance, so they chose to improve Main Character and Protagonist.9
A difficult process to be sure, but one that deepens the writer’s understanding of narrative.
Cork closes out his double fisted rant with an endorsement of peers and mentors:
So, aspiring screenwriters, you can take Craig Mazin’s advice, that nothing exists, that how you make it or fail is a mystery, that there are no patterns. Or you can look at the careers of dozens and dozens of screenwriters and realize that no matter how much they may want to act like they simply arrived where they are, there is more to that story. They pushed themselves hard to write their best, and far more than one might imagine, all along a very expensive road to success, they found peers and mentors who gave them valuable and helpful feedback and advice that ultimately contributed to their ability to become professional screenwriters.
Some find those peers and mentors in college. Some find them elsewhere along the way. This brave new world offers an unparalleled opportunity to connect with the smartest and brightest and a chance to grow beyond ourselves.
The idea of the script consultant should be one of education. One where the development of understanding reigns paramount over maintaining a financial benefit.
His blog post “Those Who Don’t Write, Teach” was particularly insulting. ↩︎
An innacuartely at that. The “two-hander” is the term used by writers who do not understand the relationship between the Main and Influence Character. ↩︎
This idea, that stories are analogies of the human mind is central to the Dramatica theory of story. ↩︎
This is not to discount my hard work over the years. ↩︎
Mazin even offered to buy me lunch once I quit my consultancy the first time. I couldn’t I’ve it up. ↩︎
And I’m considered a Dramatica Story “Expert.” ↩︎
Although the font reference is towards August and his delightful Courier Prime font ↩︎
As it turns out, they still had to invent new terminology for other concepts that weren’t even remotely touched upon in previous understandings. ↩︎