What’s the Best Training for a Screenwriter?

What do these screenwriters have in common?  Joe Eszterhas (Basic Instinct) Paul Attanasio (Quiz Show) Cameron Crowe (Jerry Maguire), David Simon (The Wire), Mitch Glazer (Great Expectations), Nora Ephron (When Harry Met Sally), Nicholas Pileggi (Goodfellas) William Monahan (The Departed),  Mark Boal (The Hurt Locker) and, well, me.

They all started out as journalists. And there's no better training for a young screenwriter. Here's why:

1. It's real-world experience like you'll never never find in any other profession. Too many young screenwriters know lots about movies but little else.  That's why many scenes in movies you see are constructed of tropes from other movies; they ring false in terms of real life. Whether you're covering the war in Afghanistan or your local school committee election, journalism puts you up close with real people in real situations at times of stress when big things are at stake. Most young writers have never experienced a situation like first hand.

William Monahan

2. What's the story? That's the question that both a journalist and a screenwriter need to ask constantly. Stories, whether on the screen or in the local paper, have beginnings, middles and ends. They have cause and effect, shape and form.  Real life, contains none of these things; it's messy, disorganized, and never really reaches a conclusion. Beginnings, middles and ends are structures that we impose on our lives to turn them into stories.  It's the structure that journalists impose on news stories to make them readable and understandable. (Which, by necessity, oversimplifies things and implies cause and effect where there is often none.)

Both a journalist and a screenwriter begin the creative process by combing through chaos until it starts to take a shape.  It's a talent, but it's also a skill that all successful journalists develop.

3. Listening. Any good journalist develops an ear for dialogue.  A good journalist knows how to listen and notices the cadences and telling details contained in characters' speech. A journalist comes to understand the layers of subtext behind what people say.

Mark Boal

4. Details. In an interview last year, Mark Boal said,  "Journalism is all about telling a story through detail, so I took that aspect with me to screenwriting."  Screenwriting is also very much about detail.  In my interview with Paul Auster for Writers on Film earlier this year, Auster said that in films, objects stand in for emotions. It's mostly a question of which objects/details to focus on. Both the journalist and the screenwriter are constantly involved in the act of sifting through reality to find exactly the right details.

5. And lastly, economy. Unlike novels, articles and films are brief and self-contained. There's no room for lengthy digression and contemplation. Each moment and word is loaded with all that it can bear. Each one is precious, and if something doesn't belong it has to be mercilessly cut out.

I'm aware that both journalism and screenwriting are professions in flux right now. It's harder to make a living in both professions than it was a decade ago. So in that way as well, I suppose, fighting to be heard and read in the world of journalism will get you ready for the trenches of Hollywood.

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