Bringing Up Baby

I was surprised to read the following quote from respected Australian screenwriter Keith Thompson:

“an overt focus on structure may be to the detriment of the script overall. He prefers to discuss scripts using more generic terms such as beginning, middle and end. The hero’s journey (a la Campbell and Vogler) should be approached warily.”

Not only does it show a grave lack of understanding of the depth and importance of the Hero’s Journey, it goes directly against most forms of successful storytelling.

I find it a dangerous statement, as aspiring screenwriters may have taken it as sound advice from a working screenwriter. The fact that it hasn’t sparked more controversy in the industry is another symptom of a film industry lacking a genuine storytelling culture.

On the other hand, Karin Altmann’s views on script editing are completely in line with those held by successful professionals around the world.

The following article, containing the quote, was reprinted with the kind permission of ScreenHub.

NSC 2007 – Script Editing
by: Anne Richey
Screen Hub – Monday 22 October, 2007

The first draft’s done. The characters are in place, and the story has been established along with what you would like to say. Except for maybe that characterthat scenethe way the story is resolved Time to call in a script editor.

The next question is who do you choose? With places like the AFC unable to recommend script editors to you, the best way is probably to ask around, and to find a script editor with the style you will best respond to. And their styles do vary.

To illustrate this point, Keith Thompson and Karin Altmann outlined the different methods they use to assist the writer to improve the script.

Keith Thompson, script editor on more than 20 produced feature films and five or six mini series, takes a very fluid approach. He considers his role to be the editor of the writer, not the script. He looks for a way for the writer to find the truth in what they are writing, whether through getting to know the characters better, preventing self-censorship, or any of the variety of other hurdles which the writer must find their way over.

In order to find the truth in the script, the writer must first reach a place where they can recognise what the script is about, and just as importantly, why they should be the one to write the story rather than anyone else, Taking this kind of psychological approach creates a less defensive atmosphere where the writer feels more confident in developing the script further.

Importantly, the script editor should not make suggestions about the script, but rather, encourage the writer on a path to finding the answers for themselves. The aim of the game is to emphasise the good and reduce the bad.

Keith is wary of scripting how-to books, believing that they hold the potential for all movies to end up looking the same. Similarly, an overt focus on structure may be to the detriment of the script overall. He prefers to discuss scripts using more generic terms such as beginning, middle and end. The hero’s journey (a la Campbell and Vogler) should be approached warily.

Unlike Karin Altmann’s approach, he also prefers to avoid the use of cards to work out the structure of a script. He prefers overall to avoid theory and stick to encouraging the writer and developing the script. Karin takes a structuralist approach in a similar way to Robert McKee, starting with the logline, premise, one pager, treatment and then on to developing the script. While Keith agreed that this does work in some cases, he certainly doesn’t believe that it works in all. His theory is that sometimes people need to work out the script while writing it, particularly the first draft.

Engaging in weekly meetings with the writers he’s working with, his role is more that of an encouraging spectator, facilitating ways for the writer to achieve the right outcome. As people only get one chance to read a script for the first time, Keith uses a colour code method for the first draft read-though notes, with a different colour once he knows what the story is about and how it ends. He finds it to be a helpful way of differentiating what should be worked on, depending on the perspective taken,

Karin Altmann’s approach is far more analytical and mechanical. She believes that a script editor shouldn’t get involved with the first draft, and that the script editor’s purpose in the ensuing drafts is to assist the writer’s internal judge. To her, the script editor’s role is to identify not solve problems, and it is not their place to provide scenes, lines or dialogue. They should always remember that they are the script editor, not the collaborator.

Script editors really take the role that producers and directors should be taking if they were better trained at the role, as they have an ongoing investment in making the project as viable as possible. She believes that as time goes on, and more training is developed in the industry, script editor role will gradually disappear, replaced by others with a vested interest in the film.

When editing, she tends to focus on the story more than the writer. She wants to know not only what the story is about, and why the writer is doing it, she also wants to know what the story is really about and why the writer is really doing it. When reading a script for the first time, she likes to imagine it as though watching a movie. On the second read, she uses the one-line scene breakdown method. She finds this to be the best way to determine the strengths of the emotional logic, rhythm and narrative logic. It help in identifying the gaps between the intention and the result, and provides a strategy for moving forward.

Ultimately, the script editor is the servant of the story, not the writer or the producer. They identify the places where the script is in need of resolution, and provide the writer with the pathways to achieving a better script, rather than rewriting it on their behalf. Stop banging your head against the keyboard when trying to move forward with your next draft. A good script editor is all you need.

Anne Richey
Anne Richey is a writer with an engaging demeanor, a systematic approach to organisation, and a criminal mind.

(Reprinted with kind permission of ScreenHub)

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