With its thorough coverage of basic tenets, some of which are so painfully obvious that giving them attention can do more harm than good, David Trottier’s The Screenwriter’s Bible stays true to its namesake. It is a solid, comprehensive resource for any screenwriter’s bookshelf, but it’s a lot to take in at once.
It is broken up into six “books” (read: sections), so let’s tackle each one individually.
Book I: How To Write a Screenplay — A Primer covers the basics of story, character, and dialogue. It is the section that has the most overlap with other popular screenwriting books, but it is also where The Bible is at its best. Information other books take hundreds of pages to present is distilled down to just over 90, and nothing is left out.
The first book does a great job of explaining instead of just telling, often providing examples that are truly helpful.
In the opening pages, Trottier demonstrates what is different about telling a story on screen versus other mediums. He presents an example scene of a robber breaking into a house in which a babysitter watches over children. On the stage, the conflict comes from dialogue; in the novel version, the focus is on thoughts and inner-monologue.
The film version is about the visual and emotional aspects:
The scissors penetrate one of the paper dolls. The doorknob slowly turns. The babysitter doesn’t notice. [...] A figure slides in through the shadows. His knife fills the screen. [...] He looms over her. His knife goes up. The dog barks louder still. She suddenly becomes aware, turns, and impales the man with the scissors.
The first book goes on to cover plot structure, introductions, transitions, character and character roles, and more. It’s a worthwhile read for any new writer, and the sort of refresher that can help a veteran writer regain momentum, or remember basics easily forgotten.
Book II: 7 Steps to a Stunning Script — A Workbook is The Bible’s second-strongest section. It breaks down the writing process into checkpoints, and provides worksheets to help navigate them.
Whether or not you choose to follow Trottier’s path, there are benefits to having it shown to you. It lays out a way — or an alternate way — to approach breaking story, which may be all you need to get over a hump. And blank worksheets are almost always less intimidating than blank pages.
But the borderline over-thoroughness of his checkpoints are the first warning sign of what is to come.
Book III: Proper Formatting Technique — A Style Guilde is a valuable resource, but — as expected — a dry read from beginning to end. Still, it cleanly spells out the answer to both common and uncommon questions, like the difference between V.O. and O.S., or how to format telepathic dialogue.
This is the book that makes The Bible a good long-term purchase. It will be valuable to pull off your shelf for quick answers.
Book IV: Writing & Revising Your Breakthrough Script — A Script Consultant’s View is where the book starts to get a little lowest-common-denominator. Since Book I, Trottier refers to the reader as “The Next Great Screenwriter.” Book IV is where that rhetoric begins to feel belittling.
Trottier provides flawed sample scenes and asks you to rewrite them, which is an exercise that doesn’t translate well from classroom to page. Trottier’s constant reminders of how well you’re doing are like pronunciation compliments from the absent professor of a learn-a-language audio tape. His repetitive reinforcing of the idea that you are, of course, The Next Great Screenwriter eventually forces the reader to confront the thought that maybe the lessons contained in Book IV are in fact innate to The Next Great Screenwriter and can’t be learned from a book.
If followed and expanded upon, there could be value to the lessons in this section. It just may take patience to find it.
Book V: How to Sell Your Script — A Marketing Plan takes even more patience. This is the “career of a screenwriter” book in beginners form — query letters, writers groups, etc — and it does address a few interesting questions and answer with some true wisdom.
But as John and Craig point out in episode 2 of Scriptnotes, a lot of those questions are all-but unanswerable.
Trottier’s struggle to get something on paper results in his hiding the good among a lot of maddeningly basic bits of advice — the sort of advice that makes one feel underestimated and defensive, and makes it more difficult to take anything else that person says without a grain of salt.
An example, from his list of potential ways to start a writers group:
In classes, ask the instructor or seminar leader to put your name and phone number on the board because you’d like to start a writers group. That way, interested writers can call you.
If you can silence your inner-rebellious-middle-schooler and look past the above, for instance, he makes a lot of strong points about the value of writers groups.
Book VI: Resources and Index is an afterthought section that lists other places to continue your screenwriting education.
While The Screenwriter’s Bible is not my favorite read, I can recommend it as a worthwhile purchase for novices, and possibly veterans as well. For the former, there is a lot to be gained from reading this cover to cover, as long as you can get through the dry spells and ignore the sometimes-annoyingly-and-misleadingly-friendly tone. For the latter, it is thorough enough that it would have been a great book to have as a resource in a pre-Internet world. Now, if you prefer books over Internet Sites for this sort of thing, there may still be value in owning a copy.