A blast from the past – taking advice from a photoplay writer

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A few months ago I bought a reprint of a book that had originally been published in 1913. It was called ‘The Technique of the Photoplay’, and was written by Epes Winthrop Sargent. Essentially, it is a ‘how to do it’ guide to writing successful screenplays in the very early days of American cinema, and it gives a great feel of that famous era, back when film-making was in its infancy.

As I sat reading it with the dog (and his new best friend, Owl), peering curiously over my shoulder, I found that although some of the advice was very specific to early screenplay writers (ie. how to make it clear what the characters are saying, in a silent film), much of the advice applied not only to writers in all genres, but was also as useful to writers today, as when it was written over one hundred years ago.

The author writes that between 1909 and 1913, ‘upward of ten thousand persons have sought to win success as photoplay writers… (but) not more than fifty persons… look to photoplay writing for their support.’ Clearly, getting a script accepted in those days, was just as difficult as getting a children’s book traditionally published today. Indeed, he says that ‘Ninety per cent of the stories sent into the studio are worthless because they possess no originality.’ However, all is not lost, as he offers advice about how to (and how not to), increase your chances of success. He advises would-be script writers that when sending scripts off to editors in the hopes of selling them, ‘do not spoil your chances of acceptance by writing gushy letters and do not try the sympathetic appeal by telling the Editor that you are trying to pay your way through college, or (that) you want to earn enough to buy mother a wooden leg’ – the importance of getting your cover letter right, hasn’t changed much then!

He then goes on to deal with the tricky matter of the synopsis. Seemingly, screenplay writers, just like modern-day fiction writers, had to send a synopsis to editors or agents with their work, and it was important that it was carefully crafted – and kept to a strict work limit. ‘The fact that (it) must be held to 250 words seems to cause beginners much trouble’, he acknowledges. ‘It is better to overwrite and then cut down than to try to write to the limit the first time’. But, he warns, make sure you emphasize the important bits – ‘go carefully through your story and discover the real punch’.

Writing a manuscript that, on first draft is far too long, is clearly also an age-old problem, and he talks about the dangers of writers running on for longer than is necessary after the climax of the story. ‘There is an art in knowing just when the story starts’, he says,’ but to know just when to stop… is a far greater accomplishment’. This is very applicable to me, particularly in the last few months, when I’ve been working on getting rid of loads of unnecessary scenes at the end of my current work-in-progress.

The importance of getting the viewer (or, for us, the reader), on side with your protagonist, is something else that he covers, and he suggests that we can go a long way towards achieving this by getting the characters’ names right. ‘Call your hero Steve but your villain Stephen, because you are not as friendly with the villain’, he advises, and, of course, this is exactly how we want our readers to feel as well. Similarly, we should be clear which character’s point of view the story is being seen from. ‘We cannot sit on and watch the struggle without taking sides’, he says, ‘unless the story is so badly told as not to interest us at all’.

There’s loads more in this wonderful book that I’ve found both interesting and useful to apply to my own writing, but I might well have to stop for now and maybe put some more of the advice it contains, into a future blog post – after all, as my new book assures me, ‘brevity with clearness’ is the aim of the game!

 

 

The Technique of the Photoplay’, by Epes Winthrop Sargent, the second edition first published in 1913 by The Moving Picture World, and reprinted by Biblio Bazaar (date unstated).

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