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Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay [Paperback]

Andrew Horton
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
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Book Description

10 Feb 2000
'We need good screenwriters who understand character'. Everywhere Andrew Horton traveled in researching this book - from Hollywood to Hungary - he heard the same refrain. Yet most of the standard how-to books on screenwriting follow the film industry's earlier lead in focusing almost exclusively on plot and formulaic structures. With this book, Horton, a film scholar and successful screenwriter, provides the definitive work on the character-based screenplay. Exceptionally wide-ranging - covering American, international, mainstream, and 'off-Hollywood' films, as well as television - the book offers creative strategies and essential practical information. Horton begins by placing screenwriting in the context of the storytelling tradition, arguing through literary and cultural analysis that all great stories revolve around a strong central character. He then suggests specific techniques and concepts to help any writer - whether new or experienced - build more vivid characters and screenplays. Centering his discussion around four film examples - including "Thelma & Louise" and "The Silence of the Lambs" - and the television series, "Northern Exposure", he takes the reader step-by-step through the screenwriting process, starting with the development of multi-dimensional characters and continuing through to rewrite. Finally, he includes a wealth of information about contests, fellowships, and film festivals. Espousing a new, character-based approach to screenwriting, this engaging, insightful work will prove an essential guide to all of those involved in the writing and development of film scripts.

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Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay + The 21st-Century Screenplay: A Comprehensive Guide to Writing Tomorrow's Films
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Product details

  • Paperback: 250 pages
  • Publisher: University of California Press; Updated and expanded ed edition (10 Feb 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0520221656
  • ISBN-13: 978-0520221659
  • Product Dimensions: 1.8 x 15.9 x 22.9 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (3 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 445,248 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Product Description


"Distinctive because it moves beyond a how-to-text in addressing dramatic theory as it applies to character. . . . The scholarly and practical bibliography at the end of each of three sections in the book provides valuable sources for further study."--Choice

Inside This Book (Learn More)
First Sentence
Novelist William H. Gass writes, "A character, first of all, is the noise of his name, and all the sounds and rhythms that proceed from him" (1988, 272, emphasis my own). Read the first page
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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index | Back Cover
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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
You're as likely to discover memorable charactersin most scripts as you are to discover gold dustin the L.A. riverbed. Everyone reverentlypitches "strong characters" as essential to astrong story, but no one tells you how to do this.Andrew Horton eloquently demystifies the processof character creation. Having a MFA in screenwriting, I was familiar with some of thematerial, but I found a lot of the book, includingthe approach, fresh, inventive and inspired.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Inspiring 27 Sep 2002
By A Customer
... It is in fact, an excellent study of how to develop the kind of complex characters that make a film worth watching. The book does not suggest that plot is worth nothing, but points out that a really strong character delivers their own plot. I recommend it to anyone who's serious about developing a unique screenplay.
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2 of 16 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not my idea of good movies 2 Oct 1998
By A Customer
The book itself has a booring look. The letters are small, no pictures and so on. It could have something of interest though. I did not think so. I obviosly do not like the same kind of movies as the author. I like Terminator, Alien and Indiana Jones. Of the list of good movies listed by the author was only Thelma and Louise one of my liking and three I count as boring. If you like the very dramatic kind of movies you will like this book. If you are more for the action-type of movies, do not buy this one.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 3.3 out of 5 stars  18 reviews
21 of 24 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars A pretty good place to start 23 Aug 2004
By Brian Day - Published on
Having spent a sizable fortune on "how-to-write" books, I now realize that I need to stop buying these books and just start writing. Having said that, however, I think that Horton's book contains a lot of useful information and is better than most screenwriting books out there.

Whether you like this book probably depends on both your movie preferences and your writing style. If you are more Steven Segal than Woody Allen, then this book is probably not for you. Similarly, if you are a screen writer who meticulously outlines a story, then you should probably take a pass on Horton. If you can follow all those story diagrams in McKee's book, then you will hate this one. This book is the Anti-McKee.

Simply put, Horton view is that the most important part of a story is the development of the character rather than external events. A story should make us identify and empathize with the characters. Consequently, a great screenplay will have that identification and empathy as it's main goal.

The book is often written in a high-handed academic style. Horton is, after all, an academic. This may annoy some readers. For me, it imparted a measure of earnestness. Many of the reviewers had trouble with the "carvivalesque" concept. This could be explained a little more straightforwardly. Basically, it means that character: (i) is not static, but in a state of flux; (ii) is multi-faceted and does not always behave consistently; and (iii) is influenced by its background and evnironment. The first half of the book builds off of these themes.

The one quibble that I had with the book is that some of the exercises are unrealistic. For instance, am I really going to contact an agency to obtain a copy of a little-known short film so that I can review it? Of course not. Neither will you. Only a college professor would make such obscure assignments.

All-in-all, this is a good book to get one started in writing character-centered screenplays. I guess the name says it all.
19 of 22 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Not without some merit, but tedious and uninspiring 23 May 2004
By Javier A. Rodriguez - Published on
I've now read this book twice, hoping I missed the insight on moving a script toward a character driven progression. But what I have had to sadly conclude is Horton's book on the "Character centered screenplay" is more of a college dissertation than a book designed to help the writer develop a character piece.
That's not to say the book is completely useless. It has an interesting take on character paradigms, going into deeper than other books might. Horton's ideas on the multiple voices a character might represent can help open up perspectives on how to make a character more rounded without having to blather out more exposition to explain characters. Vogler, McKee (both who's books I highly recommend) don't spend this kind of focus on character dimension... but they weren't writing books solely on character.
Horton throws his arms out patting himself on the back with his pontification regarding 'carnivalesque'. The idea might have been interesting in a glancing pass, and attempt at expanding our perspective about characters and their many sides with the allusion towards changing masks and showing different sides of self, but it became an esoteric exercise in proving academic chops. Had it be posed and then left so we could delve more deeply into other topics, it wouldn't have been an issue. But carnivalesque was dropped front and center at indulgent intervals, ending up being distracting and fruitless, the exact opposite of what a book about writing should be about.
In the end, 'Character-Centered...' is a flat, uninspiring read. Horton is probably a cerebral person who has spend time dissecting and analyzing films, but little time focusing on the writer's journey of producing a good script. In my meandering through screenplay literature, it is rare to find someone giving you 'hows' instead of 'whats'. "Character Centered..." simply doesn't live up to it's name on the basis of a lack of desire to direct would-be writers to produce character driven material.
6 of 6 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Outdated and Obscurantist 24 Nov 2010
By Paul Bryan - Published on
Horton's book starts from the premise that the most enduring and celebrated movies are based on stories with strongly etched characters who evoke a powerful emotional and moral resonance. These `character-driven' scripts are counter-posed to the unsatisfying `plot-driven' outputs of Hollywood which are based upon a `linear cause and effect narrative built around a central protagonist and the need for a successful resolution'.

As an antidote Horton encourages writers to embrace the `carnivalesque' or spirit of the carnival which he describes as an `open-ended or multi-voiced discourse' in which character is presented `not as a static state of being but as a dynamic process of becoming'. Or in plainer language, characters are morally conflicted, works in progress possessing un-finalised qualities which make them unpredictable and inherently more interesting. From this perspective, there is less of a requirement for writers to generate neat endings where characters resolve identified needs and attain goals. Instead, character motivations may remain shrouded in mystery or at least only be hinted at to reflect the complexities of real life. As examples of this approach, Horton offers us Hannibal Lecter from the Silence of the Lambs and Shakespeare's Iago (from the play Othello) whose inclinations to evil are never explained through a revelation of their innermost feelings and motivations.

This rejoinder to keep the audience guessing is perhaps the most valuable insight in an otherwise tedious book that suffers from the obscurantist style of writing so typical of academic post-modernist texts from the decade following the mid 80s. In seeking to celebrate directors such as the surrealist Luis Brunel, who in their films sought to eradicate `any idea or image that might lend itself to a rational explanation' so Andrew Horton lines himself up with those who in finding multiplicities of meanings everywhere apply themselves to the destruction of understandable logic. Although in his defence he'd argue `as writers we deal not with certainties, but with pregnant ambiguities. Too much certainty and we are in danger of falling into cliché.'

First published in 1994, Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay, also betrays a very dated obsession with gender, race and ethnicity as a route to escape the stereotype-generating dominance of white-male perspectives in Hollywood. At a time when the representation of women and minorities has never been greater or the barriers to access lower it could be argued that the impetus to finding fresh characters today lies more within the fragmentation of political and religious views than it does within the politics of gender and race.

Ultimately, Writing the Character-Centered Screenplay fails to deliver on the promise of its title to help screenwriters develop more vivid character-driven stories. It critiques the failing of the Hollywood model of story-telling yet fails to deliver compelling alternatives. It touches too lightly on topics that may have proved interesting to explore in more detail such as the use of Jungian personality typology in profiling character traits and fails to clearly explain its central idea - that writers should embrace the carnivalesque. In 2010, Horton's text is one to miss.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Spice up your screen stories with some character gumbo! 15 July 1997
By A Customer - Published on
You're as likely to discover memorable charactersin most scripts as you are to discover gold dustin the L.A. riverbed. Everyone reverentlypitches "strong characters" as essential to astrong story, but no one tells you how to do this.Andrew Horton eloquently demystifies the processof character creation. Having a MFA in screenwriting, I was familiar with some of thematerial, but I found a lot of the book, includingthe approach, fresh, inventive and inspired
8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Something Different 1 Aug 2004
By J. Wiedemer - Published on
The reason that many reviewers pan this book is the reason that I highly recommend it: it is academic and theoretical. Horton bases his character theory on the idea of the "carnavalesque." It is this internal unpredicability that really brings characters to life.

This book is not for everyone. Horton has a habit of criticizing the plot-driven Hollywood blockbusters and idealizing small independents and foreigns. This can be a bit irritating after a while. If you know the basics and have read all the overly simplisitc and formulatic books (I too am no fan of Syd Field) this is an interesting and different angle to check out, with a much more academic style than most. But it's definitely not a simple "how to," so if that's what you want, look elsewhere for the basics.
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