Monday, 24 December 2012

Book review: "Ink Spots"

Brian McDonald is the author of Invisible Ink, and The Golden Theme. He is an award winning screenwriter who has taught his craft at several major studios, including Pixar, Disney and Industrial Light & Magic. His award-winning short film White Face has been shown all over the USA.

I had the privilege of conducting an interview with Brian back in January, 2012. If you haven't read that, you should. 


Since 2005, Brian has been writing one of the best blogs in the business: The Invisible Ink Blog. He started that as a way of helping get his first book, Invisible Ink, published. The international success of Invisible Ink has now led to the publication of Ink Spots


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Ink Spots is a compilation of the best posts from Brian's blog. It's a small book, divided into three sections. The first deals with things he has learned over the years, the second with the craft of screenwriting, and the third is a collection of observations about classic films.  

I have provided a few sample quotes from each section, to give you a taste of the book.

Things I Have Learned

There are a dozen posts here, many of them regarding the How of learning or thinking generally, or of learning about screenwriting specifically. There are anecdotes, especially of mistakes made and lessons learned.

  • If you have a Batman story and you can turn it into a Superman story, it isn't a very good Batman story.
  • Understand that plot and character are linked.
  • Don't be afraid to be bad at this for a while.
  • I have never understood why people think it takes great craftsmanship to confuse and/or bore people.
  • The truth is that it is very hard to make yourself understood.
  • My friend Pat Hazell talks about talking to writers starting out who are obsessed with getting an agent. His response is always, "What do you have for them to sell?" It's amazing how often they have nothing.
  • If you think this business is a way to get rich quick, you are in for a world of heartbreak.
  • Some of the longest films I have ever seen are short films.
  • I am constantly amazed when talking to younger film students that they have seen almost no classic cinema.
  • People who study physics still study Newton and Einstein. Those who came before still have something to teach us.

Thoughts on Craft

There are another twenty-six posts in this section.
  • It's amazing what happens when you rid yourself of the burden of being original.
  • "Where do we get screenplays?" may sound like an innocent question, but what it really says is that the person is unwilling to put any effort into learning their craft—not even the effort it takes to type "screenplay" into a search engine.
  • If you want to sell something for a million dollars, you have to do a million dollars worth of work.
  • If you want to write screenplays, you have to read screenplays.
  • The primary job of a storyteller is to tell the story clearly.
  • Almost all stories have a lesson at their core—sometimes a small lesson, sometimes profound, but almost always a lesson.
  • No first act equals no emotional involvement.
  • This idea of being clear often frightens my students. They don't want to point out the obvious. But what is obvious to them may not be so obvious to the audience.
  • A professional magician friend of mine confirmed my observation that scientists and skeptics are the easiest to fool.
  • The so-called reluctant hero is a hero, while the fearless hero is a cartoon.
  • A character who has fear but confronts it will feel more real to an audience, even if that character is actually a cartoon. Look at Finding Nemo.

Movies I Like

This section contains a dozen posts about classic films. Paper Moon (1973), Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969), Shadow of a Doubt (1943), Sunset Boulevard (1950), It's A Wonderful Life (1946), The Apartment (1960), Tootsie (1982), 12 Angry Men (1957), Norma Rae (1979), Jaws (1975), and Planet of the Apes (1968). Brian McDonald discusses those things that separate classics from the rest.
  • Films today don't make you feel as much as they make you think. We seem to have made a collective decision that thinking is better than feeling. But sometimes the emotion of a situation is the truth of a situation.
  • As a rule, films that make us think are respected while those that make us feel are beloved.
  • Selflessness has been the mark of a hero as long as human beings have told stories.
  • What makes (Billy Wilder) so good? No fat. Everything matters. He is always advancing plot, character, or theme—sometimes all three.
  • Many modern-day filmmakers are trying hard to be noticed. The shots are there to be noticed. The characters are there to be noticed. The editing is there to be noticed.
  • You are not the master of your story but a slave to it. You must do what it needs, not what you want.
  • The audience could see that Yoda was a puppet, but they were so interested in this unusual character that they allowed themselves to be "fooled" into believing he was a living, breathing being.
  • In recent years, we have spent a lot of effort trying to make creatures look more real. Maybe they do, but they don't feel more real. No one cries when they die.
  • No matter how much better technology gets, it will not improve on good story-craft. Make your characters live on the page and they will live on the screen.
  • If you call yourself a student of film and don't make yourself familiar with Charlie Chaplin's work, you are doing yourself a disservice.
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Ink Spots is a thinking book. It's all about what makes for great screenwriting and great films. If you're looking for sensational anecdotes and explosive Hollywood gossip, you'll be disappointed.

If you haven't read any of Brian McDonald's previous writings, I'd suggest you start with Invisible Ink. If you know that book, and have been writing for a while, Ink Spots is the kind of refresher that will return you to your own writing reinvigorated and with a sharper focus.
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2 comments:

Ed Love said...

Thanks, very interesting. I'll checkout his blog, and put his book onto my list.

Kathy Smart said...

So much wisdom in those pithy quotes. Thanks, Henry, I can always rely on you to suss out the gems.