Book Review: Screenwriting Down To The Atoms by Michael Welles Schock


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Michael, of ScriptMonk Industries, described his book on his website:

For over a generation, screenwriting guides have been limited to the very basics of the craft. Now, with Screenwriting Down to the Atoms, readers take a giant leap forward with revolutionary new approaches that go far beyond the basics to explore the cinematic story like never before.

So what are these approaches? Well, as you might be able to tell from the cover, this book uses science and mathematics, amongst other analogies, to help explain the screenwriting craft. As a fan of analogies, this appealed to me, as did the no-nonsense “atoms” approach – by which I mean that this book is a well-structured, step-by-step yet deep analysis of all the elements that go together to build a screenplay.

I would suggest this book for beginners, and as a revision tool for more advanced writers – it’s always good to refresh your memory and it can also be useful to re-examine story mechanics whilst rewriting a script. In this respect, Screenwriting Down to the Atoms is a very handy reference manual.

Though the author takes a while to get to the start of the script elements analysis, the background information about storytelling and its effect on audiences does provide a good introduction. The author has taken a lot of care over how topics are ordered and explained, making for a really pleasant build-up to a deeper knowledge of screenplay structure.

There were, however, a few statements/assumptions that the author put across that I felt were a little unjustified, particularly relating to the the negative notion that other screenwriting book authors and dramatists have somehow misinformed or misled readers/learners: “[Most guides have] superficial approaches based on speculation or imitation that fail to do more than scratch the subject’s surface” and “[Dramatists usually] take a collection of films considered successful, find similarities, and then command writers to copy the formula”.

Yet the author, much like other screenwriting book authors, uses lots of [commercially successful] film examples himself to illustrate his explanations of the craft. Another claim that felt far-fetched was the supposedly ground-breaking nature of some of the theories:

Second acts do not only maintain momentum in their latter halves, but actually escalate in intensity. How do they do this? Simple. Their writers know something most amateurs are never told. Proper cinematic structure contains a fourth major dramatic turning point, situated smack-dab in the middle of the second act. This is called the MID-2ND ACT TURNING POINT. Now, many dramatists do not recognise the existence of the Mid-2nd Act Turning Point (or Midpoint, as it is more commonly known). However, few are aware of its actual purpose. The Mid-2nd Act Turning Point […] IS an end-of-act turning point. The truth is, the second act is not one long, drawn out act as so many writers are told, but rather two separate acts of equal length separated by a major dramatic event.

Sure! This is the mid point reversal; something most writers and professional *do* actually know.

Despite a few parts of the book that made me feel a little defensive of other writers and professionals, the easy-to-read nature of the book and conversational tone of the author was actually really nice to read.

Being a comprehensive guide, there was quite a lot in this book that I already knew (but, as mentioned, refreshing the memory is always welcomed) and I really quite liked the scientific analogies, which helped me to picture the rules and theories clearly in my mind.

I particularly enjoyed the analysis of the story spine, and sequences, which are topics that aren’t as often approached in how-to material. This book really does cover it all!

Adapt structure to story, not the other way around.

There are some really great pieces of advice in this book. Another favourite of mine is the notion of avoiding SHOE LEATHER – the phenomenon when an actor ends up walking across/around a room too much. In screenwriting terms, this refers to “any unnecessary steps in a set of actions that could be implied rather than shown”. I just love the author’s use of visual descriptions like this to explain approaches. Other fun terms included INFO DUMP and INFO PLANTS. I’ll let you find out what they are…

Overall, despite a few niggles (I can’t help but think of John Yorke, who said that essentially all gurus are trying to articulate the same thing; therefore separate theories are actually all *the same thing*), this book is a really comprehensive, scientific analysis of what goes into creating a great screenplay. The title of this book is very apt, and the author has done a great job of thinking outside the box in order to approach the subject in a visually clear way that will help smooth out any confusions we may have about the craft of screenwriting.

You can read about/get the book HERE.

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