Book Review: The Art of Screenplays, A Writer’s Guide by Robin Mukherjee (Creative Essentials)


If you’re like me, and you love analogies and creative ways of explaining theories, then you’ll love Robin Mukherjee’s book which takes a look at the art of writing screenplays.

“Craft is to be found in the very nature of experience. And the more we understand that experience, the more skillful we can become.”

Presented with a book about writing screenplays, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it would be the same old same old – a presentation of the basics in another “how to” tome. But the clue is in the title – “art”.

This book is much more than just a simple instructional how-to. Robin really digs deep into the “why” of stories as well as the “how” in light of a very important element – human nature.

Furthermore, as a working writer with experience in writing serials and features for TV and film, Robin is able to draw on his personal experiences and doesn’t shy away from telling us the ins and outs of his own experiences when coming up with, and developing, characters and storylines that he has written and had produced.

It’s a really interesting mix of theoretical study and practical experience. Robin has a knack for explaining things using simple analogies as well as digging deeper intellectually, even going so far as to explore “The Orphic Paradigm” which looks at the mythic content of narrative structure, helping to identify deeper story meanings and how we can relate the approaches to contemporary narrative structure.

But don’t be alarmed. There’s also plenty of easily digested sections on the breakdown of not only structure but how to plan a script and how to tap into character and story on a deeper level.

“Character isn’t there simply to serve a story and story isn’t there to serve character”. Robin explains how we need to look deeper into characters and scenes in order to glean more from them. What makes a character interesting is not just how they look and their personality but their inner life; the remaining imbalances from what’s come before.

“Until the imbalance is introduced, and there is some indication of how the character will seek to redress it, there is no story.”

As well as the in-depth look at the methods of how a writer can sift valuable story and character material from the most mundane or usual-seeming situations and experiences, I was particularly impressed by Robin’s explanations of the importance of style in scriptwriting.

Robin really gets to the bottom of familiar phrases such as “It isn’t what characters say and do but what they don’t say and do” by helping the reader get to grips with the fact that it isn’t what characters say and do that matters but why. Imbalance, juxtaposition, inference, perceptions, moods, statements, themes… All play a part in writing authentic and heartfelt drama.

“Don’t introduce your characters as a blank sheet upon which you will eventually get round to drawing something” – know your characters and start the story where it needs to start, rather than offering up exposition.

Robin reminds us how the movie Philadelphia didn’t start with Tom Hanks’s character finding out he had aids, because the story wasn’t about that, it was about standing up to the ignorance of those around him (which required his character to already have accepted the fact he had aids).

Another example from popular TV that I really liked was that of Breaking Bad’s Walter White, whose character demonstrates how behaviour changes depending on circumstances.

I really liked the in-depth approach of this writer’s guide, which brings it up a level from your usual how-to guides. It really immerses you into the theory and illuminates different ways of approaching the craft. Highly recommended for both beginners and experienced writers, as it has a lot to offer for all levels!

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