"Screenwriter’s Compass: Character as True North" Book Review
Written by Guy Gallo
2012, 200 pages, Non-Fiction
Book released on March 2nd, 2012
Guy Gallo (Under the Volcano) is a screenwriter with a desire to share the simplest of truths to aspiring and seasoned writers alike. With over twenty years teaching experience at various universities in New York, he has acquired a distinct sense of what makes movies work. The heart of his argument is that character-based scripts are stronger than plot-driven material. In Screenwriter’s Compass: Character as True North, Gallo cleverly reveals how a story based on character is a more satisfying read than one that advances through a series of elaborate set-pieces.
With his extensive knowledge of writing successfully produced screenplays and a history of instructing others how to do the same, Gallo effortlessly guides the reader through the process of how to create something that will both satisfy audiences and stand a chance of reaching them. He bluntly informs writers that the deck is stacked against them, because not only is it a challenge to get the studio reader’s attention, but also that screenplays are frequently written with an emphasis on plot and fail to live up to their inciting incident.
Screenwriter’s Compass: Character as True North is a solid read filled with deeply appreciated wisdom. However, the book suffers from frequent congestion in both the volume of information provided and, more so, in the manner of the delivery. Gallo’s knowledge is undeniable and his passion for the material should be commended, but his presentation is often too scholarly and dry. This is not a slight against his technique, but rather a frustration with the intrusive academic stance that interrupts the flow of the conversational tone that dominates the majority of the book. Gallo makes the most compelling arguments for his approach to writing when he is forthright, but then at times he slips into a professorial delivery that will have readers reaching for either a pencil or a pillow.
This intrusive style first emerges in chapter 2, when the pacing is derailed by an extensive history of Greek drama and the principles established by Aristotle. While the lesson is to provide an understanding of how long-standing traditions of storytelling originated and have trained the film audience through endless repetition, the sidebar is overly thorough and hinders the momentum built in the introduction and previous chapter. Once the history lesson concludes, the book regains its original trajectory and focuses on how to make someone a better writer by becoming more objective in reviewing their own material.
To be fair, the content provided is top notch and should be an easy recommendation for anyone with a serious desire to become a professional screenwriter. Gallo’s arguments are valid and well tested, but I don’t agree with everything he says. As a horror fan, I cannot casually encourage this approach to all writers due to the legitimate concern that lesser talents overcompensate by explaining away the mystery. My worry stems from the recent trend in horror movie remakes and countless franchises that feel compelled to remove any question about what drives the villain to do what he does. Films like Hannibal Rising or the remakes of Black Christmas and Halloween go out of their way to make audiences feel safe in their knowledge that the boogeyman is simply a result of countless textbook clichés.
There is no shortage of “how-to” screenwriting books and more often than not, each provides something of merit (or they wouldn’t be hanging around), but no matter how well-written, each must concede that there is not a secret formula for creating a knock-out script. Gallo provides ample coverage of how to format and create a first draft, but is more helpful with the process of revisions, an easily neglected section of the process. While his book is a solid addition to bookshelves, my trepidations regarding the abuses cited above prevent me from giving full support to the material.
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