Match Tarantino in two days

Observations on screenwriting

It's that time of year again when our film-makers migrate south for two weeks of schmoozing and boozing at Cannes. But don't panic if you forgot to book your flight: stay at home instead and cobble together a book called How to Write Totally Awesome Screenplays. Then watch the money roll in.

With only one British film, The Life and Death of Peter Sellers, showing in competition this year at Cannes, it sometimes seems there are more people in Britain teaching other people how to write films than writing any themselves. While the industry lurches from one cash-strapped crisis to the next, screenwriting training courses boom. Who are these movie Messiahs, offering to unleash your inner Charlie Kaufman or Quentin Tarantino for just £249 (lunch not included)?

It's rare these days to meet a producer who does not have a copy of Robert McKee's Story somewhere in the office. This is not necessarily a bad sign - his book is a decent guide to structuring a classic three-act film. McKee's real fame, however, comes from his two-day seminars, where the faithful can listen to the master in the flesh. McKee's closest rival is Chris Vogler, a former Disney executive. In 1992, he wrote to studio bosses outlining his views on storytelling, which he later expanded into a manual. In the same way that bestselling thrillers end up as Tom Cruise vehicles, screenwriting manuals become seminars. Vogler, too, promises to teach you everything in just two days.

What McKee, Vogler and their many imitators are selling - and they openly acknowledge the debts - is a reworking of Aristotle's Poetics and The Hero With a Thousand Faces, a book on archetypes and myth by the folklorist Joseph Campbell.

But the most important question when starting a screenplay is not "How do you write it?" but "Why are you writing it?" Or, to quote the veteran script tutor Jan Fleischer: "What is your story about?" And this cannot be learned in a weekend: it takes time to learn the rules, and even more time to get the confidence to break them. I could sign up for a week-long cookery course in the Dordogne, but I couldn't be head chef at the Savoy on my return.

Britons are addicted to short-term solutions to deep-rooted problems. But aspiring writers, like aspiring chefs, learn by trial and error. Even the best two-day seminar offers nothing more than ten hours of someone else's insight. Even the worst MA scriptwriting course offers peer support and the chance to meet real-life working writers, brought in as guest lecturers. Perhaps the Film Council can do better. Its New Skills Fund, launched last year, includes a plan for a national network of screen academies. I hope it brings to an end the cult of the two-day workshop. Meantime, if I stumble on the formula for a sure-fire hit, I won't be running any seminars - I'll be too busy signing my three-picture deal with Miramax.

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