Screenwriting: Behind Enemy Lines by John Schimmel (book review).

John Schimmel didn’t start off as a producer but as a bass player and scriptwriter. Much of the opening of his book, ‘Screenwriting: Behind Enemy Lines’, explains how he started switched from running the Story Department to being a producer at Warner Bros. As such, he’s seen both sides of the fence.


An interesting statistic is that out of the 4,500 scripts they saw in 2011, only 16 became films. Their examination of the first 30 pages of any script is on par with how we prose editors look at the opening 3 chapters of a book sample. If the material doesn’t work there then it won’t work with the rest of the script or book. Ergo, whatever the material, if you want to be a good writer then you have to understand how to make it work and stand out from the rest. Understanding the rules of grammar is likewise essential. Even so, the odds aren’t that good that anyone becomes a successful scriptwriter. The entire process of selling a script is having to get the initial studio readers to like it and let it work its way up the chain to the people who count. As Schimmel says, the script has to ‘own you’ and you have to keep reading to find out what happens next then it will keep rising. The same applies to any medium. Unless you capture the reader, which means anyone reading, then the book will be left unread.

For those wondering if there is an SF connection here, Schimmel compares why the ‘Green Lantern’ film didn’t work and yet ‘The Avengers’ film soared. In essence, the former relied too much on expected tropes within the GL Corps that would have applied to any military organisation. Will power being converted into green energy didn’t make sense to him neither. In Green Lantern history, where different feelings give different coloured energies for different corps, I have to admit that’s still a pretty new revelation that I thought over-loaded the concept and introduced far too many characters to complicate things. From my review a while back, I thought the ‘Green Lantern’ film introduced far too much for one film and left itself nowhere to go.

Need I remind anyone a story is supposed to be at a crucial point in the lives of all the characters and is even more so with films. When you coast along, it serves no one and that applies to all works of fiction. At the end of each chapter, there are also exercises to test how much you’ve learnt and can apply. Apply them to the best and worse films you’ve seen and it should heighten your awareness of the difference between them.

Schimmel makes an interesting point that any scene should only take up three minutes before it gets stale although I do wonder how this works with some dramas which stay within one setting. I suspect, as he points out, that within such a time frame, you ensure that there is a progression to move things forward than twiddle your thumbs and nothing significant happens.

I wish Schimmel had defined how much depth for character background is given. I know American method actors can get kind of obsessive with too much detail but a lot of the time its more what makes the final character than from birth. Unless you’re going to follow a character through a lifetime, I would have thought it’s what they are now that is most important.

I do recommend everyone to read the chapter on rewriting and revising. No matter the format, no writer should be fully happy with what they’ve wrote but it’s important to understand when something needs correcting and knowing when to stop, as well as getting appraisals from other people. I do wish he’d elaborated on when it was time to hand the script to someone else for them to do their own modifications though. Often with the American system, it is practically compulsory to do this rather than trust the writer to get it right like we do over here.

I should point out that because Schimmel worked for Warner Bros that the accent is on their script requirements and how they deem the number of pages needed so it’s really a page a minute. Considering how he explains abbreviating descriptive detail, I’m sure it will help scriptwriters to have a bit more space than they would have thought they would have had otherwise. If ever there was a need to say less is more, then that had to be the main principle to remember so think quality more than size.

As the name ‘Dwayne’ isn’t a common name in the UK, I’ve never really understood its significance in the USA but Schimmel points out it has military significance whereas we would see it more a dweeb name, to use the American vernacular. No offence to anyone called ‘Dwayne’, we just don’t see it as being particular butch.

Like all of the Michael Wiese books, there is much to learn from them for both script and prose writers alike. From the final chapter, I’ve even been given some insight into how to make a pitch proposal. You should tell by the length of this book that I had a lot to react to which makes this book a useful learning experience.

GF Willmetts

January 2014

(pub: Michael Wiese Productions. 211 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $26.95 (US), £16.28 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61593-167-8)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

2 thoughts on “Screenwriting: Behind Enemy Lines by John Schimmel (book review).

  • > Schimmel makes an interesting point that any scene should only take up
    > three minutes before it gets stale although I do wonder how this works
    > with some dramas which stay within one setting

    A “scene” is NOT the setting, in films. Hitchcock’s film Rope, takes place in 1 setting, an Apartment. It could be said there were 3 settings; kitchen, entry, living room; even so, there are far more than 3 scenes.

  • Hello Mark
    Scene and setting are often seen as interchangeable as you can’t have one without the other.
    A setting is just the set.
    The scene can move through a time setting.


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