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What Are You Laughing At?

What Are You Laughing At? How to Write Funny Screenplays, Stories & More.
BRAD SCHREIBER

2003 – ISBN: 0941188833 – Focal Press – £15,99.

In his book “What Are You Laughing at?” the author Brad Schreiber offers some advise about writing comedy. The book does not only deal with writing screenplays, it also discusses other text types such as prose, theatre, poetry, radio, television, texts for stand-up comedians, songs, letters and speeches. Schreiber does all this in fourteen chapters and 277 pages.

Chapter one is called “Comedic Structure” but it deals with some very general aspects of humour. Chapter two summarizes in fifteen pages how to write a screenplay. Schreiber describes the process of screenwriting in one and a half page, explains high vs. low concept and finishes with thirteen things bad screenwriters commonly do, the first of them being the use of wrong format slug lines. Chapter three is called “Fiction vs. Nonfiction” but it starts off with the question where to find story material. Schreiber assembles an amalgam of anecdotes and quotes. Topics that are mentioned very briefly are the autobiography, hoaxes and how to borrow devices from stand-up comedians. In a fourth chapter called “Forms of fiction”, the author talks about the joke, the aphorism and the insult. Schreiber explains how to write a short story, comedic or otherwise, in less than six pages, and he only needs another six to teach you how to write a novel. Needless to say, the chapter is very incomplete and the selected items are gathered in a random and heterogeneous way. No specific reference is made to writing screenplays for comedy. To what extent is it similar to writing a screenplay in general? How is it different? To what extent can humour help the writer dispense with the “rule” of the three act structure or other devices for that matter? Etc. At a regular basis, paragraphs are broken up by writing assignments. At the end of this paragraph, one writing assignment reads: “write an entire comedic novel” (p.63). Chapter five tackles some forms of nonfiction: the anecdote, the article, the essay, the speech, the column, the criticism, the autobiography and the memoirs. Unfortunately, again, all these text types are discussed in very broad, superficial terms. Chapter six announces a comparison between writing comedy for the screenplay and writing comedy for other text types, but the author turns back to the topic of how and where to find story material (cf. chapter three). In this chapter, Schreiber also deals somewhat randomly with the spoof, the writers’ block, the writer’s voice, the use of setting and the theme of “fish out of water”. Chapter seven announces information about the plot. On the basis of his Physics, not his Poetics, Aristotle is associated with more reflexive, cognitive left-brained people while his master Plato is believed to defend the artistic, intuitive right-brained people. Schreiber (2003:116) suggests some kind of compromise which he calls his “Platostotle” approach. How the critical vs. creative skills can help understand and train comedy writing however is not explained. Chapter eight tackles character: here Schreiber reproduces some commonalities found in most manuals on screenwriting. What should be specific to comedic writing is not singled out. Topics like protagonist and antagonist are discussed in a rather mechanic way. Chapter nine deals with dialogue and offers information and insights that relate directly to comedy writing. It explains devices such misbehaviour in dialogue (less clear), misuse of language, misunderstandings and other modes of comedic dialogue such as urgency and understatement, mimicry, loudness vs. softness, tone, speed, dialect, etc. Chapter ten goes on with a number of sound features that can help produce comedy: what the author calls “Yiddish sound theory”, onomatopoeia, inexplicable humour (which means Schreiber does not know why some texts are funny), alliteration, malapropism, “double entendre”, – subtext was already dealt with elsewhere… – , character names, etc. Chapter eleven also deals directly with writing comedy. In it, Schreiber talks about the satire, the parody, the black comedy, vulgarity and bad taste; again as previously, in very broad terms. Chapter twelve continues with humour in poetry, songs, lists, monologues, letters, cartoons, etc. Hereafter, the author adds some very general remarks about writing for television and playwriting. Schreiber finishes the book with a final chapter on how to market yourself in a digital world.

“What are you laughing at?” fits into the larger context of (screen)writing manuals but continues also previous work done in the more specific field of comedy writing. Worth mentioning here are John Vorhaus’s The Comic Toolbox (1994) of course, but also Melvin Helitzer’s Comedy Writing Secrets (1987), Gene Perret’s Comedy Writing Step by Step (1990) and Sol Saks’s Funny Business. The Craft of Comedy Writing (1991²). What all these books have in common is that they make one particular point very clear: teaching how to write stories in a compelling way may be difficult, but teaching how to be funny is probably a hundred times harder. That is why it is all the more regrettable that too often manuals on screenwriting in general, and manuals on comedy writing in particular ignore the work done previously by colleagues, or should I say competitors. Contrary to most of his colleagues, Schreiber does offer a rather extensive bibliography, but why except for Vorhaus does not one of the aforementioned experts figure in the list? Consequently, publications keep on reinventing the wheel and the discipline of screenwriting and training cannot make any real progress. Why cram a fifteen pages chapter on screenwriting in a manual on comedy writing when literally hundreds of manuals have dealt with that topic previously in a more extensive and far better way? Why pretend to have invented a so-called “PSI-chart” helping writers to think about the physiological, sociological and intellectual (read: psychological) features of their characters, when this advise has been available for years in dozens of screenwriting manuals? Why redefine commonly known concepts such as treatment and step outline in a way that differs significantly from the way most manuals and professionals have been using them for years?
“Qui trop embrasse, mal étreint”. Trying to deal seriously with all possible text types and their respective comedic potential in one book is surely too ambitious. The information assembled in “What are you laughing at?” is therefore necessarily very general and fragmented. The numerous anecdotes and the sometimes very long excerpts, – the relevance of which is not always clear -, do not help to increase the information density.
They also add to the rather random or chaotic structure of the book. Chapter titles announce one thing but subsequent paragraphs deal with another. See for example chapter one announcing comedic structure (?) while its first paragraph reads: “the nature of comedy”. Another paragraph is called “Creating a fictional world”, but it actually deals with one particular text type: the “Joke”, and this in spite of the fact that the very next chapter starts with a paragraph called “the Joke”…
Although the subtitle starts with “How to”, one can hardly say this book offers a writing manual. Schreiber does interrupt paragraphs on a regular basis to put in writing assignments, but it is clear that in the training of screenwriting, thinking about learning paths and didactic processes is still at the very beginning to say the least. That is why this last criticism does not only apply to Schreiber’s book. It goes for screenwriting manuals in general. Most manuals generally stick to explaining how to write a screenplay. In this, they confuse the learning process of the beginning writer with the writing process of the professional. Schreiber adds to this problem by inserting assignments that presuppose extensive writing knowledge and skills from the part of the reader; knowledge and skills pertaining for example to how to write a novel, a newspaper article, an advertisement, etc.; knowledge and skills that are not touched on in his book.

In conclusion: “What are you laughing at?” surely represents a courageous endeavour but requires a serious rewrite: more structure, less anecdote, more information. Brad Schreiber’s CV is quite impressive. It shows all the more that knowing how to do it is one thing; knowing how to teach it quite another.


Descriptive Adaptation Studies

Descriptive Adaptation Studies. Epistemological and Methodological Issues

Patrick Cattrysse

2014, Garant Publishers, Antwerpen-Apeldoorn

http://www.maklu.be/MakluEnGarant

 

It is common practice nowadays for adaptation critics to denounce the lack of meta-theoretical thinking in adaptation studies and to plead for a study of ‘adaptation-as-adaptation’; one that eschews value judgments, steps beyond normative fidelity-based discourse, examines adaptation from an intertextual perspective, and abandons the single source model for a multiple source model. This study looks into a research program that does all that and more. It was developed in the late 1980s and presented in the early 1990s as a ‘polysystem’ (PS) study of adaptations.

Since then, the PS label has been replaced with ‘descriptive’. This book studies the question of whether and how a PS approach could evolve into a descriptive adaptation studies (DAS) approach. Although not perfect (no method is), DAS offers a number of assets. Apart from dealing with the above-mentioned issues, DAS transcends an Auteurist approach and looks at explanation beyond the level of individual agency (even if con­textuali­zed). As an alternative to the endless accumulation of ad hoc case studies, it suggests corpus-based research into wider trends of adaptational behavior and the roles and functions of sets of adaptations. DAS also allows reflection upon its own epistemic values. It sheds new light on some old issues: How can one define adaptation? What does it mean to study adaptation-as-adaptation? Is equivalence still possible and is the concept still relevant? DAS also tackles some deeper epistemological issues: How can phenomena be compared? Why would difference be more real than sameness or change more real than stasis? How does description relate to evaluation, explanation and prediction, etc.?

This book addresses both theory-minded scholars who are interested in epistemo­lo­gical reflection and practice-oriented adaptation students who want to get started. From a theoretical point of view, it discusses arguments that could support the legitimacy of adaptation studies as an academic discipline. From a practical point of view, it explains in general terms on ways of conducting an adaptation study.


New Readings in Theatre History

New Readings in Theatre History
Jacky Bratton

Cambridge Univ. Press — 2003

ISBN: (paperback) 0-521-79463-3 — ±€19,00 ( £16.95; US$24.00)
ISBN (hard cover):       0-521-79121       — €57,15 (40,00£; US $55,00)

In this book, Jacky Bratton suggests new histories of theatrical story-telling, of performing families, and of the disregarded dramatic energy of Victorian entertainment. As a result we gain a new perspective on theatre history, not only for the Romantic and Victorian, periods, but for the discipline overall.

In the first part of Part I, Jacky Bratton discusses two paradoxes: one dealing with the observation that, in the early nineteenth century, worth and value and cultural significance were said to have disappeared from a theatre that was thriving, multiplying and serving ever-increasing numbers of spectators. And secondly, in a period where the received history denies any serious involvement of women in writing for the stage, research today constantly turns up women whose contribution to theatre was substantial, innovative and decisive.

In the rest of part I, the author argues for the dating of current theatre historiography from the first third of the nineteenth century, showing first that a different kind of historicisation in the hands of theatre people themselves, preceded that period.

Chapter 2 deals with that historical vision. Chapter 3 offers a contextualising materialist overview of the state of London theatre in the 1830’s and simultaneously attempts to model a new way of telling such a story, by means of the intertheatrical reading of contemporary playbills. Chapter 4 then examines what happened in theatre politics in the years of Reform, 1830-2, the moment when the previous historical practice was successfully challenged and discredited. Bratton concludes that the dominant writing of theatre history of that period was dictated by a socio-cultural and political agenda: appropriating the theatre increasingly to the middle-class in Britain.

In Part 2, Jacky Bratton considers alternative possibilities for accessing and retelling the history of the period from 1790 to 1832 in the British theatre. A first study takes up the importance of anecdote in personal and professional histories, and seeks a particularly theatrical dimension of such storytelling in the art of mimicry. The second turns to the discursive management of the binary between art and entertainment, the setting up of an idea of the “the popular” with which to control and incorporate the ancient people’s theatres of the market and the fair. The final study challenges received academic history with genealogy, taken in its literal sense as the histories of families. Bratton calls this an “unfashionable history from below” which is especially significant to theatre professionals. It is moreover an approach which offers some purchase on the otherwise hidden histories of women in nineteenth-century theatre.

Although the focus is on British theatre, reflections of a more general epistemological interest accompany the case studies. The author discusses the relevance of new types of historical source material (such as autobiographical writings, anecdotes and stories, and collective memory a.o.), materials that previous academic research often neglected. She borrows concepts from women’s studies and tackles the problem of interpretation when the analyst has to “read” the historical material and communicate research results among peers. The discussion about “high” vs. “low” culture and the way a dominant historical meta-discourse operates a segregation between the artful and the vulgar, definitely rings more than one bell among scholars of mainstream screenwriting and cinema.

Professor Jacky Bratton has published extensively in the field of theatre and cultural history. She is currently working on a revisionist history of the Victorian stage, beginning with an edition of two previously unpublished clown manuscripts.

Contents

Acknowledgements

Part I. Background:

  1. Theatre history today

  2. British theatre history: 1708–1832

  3. Theatre in London in 1832: a new overview

  4. Theatre history and reform

Part II. Case Studies:

  1. Anecdote and mimicry as history

  2. Theatre history and the discourse of the popular

  3. Claiming kin: an experiment in genealogical research

Notes –Index.

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Nieuw Boek: Transcultural Screenwriting: Telling Stories for a Global World

2017, Brenes, Carmen Sofia, Cattrysse Patrick and Margaret McVeigh (eds.), Transcultural Screenwriting: Telling Stories for a Global World, London, Cambridge Scholars Publishing. Lees meer: https://www.cambridgescholars.com/transcultural-screenwriting

The world we live and work in today has created new working conditions where storytellers, screenwriters and filmmakers collaborate with colleagues from other countries and cultures. This involves new challenges regarding the practice of transcultural screenwriting and the study of writing screenplays in a multi-cultural environment. Globalization and its imperatives have seen the film co-production emerge as a means of sharing production costs and creating stories that reach transnational audiences.

Transcultural Screenwriting: Telling Stories for a Global World provides an interdisciplinary approach to the study of screenwriting as a creative process by integrating the fields of film and TV production studies, screenwriting studies, narrative studies, rhetorics, transnational cinema studies, and intercultural communication studies. This book applies the emerging theoretical lens of ‘transcultural studies’ to open new perspectives in the debate around notions of transnationalism, imperialism and globalisation, to build stronger links across academic disciplines, and to create new areas for consideration particularly in the screenwriting context.

This reader combines methods for studying as well as methods for doing. It draws on case studies and testimonials from writers from all over the globe including South America, Europe and Asia.

Transcultural Screenwriting: Telling Stories for a Global World is characterized by its scope, broad relevance, and emphasis on key aspects of screenwriting in an international environment.

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De Vlaamse Script Academie vzw (VSA) organiseert workshops, seminars en onderzoek met het oog op een permanente verbetering van het schrijven en lezen van verhalen.

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