Book Review: Screenwriter’s Compass (by Guy Gallo)

Adam Volk

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Here’s the deal with Guy Gallo’s book “Screenwriter’s Compass: Character as True North”: if you can survive the first 50 pages or so, it’s a very handy, practical how-to guide to get started writing a screenplay the proper way. What is the proper way, you ask? The way that’ll get you read, get you sold, and get your movie produced.

In “Compass”, Guy Gallo guides you through all the steps to get started and how to end up where you want/need to end up — with a completed screenplay. Of course, until you can get there, Gallo spends a lot of time (in my opinion, too much time) on the topic of screenwriting as an art, a craft to be explored. While reading this section of the book, I felt like Gallo was trying to teach me how to teach a class on screenwriting rather than actually teaching me how to write a screenplay. While this might be necessary to novices still trying to accept screenwriting as an art form, for anyone who has already accepted this as truth, it will be very unnecessary.

Old TypewriterBut as I said, once you manage to survive this first section of the book, “Screenwriter’s Compass” becomes a worthwhile read that offers up new insights on how to write a screenplay. Gallo is certainly not re-inventing the wheel here, but he does bring a unique perspective to the table. Besides being a produced screenwriter (he wrote “Under the Volcano” for legendary director John Huston in 1984), Gallo is a 20-year professor at Columbia University where he teaches screenwriting. In most cases with these how-to books on screenwriting, you’re dealing with either a produced writer or someone who makes a living talking about screenplays. Being both of those things allows Gallo to have a unique perspective on the craft, resulting in a book that’s both practical and one that delves into the abstract concepts of writing, the writer, and the work. That is, if you’re into such things.

I’ve probably read more books on screenwriting than your average reader, and Gallo does have some unique takes on how to approach some old topics. Like his fellow produced screenwriter William Goldman (who Gallo quotes here), Gallo bucks some established truths when it comes to writing a script, while re-enforcing others. Like I said, at this point there’s very few things Gallo could have told me that I didn’t already know about writing a screenplay, that I haven’t read from other sources, but he does manage to introduce some new concepts that I hadn’t considered previously.

For those of you who are completely new to screenwriting, Gallo goes into all the stuff you’ll need to know, including all the basics like proper formatting, outlines, treatments, etc. As he writes early, Hollywood survives to tell you “No”, so don’t give them any excuses. If “Screenwriting Compass” is the first book on screenwriting you have ever picked up, you’ll find that Gallo offers a lot of very helpful advice, along with a healthy amount of concept, abstract and practical, to ponder.

Guy Gallo
214 pages
Focal Press (March 2, 2012)

Buy “Screenwriter’s Compass: Character As True North” now.

Screenwriter's Compass by Guy Gallo Book Cover