If you happened to read the memoirs of successful twentieth-century American screenwriters, you might have come across anecdotes about how upon being offered their first screenwriting assignment and not having the slightest idea of how to write one—most of them were novelists or playwrights—they headed down to a nearby all-night bookstore and purchased a book on screenwriting. Most likely the book they purchased was A Practical Manual of Screen Playwriting by Lewis Helmar Herman. First published in 1952, the book is still in print. But just who was the author of one of the most widely-read books on screenwriting? Oddly, on the back cover of my copy of the book there is absolutely no information about the author. Even the Wikipedia has no entry for him—and they have entries on just about anyone. Given what I believe is Herman’s importance, and spurred by curiosity, I undertook my own investigation on the internet of this very remarkable man. Unfortunately, my investigation didn’t turn up a great amount of information. I did learn that he was born in 1905; however, I couldn’t confirm when he died, or if in fact he was still living—which would make him 111 years old—though my sleuthing has led me to believe that he passed away in New York City some time during the 1990’s.
My investigation revealed some interesting aspects about the man. Herman was a type of writer who is very rare today: a writer who makes a living writing plays, books, articles and short stories. (In my library I have a copy of a book he wrote on American dialects) Furthermore, in the 1940’s Herman went to Hollywood to write screenplays, which I surmise was only for a few years. Additional investigation reveals that he most likely headed-up the United States Army’s motion picture center in New York City during the 1950’s. Unfortunately, for the last thirty or forty years of his life, the trail went cold for me.
But just what is Herman’s importance besides the fact that his book has been so widely read? Well, perhaps it has something to do with the fact that during the 1980’s film academics in the United States proclaimed that during the 1930’s. 1940’s and 1950’s American cinema had enjoyed a “classic” period—never to be equaled again—and the secret of its success was indeed “secret.” This spurred film scholars and a new crop of manual writers and script gurus to delve into the archives of the major film studios in search of Hollywood’s most closely guarded “trade secrets.” However, what these film scholars and would-be gurus failed to realize or acknowledge was that these supposed trade secrets were hiding in plain sight—in Herman’s all -encompassing 1952 screenwriting manual.
Herman revealed all, particularly the mainstay Hollywood plot gimmicks, particularly “the plant,” “the old switcheroo” and “the weenie”—referred to as “the MaGuffin” by Alfred Hitchcock. Although Herman knew all the gimmicks, he was critical of their overuse by Hollywood. He complained that “In Hollywood the gimmick is the most overused stock in trade. It is because of the gimmick that Hollywood pictures stress plot to the detriment of genuine characterization.” Herman did not simply dwell on gimmicks; he even provided an exposition on a “three-act” structure.
Although Herman worked primarily in Hollywood, he was well aware of foreign (non-U.S.) films, particularly their strengths and weaknesses. He noted that while American films often opened literally with a “bang,” e.g. someone being shot in the opening scene, European films—and British films in particular—began at a much slower pace. He noted the following:
It is obvious from their pictures that the British believe the gradual –and therefore natural—development of character is vitally important. So they begin their pictures with an overall visual exposition of the milieu in which the action will take place . . . . This done, they go in from the general to the specific, by showing the people who will be involved in the action as they go through their normal workaday lives. From this they become more specific, and single out the protagonists and antagonists, so as to set them up in their proper relation to each other, and to the story line.
Only when these expository preliminaries have been attended to do they begin to get into the action itself.
Herman went on to note how this slow build and slower tempo persisted throughout almost the entire length of a British film, picking up only at the end. Although Herman understood the logic of this type of slow build, he noted that it did not always produce good results; in fact in some instances he found that there was an almost robot-like adherence to its employment.
Lewis Helmar Herman: the author of the only screenwriting manual you will ever need!