When Richard Rohmer wrote How to Write a Be$t $eller was he kidding? Was something like Triad actually planned?
This is a question so important I think it's worth breaking in two.
- Did Richard Rohmer believe he knew what he was doing?
- Why did nine of these terrible books become Canadian best sellers? We’re a nice country.
How to Write a Be$t $eller answers the first question. Rohmer thinks he’s learned a thing or two about giving the people what they want. I don’t know the answer to the second question, but I’ll make a guess… at the end of this post.
The only really useful book I’ve ever read about screenwriting is Save the Cat. (He says, having never sold a screenplay.) Everything else was either a waste of time, for thinking about writing instead of doing it, or an out-and-out shuck. If the people who wrote those books knew how to write and sell big money screenplays, they would. And they’d keep the secret to themselves. But Save the Cat was written by a guy who really did write big money screenplays that were turned into awful movies you wouldn’t watch to win a bet.
And then he died. So you can enjoy Save the Cat without envy.
And Save the Cat is really good.
Save the Cat says: Do you want to make money or not? Follow this formula and write a movie they’ll show at the mall. Don’t write about your summer abroad. Don’t write about French history. Don’t waste everyone’s time. Write about an FBI agent undercover at some place amusing. Make sure your likable lead learns something. The end.
The problem with Richard Rohmer’s How to Write a Be$t $eller is that Rohmer never learned how to write a best seller. He just wrote nine. And -- I don’t want to keep hammering this nail -- they’re terrible. And not in a fun way. It’s impossible to imagine reading one for pleasure. So, like the author of Save the Cat, he wants to tell you: “forget art, just follow this formula,” but there’s no formula to Rohmer.
It’s just this block of exposition and this airplane trip and then this next block of exposition. (Or, maybe twice a book, a piece of action fought out between ancillary cyphers, ending up exactly where it began.) Is it the same President of the United States in all the novels? Does it matter if it isn’t? Sometimes he likes to say “I’m from Texas” over and over; other times he doesn't.
So Rohmer doesn’t know what to tell you. He wrote these half-assed slogs and people bought them anyhow. It’s like writing a book called how to inherit money.
Here’s Rohmer’s advice:
Make sure your characters have no backstory.
If you use real people, don’t say anything untoward.
Don’t describe things much.
Don’t reveal information until you absolutely have to.
Add as little sex as possible.
Do you see the pattern here?
It’s all about playing defense and not screwing up. You will write a (Canadian) (business, politics or war) bestseller unless you do something stupid.
And I think that might be the answer to the second question: Why did people buy these books in the first place?
Were there 200,000 Canadian businessmen who loved Arthur Hailey so much that they’d read any old crap, as long as it was slightly like Arthur Hailey, and it was on the rack at the airport and didn’t have too much cursing?
Is that the real $ecret of the Rohmer $ystem?