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Book Review: Riding The Alligator by Pen Densham

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Being a media student, part of my course requires me to write assignment papers and scripts for pre-production. So with that in mind, I was interested to read Riding The Alligator by Pen Densham, a screen-writer who wrote the successful Robin Hood film with Kevin Costner. The name of the book comes from the cover image, which depicts his younger self doing the eponymous activity while being filmed by his father.

The idea behind the book is that the author shares his lifetime of experience and techniques with the reader, along with knowledge of the moviemaking business that came with setting up his own company. He tells you, among other things, how to get over writer’s block (which I could really do with right now), how to sell a story, and some techniques that he uses to generate ideas for scripts. A useful device that the author uses is putting questions that the reader might ask of the book as his chapter headings.

My only complaint about the book is that the reader doesn’t get to read enough of Densham’s thoughts, as he adds to his chapters with contributions from others such as “thoughts from other screenwriters” and “other recommended books” (which are reviews of other screenwriting books by his graduate students). While these things are interesting, one can’t help but feel that some were added for padding. For instance, the part where students recommended books felt a bit redundant since if you wanted to read more, you could always turn to the back of the book and order some from the publisher. Having said that, you could always skip those chapters, and it does give you a chance to see more than one perspective.

In my opinion, the most interesting chapter was Chapter 11, on how to survive while you are still an unappreciated artist writing and trying to sell your script-baby (do not confuse this with actually selling a baby). The most obvious solution is, of course, to take a job while writing in your spare time, but he also suggests actually trying to get a job within the film industry somehow. He relates the story of how he rented out a house to some industry workers and one of his friends had to sleep in a cupboard because of this. The reason that it stuck in my mind is that if that was me, I’d sleep anywhere but there.

The book is very engaging, and I found myself racing through it, only stopping for essentials like food, sleep and college. Of course, it probably helps that the subject matter is something I’m interested in, anyway. It’s clear that Densham has transferred his skills in screen-writing to writing a book. If ever you’ve had an idea in your head that you want to put onto the page, I can’t think of a better place to start.

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