C.J. Walley's Turn & Burn Review

Written by Scott Foster on June 2nd, 2022

Like the work of some ninja-philosopher hyphenate, C.J. Walley's Turn & Burn sneaks up on you from its cover, distracting you with its bombastic title, then it reveals itself to be one of the deeper manuals on screenwriting out there. Turn & Burn may sound more like the title of a potboiler thriller than it does a screenwriting how-to. But it makes sense that Walley, a screenwriter who writes with confessional honesty about his own challenges in the business, would reflect on the testosterone-fueled movies that fomented his career and informed his own self-described evolution. Like a plot twist, the title proves to fit neatly into one of his deceptively simple maxims — one that's as surprisingly useful as the rest of the book.

Turn & Burn starts from an unorthodox place. It's loftier than the typical, formulaic structure bibles (like Save The Cat) that tend to command the screenwriting advice market. Walley's voice is soul-searching: "Let's rewind to the beginning. Not the start of our stories, not the plot, not the structure, not even the format; let's go right back to what we believe about life. A bit of a heavy start, right? Maybe, but here's the thing, stories are tales about how life works - they are life-affirming. Storytelling is really the art of making things up to communicate a truth."

With that meditative intro, he makes the case that writers should start from theme. That might seem controversial to screenwriters who spark their fire with a concept or even an image, and only then start to figure out what their plot is trying to "say." But Walley's onto something in terms of making theme a priority - not just that there aren't enough scripts with something resonating beyond plot, and certainly not that writers or their characters should get on a soapbox. Rather, he's arguing that a lack of theme means a lack of a narrative foundation. It's rare for a writing manual to focus on theme as a nucleus for story; ironically it's where the industry has tended to be the most starved. The lack of thematic bassline was where I saw the bulk of scripts suffer when I was a reader at a major agency. Even some of the more skilled writers, capable of slick dialogue and action in individual scenes, left you wanting in terms of a sense of a throughline. Being at a loss for what their script was really about meant that few left the "music" of their story reverberating.

On a practical level, Walley's theme-first method helps writers key in on the very notion of impetus (both for them to write and their characters to act). Impetus — motivation — is everything to a screenplay and theme is a rechargeable source of this inspiration-energy. If a writer knows what their character wants to do today, they have a reason to get out of bed.

If theme is too abstract place to start for the aspiring tentpole-chaser who simply wants to know where exactly to plant their plot stakes in a story, Turn & Burn provides schematics with surprisingly practical directions. Walley refines industry axioms in ways that make the elusive components of story DNA more visible. He shrinks the magnitude of blank pages to a more navigable character-driven structure. This involves breaking down a script to a character's five main pivots (revealing the significance of his title): "Yearn, Turn, Burn, Learn, Earn." If you're skeptical about the mantra simplicity of this, delve into his method before you judge it. It's a more practical approach than following broad plot signposts like "setup," "confrontation," and "resolution," that might seem sturdily affixed in a three act structure, but feel much more gaping and arbitrary once you try to have your character follow them (and you have to fill the daunting white space). "Yearn, Turn, Burn, Learn, Earn" is also easier to navigate than structure posited by poetic myth and archetypes. Walley's five step character rehab program pins structure to the more straightforward path of character impetus. So even as Turn & Burn helps you simplify structure, it comes from a place of surprising depth: character is a more dexterous pilot through story than the obstacles themselves.

Walley zooms into a closeup of individual scene writing, which is a strangely overlooked point of focus in a lot of other screenwriting manuals (which, again, tend to be macro view structure bibles). This gives him more proprietary points as he gets into the minutiae of dialogue with insight about how it sounds versus what it means - "better dialogue is really a combination of the two" - and the recommendation that you "trust the voice in your head over the voice in your throat." If his suggestion to use YouTube to study how people talk sounds too millennial for you, I'll just say that Walley's beard would challenge your assumptions about him, and that this insight plays contrapuntally well off of the more soul-searching stuff, showing the extent of tools in his kit. His delve into scene writing made me aware of all the other books I've read on screenwriting that failed to get into these crucial weeds.

Other tried and true antecedents are repurposed, one of the quirkier ones being something the average writer might not recognize as coming from dramaturgical turf: the Dungeons & Dragons character alignment table. If anything threw me about Turn & Burn, it was where Walley stretches to offer possibly one tool too many, such as the passage where he recommends you be prepared with four types of endings to your story. He's a professional writer, so you can understand his wanting to arm others to be ready for the inevitable producer who has an issue with their finale. But this seemed a little arbitrary, flying in the face of the anchoring pre-writing he encourages you use to predetermine the fate of your character, as well as his earlier conviction that formulas often don't add up.

Yet my criticism really comes down to a quibble or two. This slim volume proves to be dense with wisdom and continuously engaging. I've learned, as a humble Walley warns, that no book can cure you of the need for experience, sweat, and tears to reveal which writing methods will successfully harness your own voice. The book rightfully cautions that anyone who claims they're a guru should be taken with a grain-silo's worth of salt. That being said, I think this book deserves a place on the writer's bookshelf as one of the more thoughtful reads on the subject.