The art and craft of screenwriting is constantly changing, always in motion. The motion picture evolves constantly, forever will, into what unknown future we can only guess at.
How is technology affecting the screenwriter and how has it already affected the screenplay form?
The shooting script for Cellular (due out in theaters in September) dated September 2nd 2003 written by Larry Cohen with revisions by J. Mackey Gruber and Eric Bress, contains something I haven’t seen or noticed before in a screenplay, actual references to special effects for sound, such as:
SUDDENLY -- SFX: RYAN’S PHONE BEGINS BEEPING
It appears no longer is it good enough to simply mention the sound or underline it, you now make it a special effect. (Note to beginner screenwriters, I'm joking.) And, of course, we’ve all seen screenwriters make references to computer generated special effects in their scripts, that’s been going on for years.
I could care less about those happenings, what interests me is how modern screenwriting is starting to challenge the classical structure and its paradigm. Screenplays such as Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, Memento, Run Lola Run, 21 Grams, Mulholland Drive, Vanilla Sky, Magnolia, The Player, American Beauty, Training Day, Lost in Translation, defy the classical (Old School) teachings on structure, conflict, and even sometimes drama and characterization.
As a screenwriter or soon to be screenwriter, you might be thinking about purchasing your first book on screenwriting or adding to that small collection scattered about on your bookshelf, and on the floor next to your desk.
So, what books should you be considering? Which ones can keep you in step with the ever-changing craft of screenwriting? What books can help you stay in the game; because the game is always changing my friends. Well, I have some suggestions.
It’s time to consider something besides the Old School approach to screenwriting. The books that I’m about to categorize as Old School were the books I first read in the early 1990s when I started writing. They are good books, great books, and today still offer plenty to the screenwriter, just not enough anymore.
These books are quickly becoming dinosaurs in their presentation of structure, theme, and even characterization. The Old School books have three main problems as far as the modern screenwriter is concerned:
1) They each border on formula with their focus on page numbers (or percentage of script) as guidelines for act breaks and plot points.
2) They fail to present any alternative kinds of structure.
3) Finally, when they speak of character and drama they do so with one foot still stuck in the classical ideal that the protagonists must always be likeable, must always have clear goals, and that there must always be a strong antagonist who places obstacles in front of the hero.
They want you to write a clear and concise story, which is good advice and I highly recommend it. But they want you to adhere to strick guidelines. They want you to write in a box. A beginner screenwriter who reads these books will not feel the freedom to be as creative as they possibly can.
1) Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting,(1979) by Syd Field. I’ve met Syd numerous times and have listen to him speak at seminars and conferences. He is a wonderful speaker and is consider the authority on screenwriting and rightfully so. His latest book, Going to the Movies: A Personal Journey Through Four Decades of Modern Film is a wonderful book and one I highly recommend.
I don’t think anyone should be shocked by my selection of his first book, published in 1979, as being Old School. This is the book that started it all. Syd Field is a legend and this book put him on the map as a screenwriting guru. He’s also an accomplished screenwriter, unlike many of the authors of the books I’ll mention.
But lets face it, “Screenplay” is no longer relevant today. (Note: Syd has written more books that have elaborated on his concepts and those books are indeed relevant.)
No longer should we tell writers, as this book does, to focus on act breaks and confine them to page counts. According to “Screenplay”, between pages 25-27 (a very small target that I bet has caused many a screenwriter to give up) is when your first act must end and it must do so with a plot point. Same for your second act, which must break by page ninety. If you violate this formula, your script will not sell—or at least its odds are reduced to the point of hopelessness—according to this Old School of thought. But most ghastly of all, Field actually calls his instruction a “paradigm” (page 124 hardcover edition).
2) Screenwriting 434, (1993) by Lew Hunter. Mr. Hunter is an instructor, UCLA, and is probably the most jovial, likable and approachable screenwriting guru of the bunch. The first and only time I met him a few years ago, at the Selling to Hollywood conference in Hollywood, he was outgoing and talkative, and well-liked by all of the conference’s attendees. His seminars and lectures were always full.
Unfortunately, “Screenwriting 434” only allows for vertical or linear structure, doesn’t mention any alternative forms, and his presentation on characterization, though not bad, still is not as relevant as it once was.
And I quote: “One can talk about archetypes and stereotypes and antagonists and protagonists, but let’s forego the academic dialogue. It gets down to heavies and heroes. Booing and cheering. From Greek Theater to Casablanca. Shakespeare to E.T.” (p. 74)
“Heavies” is an Old School term, to be sure.
But mostly, the need to push writers into that box jumps out at you on page 89, when he writes about structure: “At all steps along the story way, make sure the scene you’re in was caused by the scene that went before it.”
3) Making a Good Script Great, (1994, revised and expanded edition) by Linda Seger. Of these Old School books, Seger’s is the one I liked the most the first time I read it. Her instruction on set-ups and payoffs, developing the “Spine” of the screenplay, were elements that really helped me at the time. It was also the last of these I read.
But she too constricts writers to the formula of page counts. The set-up must happen in the first 15 pages, the first turning point by page 35, and so on. Her definition of conflict really sums up this entire group of books’ ideal for what drama and conflict must be: “Conflict happens when two characters have mutually exclusive goals at the same time.” True statement, obviously, but we need a broader depiction of what constitutes drama and conflict.
4) Writing Screenplays That Sell,(1991) by Michael Hauge. Someone who I consider a friend and who works in Hollywood as an executive, swears by Haugh’s instruction. It’s what he uses as a measuring stick for the screenplays he reads.
That endorsement alone made my decision to place his book in this category a difficult one. On top of that, in Chapter 5 on “Structure” he tells the reader, “Structure consists of the specific events in a movie and their position relative to one another. Proper structure occurs when the right events occur in the right sequence to elicit maximum emotional involvement in the reader and audience.” A well articulated, but extremely vague definition, and one that places the screenwriter right on the fence. It almost goes all the way with its vagueness, but not quite.
He goes on to say, regrettably, “The final way in which the acts of your screenplay can be defined corresponds to the length: Act I is always the first ¼ of your screenplay; act 2 is always the next ½; act 3 is always the last ¼.” (p.87)
In terms of character, Hauge once again confines the writer, telling us that you must have a “hero” and that this person must be “likeable” and be presented in a “sympathetic” way.
All in all, this was a difficult placement, Hauge wrote a great book, but today it’s dated some, not a lot, but enough to make the list.
3) Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade, (1992) by William Froug. This is a good book, not a great one, and from what I’ve been able to find, by publish date, one of the earliest to really keep the lid open and the writer free to write their story without restrictions.
Froug de-emphasizes plot points and act breaks and focuses on rising tension and the “line of action.” He suggests writers forget about act breaks and focus on writing a script that feels right. The rest will take care of itself. Good advice.
He instructs the writer to not worry about always making his hero likable, that’s not always going to be the case. He even hints at what I call “organic” storytelling, or non-linear when he writes, “You do not and should not explain everything right away. Like the characters, the meaning of the events happening in the screenplay should reveal themselves. Avoid the common fault of new screenwriters who often feel it is necessary to tell their reader and/or audience exactly what’s going on.” Bravo Mr. Froug.
He’s not instructing his writers to throw the rules out the window, but he allows for their own creativity, within his guidelines and teaching.
From the get-go Froug tells us, “rules are made to be broken as they explore new ways to present their artistry.” But he does warn, “However, few of us are exceptionally gifted enough to ignore the experience of what has worked in the past and what continues to work today.”
“Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade” is full of explanation and teachings on the classical screenplay format and structure.
New School books are not a revolt against the classical Hollywood structure, only against those books that do not openly allow for anything that does not conform to preconceived notions.
2) Screenwriting Updated: New (and Conventional) Ways of Writing for the Screen, (2000) by Linda Aronson. I’ve read criticism that “Screenwriting Updated” is only for more advanced screenwriters, hogwash. In this book Aronson explores the complexities of the modern form, but does so in a very presentable manner, and it combines solid, basic screenwriting techniques with the contemporary structures. The result is a unique and in-depth screenwriting book that is a MUST for the modern screenwriter. It sits on my desk right below:
1) Advanced Screenwriting: Raising Your Script to the Academy Award Level, (2003) by Linda Seger. (The only bad thing about this book is the title, "Raising Your Script to the Academy Award Level" isn't needed and should have been omitted.) This book is absolutely essential and relevant in terms of modern screenwriting. Like it or not, what she discusses is as important as the classical structure and so-called “paradigms.”
“Structure is not meant to be a limit, but a shape to help focus a story so an audience can understand what’s going on and not get lost or disoriented. Structure helps a writer express a particular interpretation of events, clarify what a story is about, and keeps the story on a clear track.” ( p.5)
She warns that non-linear structure is hard to pull off and is often prone to “go off on tangents” and seem “disconnected.” Sure, but plenty of linear ones do as well. The bottom line, Seger, in this book opens the door for all those writers who have felt trapped in that box the Old School teaches to.
By focusing on scene “sequences” a writer can help keep their story focused no matter the structure. No matter the order of events, and that scenes do not have to follow in any particular order so long as they are structured thematically, they will imply and express order and drama.
Writers still should be aware of expectations of genre, but those expectations are now becoming less and less an issue. As the modern audience is more than willing to be challenged and allowed to inject their own understanding of the structure, drama, and conflict, and absorb those elements and come to their own conclusions.
Within those good non-linear films are themes and characters that do not always conform to the classical Hollywood structure. Characters, protagonists, are not always sympathetic or likable, nor are they required to be. Characters can have internalized conflict.
Theme can be the starting point for your movie. Structure can be more than page counts and act breaks. A screenplay is more than a blueprint. Structure can enhance the story.
Is it wise to violate those sacred rules? The answer is still “no,” but it’s becoming more and more acceptable to challenge how we create a cinematic story. What a screenplay can be is so much more than it ever was, and the Old School books do not account for that.
What I am saying here is not that we should omit anything, nor change what is establish and proven, but that we, the screenwriter, must not feel confined by what the Old School doctrine tells us.
There are always new and exciting ways to do things, and we’ll find our way.
Chris Wehner is a film critic for the Movie Review & Screenplay Database (www.iscriptdb.com), editor-in-chief (and publisher) of Screenwriters Monthly, author of Screenwriting on the Internet: Researching, Writing, & Selling Your Script on the Web (2000) and Who Wrote That Move? Screenwriting in Review: 2000-2002 (2003), script reviewer, and founder of ScreenwritersUtopia.com. He is also Vice President of Development for MoviePartners, Inc. He is currently developing (and writing) several projects for various companies. He has been involved with screenwriting for nearly 10 years and in many different capacities.
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