Screenwriting Updated Paperback – Jan 1 2007
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"A fabulous book that deals with the creative thinking necessary to write." -- Mario Andreacchio, director/writer/producer, Napoleon, Young Blades
"Linda Aronson provides screenwriters with invaluable detailed strategies to lay bare the workings of the craft." -- Jane Scott, producer, Shine, Crocodile Dundee
About the Author
Linda Aronson is an award-winning screenwriter, playwright, and novelist who has written widely for the screen in the U.K., Australia, and New Zealand and for U.S. television. Her award-winning novels have been published in five languages and her plays have been produced around the world. She is also the author of two additional books on writing.
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The first two aspects for the most part weave into each other. After identifying what literal and lateral thinking are, the problems caused by using the wrong skill for the wrong task, and how to use them effectively, she then applies this method to each step of writing a traditional three-act screenplay. This is an interesting, and I think fruitful approach. It'd be especially useful for those new to screenwriting, I imagine. Still, I felt this section was unnecessary. I'd much preferred if the book had ditched the parenthetical and stuck to the 'new,' 'updated,' and UNconventional side of things instead. There are oodles and oodles of books on three-act structure out there, and while Aronson's serious, intelligent, and relatively original take on the subject is miles above the sea of utter garbage that constitutes the screenwriting instruction industry, it still would have worked better as its own book.
The real heart of the book is the other stuff. The focus is almost entirely on narrative structure, so if you're looking for advice on experimenting with genre or character or whatever else, you might try looking elsewhere (though obviously you can't discuss structure without also discussing character, and issues of genre, tone, etc do get brief mention). But if you're attempting to write a film with flashbacks, multiple narratives, or an ensemble cast, this book will probably be a lifesaver to you. Aronson meticulously breaks down the structures of several films (successful, partially successful, and failures) and shows what makes them tick or not tick. I have to emphasize the word 'meticulous.' Some may complain that this book is overly complex or technical, but if you're interested in writing a film with a complex and unusual narrative structure, you're going to wind up with complex and unusual roadblocks and flaws. By giving detailed notes on a broad variety of possible structures, the problems that can potentially arise from each, and multiple ways of solving or compensating for each problem, Aronson's book is the only one I know of that can help point the way toward crafting an unconventional structure that WORKS.
Still, I wish it went further. Early in the first section, Aronson writes, "Some books on screenwriting actually specify the page number in the script where structural high points should happen. Many writers find this worryingly rigid. But if you think of it not as a matter of pages but of screen time, it makes sense, because what is actually being said is that a script needs a twist or turn every fifteen minutes, otherwise the audience will get bored - which is really just common sense." She writes this as a way of backing up traditional approaches to structure, but what she actually winds up saying is somewhat more profound. The 'rules' of screenwriting are actually incredibly simple: keep your audience interested; surprise them often but make the surprises convincing; make the surprises get bigger and save the biggest one for the end; someone or something needs to change over time; have a theme... and so on. (For a liberating and elegantly simple description of story form, I recommend Ursula K Le Guin: google "a discussion of story") Three act structure has become the standard simply because it's been proven, when done well, to 'work.' But by no means is it the only way to tell an engrossing story. Aronson knows this fact, but she steers clear of its most radical implications.
Pulp Fiction perhaps forms the central 'problem' which the book attempts to 'solve.' It breaks so many of the conventional rules of screenwriting, and has a structure so erratic, strange, and long, that by any estimation, it shouldn't work. Yet it does. Why? Aronson does a pretty good job attempting to answer that question, and her analysis certainly provides some insights for writers looking to use some of the same devices as Tarantino (especially if using those devices in combination). But it doesn't go deeper. Despite the dizzying array of potential structural models she covers, these still wind up as templates which the reader/writer is expected to be able to plug their story into. We are given innovative patterns to learn from, but aren't given the more fundamental tools needed to innovate our own effective patterns beyond those covered.
That's a tall task, I know, and maybe its not fair to expect that much. But even looking at the patterns that are provided, they're for the most part rather limited. Almost all the films discussed, positively or negatively, are Hollywood productions. It's interesting to me that so much of the book seems to be a response to a recent Hollywood interest in unconventional structures that was no doubt kicked off by the successes of Quentin Tarantino, when Tarantino himself learned so much of what makes his films interesting from European art film. Why not look to his inspiration? Or to any of the thousands of highly innovative narrative structures attempted in non-American cinema throughout the decades, successful or not? I want to know why the highly fragmentary films of Jean Luc Godard such as Tout va bien and 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her can nonetheless feel like unified works. I want to know how Alain Resnais' Muriel can be not merely non-linear, but completely temporally disorienting, and yet still have satisfying character development. I want to know how Michelangelo Antonioni makes buildings and landscapes as important as his human characters, or why the glacial pacing of an Andrei Tarkovsky film can feel sublime rather than boring, or how the docufictions of Jean Rouche or Abbas Kiarostrami's Close-up weave scripted fiction with unscripted fact. I want to know where these films falter and why. And of course, most importantly, I want to know how to apply all of these insights to my own work.
I'm still waiting for a book that can do that, but in the meantime, this one is nice to have around.
Recall that "writing a novel" and "adapting a novel to a screenplay" is a very different and daunting task. Thus competence in a high school or college level English Literature course will prepare a writer for poetry, short stories and novels and understanding Shakespeare's plays. English Lit does not prepare one for writing a screenplay.
IMHO a woman's perspective in a male-dominated profession has broadened how women's characters and dialog are developed. She analyzes several films which have strong actress characters.
The area that her book is weak is on how the Screenwriter fits as part of the movie or TV production team. She gives about 5 pgs to embellish, or give the "treatment," for the production script.
Aronson's book has lots of diagrams, figures, tables and lists. The book's 6-pg TOC does not have a list of figures. The back has a 1-pg Filmography, a 4-pg Bibliography, and a 6-pg Index.
This book can be used as a college-level text. Many Figures contain pedagogical questions, many chapters end with an informal list of questions, and there are many film case studies, useful for the student that has easy access to movie DVDs for viewing and movie script books (or downloads from imsdbDOTcom) for analysis. See lindaaronsonDOTnet.
Summary of the first-half of the book, important principles are keyed with asterisks.
Ch1p2,6,9 *1* Vertical thinking (analytical, task, left-brain);
Ch1p3,7,9 *2* Lateral thinking (personal & emotive, right-brain);
Ch2p19 *3* Pinpointing genre and models;
Ch4p32,35 *4* Get more ideas by creating links to different things;
Ch6p53 *5* Make sure disturbance involves real change;
Ch6p54 *6* Distinguish an idea from a story;
Ch6p55 *7* Create a simple story sentence;
Ch6p58 *8* Differentiating action and relationship lines;
Ch6p60 *9* Define the steps of the relationship;
Ch6p65 *10* Identify protagonist;
Ch6p70 *11* Identify antagonist;
Ch6p74 *12* Getting into character;
Ch6p75 *13* Finding first-act turning point (surprise/obstacle);
Ch6p77 *14* Devise 2nd-act complications;
Ch6p78 *15* Find 2nd-act turning point;
Ch6p79 *16* Find climax;
Ch6p80 *17* Estab 1st-act turning point thru final climax;
Ch6p81 *18* Coming to a resolution and ending;
Ch6p82 *19* Checklist before starting to write 1st draft;
Ch6p83 *20* Create advanced story sentence;
Ch6p84 *21* Check that relationship line is moving;
Ch6p86 *21* Getting right scenario for each scene;
Ch6p87 *23* Creating opening scenes;
Ch6p88 *24* Using symbolism and myth;
Ch6p90 *25* Planning a screen adaptation;
Ch6p92 *26* Writing comedy satire;
Ch6p94 *27* Writing short film;
Ch6p96 *28* Wring journey film;
Ch6p97 *29* Staying objective at 2nd Draft;
p1-35 Part I Getting ideas
p40-251 Part II Narrative Structure
p255-287 Part III Getting it onto Paper
PartII Narrative Structure
p39-50 Chap5 Overview of traditional narrative structure
p40 Parallel storytelling is driven by the three-act structure
p44 Before writing, create a structure chart Fig5.4 which has major content & Questions in each of 3 acts.
p46 Create a Nine-Point plan Fig5.5 Act1: 1) Normality, 2) Disturbance, 3) Protagonist, 4) Plan, 5) Surprise, 6) Obstacle, Act2&3: 7) Complications, substories, more surprises, and obstacles, Act3: 8) Climax, 9) Resolution.
p48 Eg Cinderella Fig5.7
p50 Index cards -- one for each step of plot. 90min feature will require 60 plot points, a "moment of high drama" or "turning point." Useful to spot plot weaknesses. Eg not enough plots, plots are intertwined and balanced or too clumpy.
p51-104 Chap6 Development Strategies for a traditional three-act film. Describes Development Strategies #5-#29.
p74 The 1st-act turning point is what the film is about.
p77 The 2nd-act turning point is the lowest point, emotionally and often physically, for the protagonist. It is the closest they come to death and despair. It is designed to pump up the suspense and the audience's anxiety.
p91-93 Specific plotting problems: Must grab the audience and leave it with an overwhelmingly powerful impression. Don't overwrite, don't have too much dialogue; don't have arguing characters other than productive conflict. Have scenes end on a question. Don't make script do too much backstory.
Stick with the protagonist and antagonist.
p93 2nd-draft requires objective exam of every line of dialog, every event, and every char to see how much it is contributing towards the main idea. Be happy with your logline.
p94 Use professional-level script writing techniques
p98 Using Criticism to Best Advantage. Make sure you understand the stuff being criticized and then make sure that reader's diagnosis is correct. Make use of DS#2 lateral thinking to evoke more personal and emotive responses. Use the right-brain; female passive / aggressive behavior (See Stepford Wives (75)).
p100-104 Case Study: Structural Analysis "The Piano (92)," Jane Campion, Dir
p105-15Chap7 Alternative narrative structures: flashback. Diagram of "The Usual Suspects" and "Shine"
p117-27Chap8 Varieties of flashback narrative
p129-42Chap9 Quick Ref Guide Using Flashback narrative. Case study: Cinderella
p143-83Chap10 Structure charts Flashback narrative. Case studies: "Shine," "The Remains of the Day," "The Usual Suspects," "Citizen Kane," and "The Sweet Hereafter."
p185-220 Chap11 Tandem narrative and Sequential narrative. Structure charts on "Crimes and Misdemeanors," and "Pulp Fiction."
p221-35 Chap12 Multiple protagonists and antagonists. Case study: Siege structure of "American Beauty."
p235-251 Chap13 Lost in the Telling: films with Structural flaws. Analyzes 8 films, including "Jaws 3."
PartIII Getting it onto paper
p255-63 Chap14 Dialogue. Talking heads and poor exposition. p261 List of camera angles.
p265-77 Chap15 Examples of Flawed Dialogue writing. Analyzes two scripts with 2 and 3 versions of revisions.
p259-84 Chap16 Treatment writing and the Script as Instruction manual.
p285-87 Chap17 Writing under Pressure
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