This book is really like four books in one. Firstly, it's an overview of traditional three-act structure screenplay writing. Secondly, it's a sort of 'creativity manual' on how to effectively use literal and lateral thinking in combination to come up with ideas that are "real but unusual." Thirdly, it's what it says in the title: a how-to on writing unconventional screenplay structures (with a focus on flashback, and to a somewhat lesser extent, parallel narratives and ensemble films). Lastly, it's a guide on how to identify structural problems within a screenplay, including in depth analyses of several films with such problems.
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.