Aspects of the Screenplay

Excerpt

from ASPECTS OF THE SCREENPLAY

And now for something completely different… an Introduction

There have been a lot of books written about screenwriting so what makes this one any different?  Clearly, most of the books will tell you basically the same thing.  After all, the one thing that any screenwriter is working with is storyline and for the most part storyline is what sells screenplays.  Storyline is what gets pitched.  The concept gets pitched.  The “what’s it about?” gets pitched.  No one enters a pitch session and starts to discuss dialogue even though the dialogue may be exceptional and even though without dialogue one has something less than a screenplay.  And though books may tell you that the three-act play is dead and that there are really five acts or nine acts or twelve acts, the one thing that remains constant in every standard screenplay is that it has a beginning, middle and end and, usually, in that order.  Aristotle knew that better than most and so we will begin with Aristotle soon enough, but we come back to the question initially posed:  What makes this book different than the others?

To that question all I can really answer is that it is based on two propositions:  storyline may sell the script, but structure and dialogue will carry it off.  To that end, this book spends considerable time on both structure and dialogue the latter of which is an aspect of screenwriting that generally gets ignored by most other “how to” books. As a matter of fact, after reviewing most of the best-selling books on screenplay writing I have discovered that the pages allowed in any one book to the craft of dialogue writing is meager indeed, often none at all.  Odd that in a standard 120 page script which is predominantly filled with dialogue that the craft of dialogue be given such little attention. Part of that lack of attention may be due to the fact that most writers of screenplay books don’t write much dialogue or may not have an approach to analyzing dialogue that would be of value to a screenwriter.  But the irony is that some of the best screenwriters are those who have a clear understanding of screen dialogue and the techniques used to achieve that dialogue

Alvin Sargent, Buck Henry, Tom Stoppard, Richard LaGravenese, Christopher Hampton, the late Steve Tesich and Waldo Salt, are and were keenly aware of how to write screen dialogue using the fewest words, but with the greatest impact.  This is not to say that dialogue is the only thing that will be treated here. Odd that in a standard 120 page script which is predominantly filled with dialogue that the craft of dialogue be given such little attention. Part of that lack of attention may be due to the fact that most writers of screenplay books don’t write much dialogue or may not have an approach to analyzing dialogue that would be of value to a screenwriter.

But the irony is that some of the best screenwriters are those who have a clear understanding of screen dialogue and the techniques used to achieve that dialogue.  Alvin Sargent, Buck Henry, Tom Stoppard, Richard Gravenese, Christopher Hampton, the late Steve Tesich and Waldo Salt, are and were keenly aware of how to write screen dialogue using the fewest words, but with the greatest impact.  This is not to say that dialogue is the only thing that will be treated here.

Attention to form and structure, to different approaches to form and structure, will be dealt with as well.  We’ll deal with people that you may have heard about, like Joseph Campbell, and people you probably haven’t, like Northrop Frye.  And just as we’ll begin with what every book on screenwriting should begin, Aristotle’s Poetics, we’ll finish with what every book should end with, namely non-Aristotle, since just as there is more than one way to write a script there is more than one way to write a “how to write a script” book.

I have included exercises at the end of each of the chapters, but exercises do not replace the act of writing.  At some particular point, either before you’ve read this book, but certainly after, you have to sit down and write a script.  I’m reminded of something the French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière wrote:  “The screenwriter works hemmed in by a throng of technical constraints and commercial demands.  He commits himself to a project that must necessarily be transformed beyond all recognition.  Denied the novelist’s comfortable introspection, he is usually required to describe his characters from the outside in.  He knows his work is doomed to disappear; he himself is usually unknown to audiences, even by name. He therefore spends much of his life asking, ‘How can I ever give expression to who I am?  How can I—like other, better-known artists—make my voice heard as well?’” (Carrière 185).  To that end, we’re all screaming in silence.  I’m hopeful that, perhaps, this book will enable you to be heard or at least hear yourself.

To take full advantage of the book it would be useful for you to be familiar with or to screen the following films:  Rocky, The Cook, the Thief, His Wife and Her Lover, Rain Man, Citizen Kane, The Big Chill, Ordinary People, Breaking Away, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Romancing the Stone, The Name of the Rose, The Fisher King, Rain Man, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, The Graduate, and Pulp Fiction.  This is not to say the book won’t be useful if you don’t screen those films, but to get the most from any book on screenwriting, there has to be a balance between the written word and the visual medium on which the word is predicated. In other words, to read something is one thing, but to see how what the word suggests is practiced is quite another.