Archive for Syd Field

Dynamic Conflict

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , on February 13, 2018 by dcairns

I got Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure for Christmas, and it’s quite good — one of the best of these damn screenwriting books. I can’t bear Syd Field’s books, the man thinks “sets up” is one word, spelled “setsup” like “catsup.” True, he has slightly more screen credits than Robert McKee, but no feature film ones, and his TV writing credits are for a show he produced: in other words, he gave himself the job.

O’Bannon actually wrote movies, and had the debilating health problems to prove it. This is from Michael Wiese Productions, who do good film books by actual filmmakers, and it shares a melancholic quality with editor Sam O’Steen’s Cut to the Chase: it’s been published post-mortem, with much work from other hands to make a book of it. O’Steen had his wife, a fellow editor, to interview him and prompt his memories, O’Bannon has co-author Matt R. Lohr. I’m going to go ahead and blame him for getting the plot of King Lear wrong.

But the selling point here is O’Bannon’s unique take on the three-act structure. I’m with actual writer Ed Solomon on this one — reading screenwriting books before you start writing will just do your head in. If you write something decent, the books can sometimes be useful to help tighten it and make it work better. I’d encountered O’Bannon’s theories before in an interview he gave to a screenwriting magazine. There’s not much new here, certainly not enough to fill a book, but NONE of these manuals have enough in them to fill their page count. All you can hope for is that the good stuff will actually be good.

O’Bannon’s chief innovation is to better define the Act Two Curtain — in his formulation, at this point, “the doors close” — before this approximate three-quarter mark, leading into the climax, the protagonist and antagonist could theoretically have walked away from their conflict (yes, as always, the assumption is that this will be a conflict-based narrative: see Mackendrick’s On Film-Making for a bracing alternative). After this curtain, the characters are locked in to their struggle. Sometimes one has committed an act so awful towards the other than vengeance is now imperative; sometimes, one has been revealed to pose an existential threat to the other. I guess in JAWS, when the boat starts to sink, Sheriff Brody is committed to seeing the thing through.

In that same old screenwriting mag I read another movie hack claim that DIE HARD was all third act from about fifteen minutes in, but O’Bannon’s theory disproves this nicely. It may seem to be all climax, but just where a Second Act Curtain should be, our hero is told he can relax and leave it to the FBI now, and then discovers the terrorists are going to blow everyone up and ONLY HE CAN STOP THEM. Classic O’Bannon, though written by three other guys.

One always finds oneself talking about really commercial, manly stuff when attempting to prove screenwriting theories. One successful guide uses THE KARATE KID as its paragon. This alone should make us skeptical. But if you’re interested in screenwriting, test O’Bannon’s theory against movies you love. I might try this in a follow-up post.

O’Bannon’s other best point is where he blasphemously trounces the idea that Acts One, Two and Three should end or begin on a specific page, or a specific minute of screen time. He points out that the audience doesn’t know what time it is. He’s right. I think we DO get a sense, when we’re watching a film, that This has been going on a long time and we still don’t know what it’s about, when the first act is a long time in reaching its curtain. But we can get that feeling in fifteen minutes, if the first act is really boring, as I just did with a screener I was viewing for Edinburgh Film Festival, a would-be horror movie that began with half an hour of conversations. And sometimes we can get to the end of a film without once having that feeling, and STILL not know what the film was about, as I did with another movie, a thoroughly convincing and beautiful art-house job.

The surest ways to avoid activating the audience’s internal clock is to tell an engaging story or unfold a tapestry of cinematic beauty. And let the curtains fall where they will.

Dan O’Bannon co-wrote DARK STAR, ALIEN and TOTAL RECALL.


But I’m telling you the plot.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on May 5, 2012 by dcairns

“Let us define a plot. We have defined a story as a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence. A plot is also a narrative of events, the emphasis falling on causality. ‘The king died and then the queen died,’ is a story. ‘The king died and then the queen died of grief’ is a plot. The time-sequence is preserved, but the sense of causality overshadows it. Or again: ‘The queen died, no-one knew why, until it was discovered that it was through grief at the death of the king.’ This is a plot with a mystery in it, a form capable of high development. It suspends the time-sequence, it moves as far away from the story as its limitations will allow. Consider the death of the queen. If it is in a story, we say: ‘And then?’ If it is in a plot, we ask: ‘Why?’ That is the fundamental difference between these two aspects of the novel. A plot cannot be told to a gaping audience of cave-men or to a tyrannical sultan or to their modern descendant the movie-public. They can only be kept awake by ‘And then – and then -‘ they can only supply curiosity. But a plot demands intelligence and memory also.”

~ EM Forster, Aspects of the Novel.

I’m enjoying Forster’s book of lectures, which I’ve dabbled with before but never read cover to cover. Obviously he’s snobbish about the movie-public above, and he’s writing in 1927 when clearly elaborate plotting was to be found all over the screen. I wonder when Forster had last been to the flickers? But I also wonder if the pure story he speaks of, that which requires nothing from the viewer but expectation of the next stimulating event, really exists except as a sort of platonic ideal.

(Also, I’ve also felt that the word STORY had a grander sound than the word PLOT, so I’m almost inclined to reverse Forster’s terminology, but that would get confusing. So, in his terms a story is a linear sequence of related events, whereas a plot is a structured sequence of causally related events.)

The first STAR WARS certainly depends a lot on the appeal of pure story. Alec Guinness, frowning at the poor dialogue and hackneyed characters, was on the point of discarding it, he says, when he realized he wanted to know what happened next. And if that were so, he further realized, the thing had a shot at being successful. Wisely, as it turned out, he agreed to be in it.

But STAR WARS is plotted. At the beginning, we meet the robots, we see the princess captured, we escape with the robots and meet the hero. His path eventually brings him into contact with the princess, and he rescues her. This is all linear, and we use the robots as POV characters to pull us through the different strands of the story. But Lucas also cuts away from them to action involving the villains and the princess. This is so that we are reminded they’re in the film — and so that we can anticipate the adventure which will occur when the different plot threads weave together. If the film were mere story, it would be enough to simply follow the robots to Luke, then follow Luke. No doubt when he meets Leia and Darth we’d be surprised, because we’d have forgotten they were in the film, but from a STORY point of view that would be fine. In Hitchcockian terms, Lucas defuses that surprise in favour of suspense, which gives greater value over a longer period of screen time.

So if even STAR WARS uses plot mechanics, can the plotless film be said to exist? Even the most moronic video-game movie uses goals, often in a kind of treasure-hunt scenario. The constant succession of stimulating action sequences satisfies those who only require visceral excitement, but a causal connection has been established, a purpose to all the striving and strife. Critics who describe the modern action spectaculars as plotless are usually responding to a surface impression rather than really analysing how the things function. Such films tend to use very flat characterisation (to use Forster’s term: but even flat characters, he notes, have their uses) and any development or alteration of these characters is usually unconvincing and rote (because the screenwriters are following the Syd Field road map rather than feeling the landscape with their own senses). But plot is something they all have, usually extending even to the TWIST, where a goodie turns out to be a baddie or apparent salvation turns out to be a trap.

Forster’s own example is the Thousand and One Nights, which is odd because you can’t hook a “tyrannical sultan” merely with a string of interesting events — for him to keenly anticipate further developments, you need to engage his intelligence with puzzles, something needs to be at stake. If the hero is buried up to his neck in sand and the tide is coming in, you can’t be concerned unless you visualize what is supposed to happen next.

For a narrative in which memory and anticipation and intelligence are irrelevant, you kind of have to look to FELLINI SATYRICON — and the result is far more avant-garde, and a way far more interesting, than STAR WARS. Anticipating what will happen next will get you nowhere, because what happens next is always going to be whatever Fellini thinks would be most delightful or strange. Occasionally narrative questions are produced, dangled, and very occasionally answered, but actual dramatic tension is really beside the point. Forster complains that mere stories like Walter Scott’s often drag in death or marriage to provide a totally arbitrary conclusion, but Fellini’s non-ending is even more abrupt — he essentially just abandons the story. He does it beautifully, and makes us feel that the ensuing scenes are lost to history, and his inconclusive conclusion is more profound than Lucas’s Leni Riefenstahl borrowings could ever be, or were ever intended to be. THAT’S a story — as Homer Simpson once put it, “just a bunch of stuff that happened.”

But I wonder what Forster would have thought of it?

I don’t know what he’d have thought of this, either — but it’s the source of my post title. The late Kenny Everett as Cupid Stunt, on and with Michael Parkinson.

Near Myths

Posted in FILM, literature, Mythology with tags , , , , , on February 3, 2008 by dcairns

dwarf star 

(Dwarf guy from Lang’s SIEGFRIED)

Longterm Shadowplayer Elver Loho emailed me some while ago with a query for the blog, which I’ve been meaning to get around to. But it’s a toughie:

‘I come from a background of computer science and we had plenty of
great academic journals in the field. A lot of research was happening
all the time and academic journals are a great way to keep up with it.
Now that I’m making the switch to screenwriting, I find that there are
a couple of guru-written books on the subject that everyone likes
and… that’s pretty much it.

‘Hell, the biggest works about on one of the most important aspects of
screenwriting — story structure — were written more than 50 years
ago by Propp and Campbell and don’t even mention movies. I haven’t
come across anything that would even begin to rival the research that
those two guys did.

My name is Propp and I love to shopp!
(Vladimir Propp & his magic lamp)

‘This is depressing. Surely, there’s academic research going on in the
field, right? Because I was browsing the online database of academic
journals that my local university library has and there’s a ton of
journals on literature. I even found an issue that was wholly
dedicated to the phenomenon of text in Ancient Roman wall paintings.
Surely if there are people who care enough about text in Ancient Roman
wall paintings to write research papers on the topic, there must be
people who care enough about film to write research papers on the
topic. But where are they? Where do they publish their research? And
is there even research going on in the field or are we trapped in a
New Age type of guru worship?’

Elver’s right, firstly, in that practically everything to do with screenwriting is depressing! Most good scripts don’t get filmed, many lousy ones do, and even the good ones that make it through often get mangled in the process. (I’ve been part of this process as both re-writer — for my sins — and re-written.) The research situation being depressing is consistent and unsurprising.

Magazine-wise, these are probably the best shows in town:

Expensive, but pretty good as I recall.

But they’re clearly industry rags rather than academic journals. I must admit I have a hard time picturing an academic journal on screenwriting — I think it would end up containing historical research rather than scientific principles because I don’t entirely believe there ARE any scientific principles in screenwriting. The Robert McKee / Syd Field approach is about as “scientific” as it gets, and much of the time those guys are just passing off opinion as fact or industry norms as universal principles. (Also, Field is a horrible writer, who apparently thinks “sets up” is one word: “setsup”, which sounds like a SAUCE.) Most of the gurubooks contain some insights I find useful, so I do read them, but I think it’s wise to take what resonates for you and discard the rest.

I've lost McKee

(For instance, I think knowledge of mythic structure is fantastic to have at the back of your mind as you’re shaping a story, but it’s a terrible point to start from, and no guarantee of anything, as George Lucas’ extremely variable storywork on his STAR WARS saga shows. I think Umberto Eco’s essay on CASABLANCA maybe gives a better clue to the success of STAR WARS than Joseph Campbell — think of it as a mass restyling of clichés rather than a New Myth for Our Age. Mythic structure starts from the point of universally recognisable archetypes, which is really the same as stereotypes. Whereas I’d rather start with real human qualities and then maybe connect them to myth as I go.)

I just don’t think there’s a science to study, so what we’re left with is criticism, which isn’t something you can pilot a spaceship on, as this blog probably proves. Writers work on a combination of craft and instinct: a competent beginner can learn craft, but you can’t make it work for you worth a damn without the right instincts — which you can develop by writing a lot, if they’re there in the first place.

It’s very good that there are so many screenplays available online now, and many many books on screenwriting to pick and choose pearls of wisdom from (while hopefully discarding all the plastic beads of received wisdom).

Incidentally, the book that sparked Preston Sturges’ glorious writing career was A Study of the Drama by Brander Matthews. The differences between stage and screen-writing are so obvious as to scarcely need enumeration, so I’m wondering what gems it contains… it seems to be a little expensive to pick up secondhand though.

Splurge on Sturges?