The study of screenwriting has become increasingly popular at Australian universities, and a perpetual question for the screenwriting lecturer is what sources are appropriate as reference material for students? Does one rely on the dogmatic approach of the screenwriting gurus who “tell it like it is”, or does one seek a more academic study of the history and theory of this unique form of literature? My reading of both Linda Aronson’s highly instructional The 21st Century Screenplay and Steven Maras’ highly academic Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice has revealed that although there are pros and cons to both, the more theoretical, balanced approach is becoming increasingly relevant in the digital age.
Indeed, the screenwriter’s role is a precarious one in the ever-changing landscape of film production. Of recent times the “screenwriter as author” has been championed by the likes of Robert McKee and Margaret Mehring, basing their cases on an absolute faith in the notion of story as king (1). Screenwriting manuals often sell themselves on the notion that a sure fire way for anyone with a laptop and a good idea to get into the film industry is to write a tightly structured screenplay. This screenplay invariably relies on the experiences of a singular protagonist who passionately pursues a goal over the course of three distinct acts. This “classic” structure is, according to McKee, “the meat, potatoes, pasta, rice and couscous of world cinema”, as well as Hollywood (2).
In The 21st Century Screenplay, however, Aronson aims to address the advent of what she calls the parallel narrative that is proliferating at an “astonishing rate all over the world” (p. xv). She recognises that a new breed of screenwriters like Paul Haggis, David Hare, Charlie Kaufman and Christopher Nolan are beginning to push the boundaries of narrative with ever more complex script structures. This is the reason why she has prepared this new and significantly altered version of Scriptwriting Updated, first published in 2000, and dedicated over half of it to an analysis of the parallel narrative, its different forms and how to go about choosing the right form for your particular screenplay.
Aronson describes this form “as several separate narratives running in parallel, often involving non-linearity, time jumps, large casts, or all of these”, including films like Slumdog Millionaire (Danny Boyle, 2008), Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008), Babel (Alejandro González Iñárritu, 2006), Pulp Fiction (Quentin Tarantino, 1994), The Hours (Stephen Daldry, 2002) and many more (p. 167). Using these films as examples, she claims that there “are clear patterns and techniques that can be copied, so instead of relying on intuition, you can actually plan your parallel narrative film” (p. 168). Using a non-linear, parallel structure is important to “create pace and unity in narratives that are inherently exposition heavy, fragmented, episodic and lacking in chronologically building suspense” (p. 169).
She does this only after an analysis of the most common approaches to classic structure in the first part of the book, a section that is a valuable summary of the most conventional approaches. This analysis begins with strategies for developing good ideas from mythology, techniques for combining lateral and vertical thinking, and uses of genre, before segueing into a “how-to plot a screenplay” manual based on a fairly user-friendly description of the three-act structure. Aronson gives a useful overview of dominant theories of what the three-act structure constitutes in relation to screenplays, referring to Linda Seger and Christopher Vogler’s various formulations of such structural points (3). This material remains fairly unchanged from Scriptwriting Updated and is useful for intermediate scriptwriting students seeking an economical insight into ways of applying a linear narrative structure to a film script. Aronson accompanies this with 25 screenplay development strategies that rely heavily on traditional screenwriting rules such as cause and effect, inciting incidents, turning points and character development, all of which have been dealt with extensively by the likes of McKee and Syd Field. Two things Aronson does bring to the table in this section are the identification of the “Relationship Line”, as something distinct from, but related to, the “Plot Line”, and an insistence that the story be “real but unusual”. Splitting story into a plot line that describes events and a relationship line that acts as a subplot in relationship to these events is a useful way of defining a strong purpose for the subplot in such a conventional protagonist-driven structure. Not so useful is Aronson’s insistence that all ideas and plot points be made “real but unusual”. Just because something is both credible and unusual does not necessarily make it more dramatic or appealing to an audience. Indeed, this reliance on a vague form of lateral thinking is a frustrating aspect of the entire book, as is the multiplicity of terms and definitions Aronson conjures up to describe the idea of parallel narrative.
It is in the book’s middle section that Aronson desperately tries to define the pattern of all successful films that do not fit into the conventional structure of a single protagonist and three sequential acts. Ultimately, she failed to convince this reader that parallel narrative was anything more than different ways of presenting plot and subplot. In fact, her categorising of parallel narrative into six types: tandem, multiple protagonist, double journey, flashback, consecutive stories and (conveniently) hybrid, and then the subdivision of these types into several different varieties each, means that she has defined over 30 different possibilities for parallel narrative structure. For each she suggests one or two successful films as examples, sometimes with little or no justification. For example, she describes Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (Michel Gondry, 2004) as an ensemble film simply because it has flashbacks and subplots, but it would be equally valid to argue that this film is very much protagonist-driven, with all its subplots serving an aspect of the main character’s emotional journey toward understanding the value of flawed love. Aronson falls into the trap of using successful films, in hindsight, to justify vague and unsubstantiated theories of structure. It seems that there is always a film to justify any theory of screenplay development but single examples do not necessarily support a particular writer’s general principle. Pulp Fiction is a case in point. Aronson identifies the plot line of Jules finding God as the “portmanteau plot”, which is itself a subcategory of the “Consecutive Story” plot. Such a plot is of a type that bookends a set of other stories but usually starts at the turning point of the second act to create “a high jeopardy hook” (p. 347). Vogler, however, claims that Pulp Fiction can be interpreted using the reliable old tools of the Hero’s Journey outlining the three distinct journeys of Vincent, Jules and Butch (4). Both analyses may be equally valid and possibly of interest to the student of film structure, and for those screenwriters seeking a template to copy. Indeed a narrative template is all Aronson really claims to offer, but the multiplicity of templates that she describes, and her disclaimer that new hybrids are arising all the time, leaves the practitioner with lots of questions to ask themselves but very little direction.
Aronson’s book is of value, however, as a trouble-shooting device allowing the screenwriter to reflect on specific aspects of the screenplay that may not be working. It is therefore better at identifying problems rather than suggesting solutions. Arguing that a tandem narrative strand have a macro plot as well as individual plots may well be a tangible way of preventing your multi-protagonist screenplay from dissolving into a series of meaningless vignettes (p. 188), but this really does not add much to the analysis of subplot in McKee’s Story: Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (5).
Maras’ Screenplay: History, Theory and Practice is a completely different study of the screenplay and one that is possibly overdue in the literature surrounding screenwriting. This major scholarly work raises important questions about the study and perception of the screenplay, and is of value to both practitioners of screenwriting and academics. Of particular value is his analysis of the historical development of the screenplay, challenging many of the assumptions that modern screenwriting gurus make about the sanctity of the form. His research relating to the screenplay’s place in the mode of production of the Hollywood Studio system of the early to mid-20th century does much to remind us of the fact that in functioning film industries the economic convenience of such a “script document” was of equal import to its artistic credibility.
The function of the screenplay is further analysed in his chapters “Reading the Screenplay” and “The Film Script as Blueprint”. In these chapters he examines the notion of the screenplay as both a technical and poetic document and explores the very important debate about how a screenplay should be read. Should it be a document that evokes appropriate images and events for the director, or a more prescriptive blueprint that takes into account technical and aesthetic considerations? Maras’ balanced study is a refreshing change from the how-to gurus whose claims, although often useful as a guide, are usually based on a very limited perception of what a screenplay actually is and how it should be used. This perception usually falls into the category of the semi-poetic work that registers the film play in the reader’s head, and that will make producers gasp and throw money at the writer. What Maras does is remind us of the complexity of this form of writing, not only in itself, but also in terms of where it is placed in the ever-changing mode of film production. A good example of this is his chapter on auteurism that helps address the perennial question of film authorship. He warns that the notion of the writer as creator, and all other film practitioners as interpreters, leads to an undermining of the writer’s own speaking position in the filmmaking process: “the rhetoric associated with the distinction between creation and interpretation leads to the unhelpful distancing of the two, as though conception occurs in a cultural and experiential vacuum” (p. 115). Such a warning is germane in the light of the more collaborative models of filmmaking that are emerging in contemporary low budget environments. Indeed, in the final chapter Maras explores important issues of the way “screen” writing relates to film production in the digital age. He critically examines notions of improvisation, alternative structure and “scripting” (i.e. writing with bodies, light, the camera, and so on). In so doing, he raises important questions that challenge our notion of screenwriting “beyond ideas of the blueprint and the screenplay” (p. 172). How does the screenwriter deal with non-linear stories? Must every film story involve a unified structure, and if not, how does the writer defend his story to structure obsessed funding bodies? The raising of such questions is an important challenge to the assumptions espoused by the “story is structure” gurus like Field (6).
In this sense, Maras’ book is of substantial value as one of the few detailed critical analyses of the literature (theoretical, academic and practical) surrounding the screenplay. It provides an effective framework for discussion and is an important reference book for anyone who is serious about studying the screenplay.
Having said this, I wonder how much value it is to an actual screenwriter. It might perhaps liberate the practitioner from traditional notions of what modern screen gurus expect a screenplay to do, and allow them a more informed and critical view of the art they are practicing. Unlike the screenwriting manuals, which often read as a cross between religion and therapy, it is a more sober view of the screenplay. Maras concludes that the “script document” in the digital age can only benefit from a more pluralistic understanding of its actual form. The separation between conception and execution is becoming narrower and therefore the writer may find themselves benefiting from producing a form of scripting that supports unconventional story creating techniques like rehearsal and improvisation (p. 184). The screenplay, although important, is by no means the be-all and end-all of story creation in film. This is a fact worthy of the nascent screenwriter’s consideration as she bangs out the spec script in isolation, praying that her words alone have the power to make the film happen the way it appears in her head.
Linda Aronson, The 21st Century Screenplay: A Comprehensive Guide to Writing Tomorrow’s Films, Allen and Unwin, Crows Nest, NSW, 2010.
Steven Maras, Screenwriting: History, Theory and Practice, Wallflower Press, London, 2009.
- Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, Harper-Collins, New York, 1997; Margaret Mehring, The Screenplay: A Blend of Film Form and Content, Focal Press, Boston, 1990, p. 6.
- McKee, p. 46.
- Christopher Vogler, The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, Michael Wiese Productions, Studio City, 1998; Linda Seger, Making a Good Script Great, Samuel French, Hollywood, 1994.
- Vogler, p. 276.
- McKee, p. 227.
- Syd Field, Screenplay – The Foundations of Screenwriting, Dell Publishing, New York, 1994.