Essays (book reviews)
world is full of “how to write a screenplay” manuals. They have titles like Making a Good Script Great, Writing Great Screenplays, The Writer’s Journey and How to Write a Selling Screenplay. One
can even speak of a veritable curse of such manuals – well, I did, at any rate,
in a polemical 1999 essay [reprinted in Mysteries
of these guides for aspiring screenwriters (those in English, at least) come
from America. This tends to mean that they are focused solely on mainstream
industry successes – the plots of Witness (1985), Chinatown (1974), Casablanca (1942) and the Star Wars franchise are
analysed over and over, as if yet to betray their sure-fire, box-office
secrets. And they usually strenuously preach the need for “strong” narratives
with a “central conflict” and a sole, unambiguous hero.
eventually made its way into the screenwriting advice industry, first with Screenwriting: A Manual (Oxford
University Press, 2000) by Jonathan Dawson [1941-2013], and then Linda Aronson’s Scriptwriting Updated: New and
Conventional Ways of Writing for the Screen. (Note: according to the
author’s official website, Scriptwriting
Updated was effectively “superseded” by its “long-awaited, much-expanded
successor”, The 21st Century
Screenplay [Allen & Unwin, 2010].)
book has met with international success – and has even received the nod from
such USA script manual gurus as Linda Seger and Christopher Vogler. There’s a
welcome novelty factor at play in this acclaim: Aronson shows an awareness of
traditions beyond Hollywood, such as Australian and British cinema.
think the American passion with one hero travelling a journey of redemption is
historical”, commented Aronson in an interview I did with her. “The great
literary icon of their culture is The
Pilgrim’s Progress: Man in charge of destiny, Man changing to become
better. It’s exactly what their notion of a film hero conforms to. In Europe
and Asia, fate and a perceived lack of personal control is the norm. Australia
comes between the two – we love the Pyrrhic victory”.
most striking and valuable aspect of Aronson’s book, however, is her attempt to
bridge the gap between old-fashioned principles of screen storytelling and the
newer forms that have emerged in films including Pulp Fiction (1994) and Run Lola Run (1998). “I feel that film
structure is rapidly changing, and we should embrace that process of change –
indeed, work to take it further”.
stake is the classical three-act structure that most screenwriting manuals
claim to be the one, true foundation of all good films. It is simple enough to
claim that a story has a beginning (a normal situation is disturbed), a middle
(consequences of that disturbance) and an end (restoration of equilibrium) –
that is, if it proceeds in a clear, linear fashion and plays out essentially
between a hero and a villain.
what, Aronson asks, of films with elaborate flashback structures, like Atom
Egoyan’s adaptation of The Sweet
Hereafter (1997)? What about parallel narratives, like Sliding Doors (1998)? Films with multiple characters, like American Beauty (1999)? Although Aronson doesn’t say so, many such
films mark the long-delayed effect of the radical art cinema movements of the 1960s
and ‘70s (such as the Nouvelle Vague) upon popular movies.
Thompson’s foreword pitches Aronson’s book to a “new wave of screenwriters”
because it “covers the great divide between the exception and the rule” in
contemporary screenwriting practices. There is, in fact, an intriguing paradox
at the heart of Aronson’s method. “My research has revealed that even the most
complex forms of multiple story are actually heavily dependent on the nuts and
bolts of the traditional three-act story”.
Updated is a very nuts-and-bolts type of book, full of charts, diagrams, step-by-step
breakdowns and checklists of useful questions. It reflects Aronson’s own
practical background in the film and TV industries, with work on series
including GP and Something In the Air, and Paul Cox’s early feature, Kostas (1979). She is also a playwright
and novelist, nominated for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for her second
novel for young adults, Rude Health (1999).
scriptwriting advice balances free creativity – she often returns to Edward de
Bono’s ideas about lateral thinking – against what she sees as the importance
of structure, planning and plain, hard work. “Writing is a very intuitive,
emotional business”, she comments, “and you need to impose objectivity. You
really need a way to escape the emotional connection you have with the dialogue
early training in music convinced her that ideas and emotion cannot be reliably
and regularly transmitted without technique. “I have no problem with the notion
of teaching people to write – an issue that many people seem to have a problem
with. Of course, writers must have talent. But to say that the teaching of writing is impossible or destructive is
like telling a talented musician that the best thing they can do is shut
themselves in a room and teach themselves”.
Aronson’s view, the new narrative structures now proliferating need more structure, not less. She rates Mike
Figgis’ Time Code (2000), for example, as a
fascinating but ultimately failed experiment. (I personally find it insufferable
and inexcusable on every level.) “The interesting thing about parallel
narrative is that, when it works, it works because it pegs its multiple stories
to the high dramatic moments in the three-act structure. It’s the use of those
dramatic high points that help the multiple narrative films cope with their
inherent problems with pace, meaning and closure”.
someone with an intensely practical investment in screenwriting, Aronson is
understandably fixed on what makes a movie “work” or “hold”. But sometimes the
search for rules (so typical of screenplay manuals) can overwhelm the
significance of the exceptions. Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), for instance, is faulted for slowness, repetitiveness, “shaggy dog”
false leads, absence of cohesion and connection, and a lack of eventful actions
that would move its multiple stories forward in a satisfying way. This amounts
to a gross misunderstanding and manhandling of Altman’s artistic intentions –
one shudders at the thought of what a typical Alan Rudolph movie would do to
her, let alone one by Tsai Ming-liang or Chantal Akerman.
Aronson, the crucial concern is “audience expectations”. A recurring refrain of
her book is the question “what film are we in?”. Like many writers, she seeks
focus, clarity and economy in screen storytelling. But isn’t Altman’s agenda
(to take one just one prominent example), honed across three decades in a
market overlapping mainstream and festival/art cinema, rather different? We
need to understand, in a more comprehensive and open-minded way, what is truly
new about new narrative forms.
cheerfully admits the subjectivity of her judgments and awaits the commercially
successful “difficult” movie that will “prove me completely wrong about
everything”. Which is easy escape-hatch rhetoric to use, if one is unlikely to
encounter anything much beyond the major or minor box-office charts!
the meantime, Aronson continues to road test her
screenwriting theories to ever-expanding audiences around the world. “I believe
that writing and making films is hard because art is hard. Unfortunately, no
one book or teacher or lecture is going to teach you all you need to know about
writing. More’s the pity!”
© Adrian Martin March 2001