How to Build a Great Screenplay: A Master Class in Storytelling for Film

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Acclaimed USC screenwriting teacher David Howard has guided hundreds of students to careers in writing for film and television. Drawing on decades of practical experience and savvy, How to Build a Great Screenplay deconstructs the craft of screenwriting and carefully reveals how to build a good story from the ground up. Howard eschews the "system" offered by other books, emphasizing that a great screenplay requires dozens of unique decisions by the author. He offers in-depth considerations of:

* characterization

* story arc

* plotting and subplotting

* dealing with coincidence in story plotting

* classical vs. revolutionary screenplay structure

* tone, style, and atmosphere

* the use of time on screen

* the creation of drama and tension

* crucial moments in storytelling

Throughout the book, Howard clarifies his lessons through examples from some of the most successful Hollywood and international script-oriented films, including Pulp Fiction, American Beauty, Trainspotting, North by Northwest, Chinatown, and others. The end result is what could very well become the classic text in the field—-a bible for the burgeoning screenwriter.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"How to Build a Great Screenplay" is insightful, riveting, clear, concise and to the point. It's a screenwriter's screenwriting book packed with practical as well as theoretical insights. If you're serious about screenwriting — start here, and if you're a twenty-year veteran, this is the place to take a refresher course. I came away from reading this book inspired with a renewed sense of purpose on why I write screenplays. This isn't a book — it's an education!"

—Jack Epps Jr., screenwriter Top Gun, Dick Tracy, Turner & Hooch, The Secret of My Success, and Legal Eagles.

"David Howard's How To Build A Great Screenplay is a rarity - not merely a 'how to' guide, but the most comprehensive and thoughtful examination of storytelling, and as close to an entire graduate writing program, as one is likely to find within the covers of a single book."

—Adam Belanoff, writer and producer on Cosby and Murphy Brown, and writer on Wings

Library Journal
In this companion to The Tools of Screenwriting, Howard, founding director of the graduate screenwriting program at the University of Southern California, deals specifically with story structure, focusing on elements like connecting with an audience, creating drama and tension, and building subplots. This book is less interactive and more textbookish, making it appropriate for screenwriting students; Howard's have gone on to pen the screenplays for successful films like Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312352622
  • Publisher: St. Martin's Press
  • Publication date: 1/24/2006
  • Edition description: First Edition
  • Pages: 464
  • Sales rank: 921,350
  • Product dimensions: 5.55 (w) x 8.48 (h) x 1.12 (d)

Meet the Author

David Howard is the founding director of the graduate screenwriting program at USC, where he teaches various courses in screenwriting. His students have scripted such successful films as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Air Force One, Permanent Midnight, and Natural Born Killers. The coauthor (with Edward Mabley) of The Tools of Screenwriting, he lives in Los Angeles, California.

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Table of Contents



Story and Storytelling

The Story

The Chronology of Events

A Crucial Paradox

Life Is What Happens

The World of the Story


Where's the Antagonist

Characters' Baggage and Unfinished Business

Lightening, Decisions, and Protagonists

Character Arc

What If This Story Were a Fairy Tale or Myth?

The Audience's Fragile Involvement

The Telling of the Story

The Seamless Dream

The Intended Impact

Camera as Storyteller

Genre, Style, and Tone

Separation of Experience and Knowledge

Hope Versus Fear

The "Game" of Storytelling

Building Stories

The Creation of Drama

Main Character or Ensemble Story?

Protagonist and the Creation of Story

Worthy Antagonist

Supportive and Reflective Characters

Tension from First to Last

Actions and Goals

Character Arc

Pivotal Decisions

Time Compression and Intensity

The Possible and the Impossible


Building from the Ground Up

Main Character's Passion

Objective and Subjective Drama



What's at Stake?

Six Types of Characters

Carpentry and Craftsmanship

Creating the Audience's Experience

Immediacy and the Sense of Here and Now


Rising Action

Point of No Return

Willing Suspension of Disbelief

Demonstration versus Explanation

Number of Clearly Defined Characters

Character Motivations



Dealing with Coincidence

Creating Living Characters

Inner Life and Character Attitude

Protagonist and Antagonist

Secondary Characters

Underlying Motives

Time and Storytelling

Screen Time and Drama

Time and Complexity

Action Time

Amount of Story and Screen time

Real Time versus Screen Time versus Time Frame

The Simplest Use of Time

Why Alter Simple Chronology?

Time and the Lives of the Characters

Objective Time and Subjective Time

Basic Dramatic Structure

What is Drama?

The Three Acts

The Beginning: Engaging the Audience

The Middle: Elaborating and Extending the Engagement

The End: Releasing the Engagement

The Writer's Relationship to the Acts


From Acts to Sequences

The Elements of a Sequence

Special Needs of the First Sequence

Pretitle Sequences and Codas

Crucial Moments

Crucial Moments in the Main Character's Life

Crucial Moments in the Telling of the Story


The Role of Subplots

Subplots Characters

Beginning, Middle, and End

Resolution of Subplots and Main Plot

How to Weave in Subplots

The Classical Screenplay Structure

Main Character's Undisturbed Status Quo

Creating the Dilemma

Elaborating on the Dilemma and the World of the Story

First Potential Breakthrough

Main Subplot and Main Character

Greatest Exertion

False Resolution

Final Test of Character and True Resolution

Typical Placements and Proportions

Relationships of Midpoint, Culmination, and Resolution

Where Does "Climax" Fit In?

Beyond Classical Dramatic Structure

The Single Unbreakable Rule of Drama

Anything But Classical Screenplay Structure

Being Different

Breaking the Form

Storyteller Intentions and Priorities

The Limits of Classical, the Beginnings of Revolutionary

Are All "Revolutionary" Films Revolutionary?

Mainstream Experiments in Storytelling

A Few Lessons from Past Experiments

Storytelling Myths, Legends, and Lies

How to Shake Up Classical Structure—and Why

Why Some Stories Can't Be Classically Told

The Physics of Drama

How to Stir the Pot

Cost-Benefit Analyses with Rule-Breaking

Using the Rules to Break the Rules

Clarity and Obscurity

Writing and Work Strategies

Before the First Draft

What Keeps the Audience in Their Seats

Consider the Audience's Position

The First Draft

The Sequence Breakdown

The Step Outline

Writing the First Draft

After the First Draft

Clarifying Your Theme


Know Your Long Suit and Short Suit

Dramatic Instincts

A Final Note


About the Author

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