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: 786,740
  • 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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