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CONTINUING TRADITION, BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY
We can see Hollywood's judicious balance of continuity and innovation in the emergence of contemporary screenwriting rules. Contrary to those who would argue that today's movies are mere agglomerations of star power, special effects, raucous comedy, and shattering violence, the dozens of screenplay manuals pouring from the presses have demanded tight plot construction and a careful coordination of emotional appeals. We can't take these manuals wholly on faith—we'll need to test them against finished films—but their consolidation of studio-era principles nicely exemplifies how modern American moviemaking pays its tribute to tradition.
Acts, Arcs, and Archetypes
Few screenplay manuals inspire confidence. If you want proof that contemporary Hollywood is formula-ridden, look no further than Syd Field's "Paradigm," with turning points absolutely required on script pages 25–27 and 85–90. One author explains that in action movies "the Sidekick's main jobs are to help the hero, provide comic relief, and be murdered by the henchman at the end of Act 1 or the end of Act 2." The jacket blurbs compete in zany hyperbole. Lew Hunter dubs William Froug "THE premiere screenwriting teacher in the history of motion pictures," while Hunter's own book is praised as "the final word on screenwriting." Apparently not, though, since Hunter says of another manual, "This is the best book on screenwriting today—even better than my own!" Long on anecdotes and famous names, the books have a confessional charm. Field says that years after attending UCLA and working in the film industry, he suddenly realized that act 1 had to set up the story and introduce the main characters. Later, when teaching a course on screenwriting, a student asked him, "What is a screenplay?" "The question took me by surprise. I had no answer, so I just kept talking."
Screenwriting manuals have been published for nearly a century, proliferating at moments when the industry welcomed outsiders. As the studios downsized in the 1960s, writers were no longer on contract, and story departments shrank. Each film was a one-off production, and the screenplay formed the core of a package that might attract a director and a star. The aspiring writer submitted an original screenplay (a "spec script") to an agent, who shepherded it to a studio or an independent producer. The odds were overwhelmingly against that script's being bought or filmed. With luck, it would serve as an intriguing writing sample for other assignments.
The flood of manuals that broke forth in the late 1970s responded to this new process of story development. Thousands of aspiring screenwriters faced a decentralized market and lacked common training. They needed advice on format, plotting, and what producers wanted. Above all, the script had to win the support of gatekeepers, the development staff known as readers or "story analysts." Dutifully plowing through spec scripts at piecework rates, the readers churned out "coverage"—a plot synopsis and an appraisal of each project's strengths and weaknesses. In effect, the screenplay manuals were guiding hopefuls to write scripts that would galvanize the frontline reader. Syd Field, Robert McKee, Christopher Vogler, and other script gurus all started their careers as story analysts.
All art forms have certain structural templates. Although screenplay conventions aren't as stringent as the rules governing the Petrarchan sonnet and the twelve-bar blues, the manuals' advice points to fairly firm standards of plot construction and characterization. A film's main characters, all agree, should pursue important goals and face forbidding obstacles. Conflict should be constant, across the whole film and within each scene. Actions should be bound into a tight chain of cause and effect. Major events should be foreshadowed ("planted"), but not so obviously that the viewer can predict them. Tension should rise in the course of the film until a climax resolves all the issues.
These principles have been reiterated in screenplay handbooks since the 1910s, but the new script gurus extended them in three major ways. First, they mandated that the plot be divided into large-scale parts, like the acts in a play. Extrapolating from Aristotle's suggestion that a story should have a beginning, middle, and end, both Constance Nash and Virginia Oakley's Screenwriter's Handbook (1978) and Syd Field's Screenplay (1979) propose a three-act structure. Act 1 introduces the problems faced by the hero, ending with a crisis and the promise of major conflict. Act 2 consists of an extended struggle between the protagonist and his or her problem, and it ends at a point of even more severe testing for the hero. Act 3 shows the protagonist solving the problem. Taking a two-hour film as the norm and assuming that one script page equals a minute of screen time, the authors recommend that act 1 run about thirty pages, act 2 about sixty pages, and act 3 another thirty pages. This ratio of 1:2:1 has become the standard, although some advisors object to strict page counts.
Later script gurus have tweaked this structure. Several characterize the triggering event of act 1 as the "inciting event." One recommends placing a firm point of change seventeen pages into the script; another suggests splitting act 1 in half. One proposes that act 1 display distinct stages: establishing the story universe, introducing the protagonist through a characteristic action, creating an auspicious occasion (such as a party or wedding), displaying the inciting event, and ending the act with the protagonist undertaking an "irrevocable act," a point of no return. Act 2 is to be plotted as a string of complications, crises, and reversals along a rising action. Some guidebooks note that the second act often pivots around a midpoint, the halfway mark in the script, "a moment when the protagonist tries something new, takes control of his or her own destiny in a way that has not been done before." Most agree that act 2 should culminate in what has come to be called the "dark moment" or "darkest moment." It could constitute a decision or a "deliberately static moment" in which the protagonist finds the means to defeat the antagonist. Act 3 should consist of a continuous climax, often a race against time (a "ticking clock"), capped by a resolution signaling a new harmony and balance. Different genres fill in this scheme with characteristic incidents. In romantic comedy, the inciting event is the "cute meet" between the couple-to-be, while the third act is the "joyous defeat" of the obstacles to their union.
Where did the three-act template come from? Nash and Oakley do not claim any source, while Field says he discovered it on his own. Although older manuals don't mention a three-act structure, in contemporary interviews veteran screenwriters occasionally invoke it. If it was once a trade secret, as Dan O'Bannon suggests, after 1980 it wasn't one any longer. It was blared out in books, courses, and one-off seminars. Software programs were written to make sure every beat was present and accounted for. A few exemplars—Casablanca (1942), Breaking Away (1979), Romancing the Stone (1984), Witness (1985), and the inescapable Chinatown—were dissected for their adroit setups, rising second acts, and well-placed turning points. Once the three-act template became public knowledge, development executives embraced it as a way to make script acquisition routine. The page-count formulas became yardsticks for story analysts and studio staff. Today most screenwriters acknowledge the three-act structure, and around the world it is taught as the optimal design for a mass-market movie.
A second set of innovations bears on characterization. The authors of studio-era manuals often worried about character consistency, urging writers to blend varying traits into a plausible personality. Today's manuals demand more: "Every major character should have a flaw." Vulnerable, driven by demons, drawn to the dark side—all these clichés of story pitches are invoked to give the protagonist a compelling fault. The crucial flaw may be a "ghost," something from the past that must be exorcised if the lead character is to act decisively. Ghosts provide inner conflicts that counterpoint the hero's struggle with the adversary. Screenplay manuals occasionally distinguish between what the character wants (the external goal) and what he or she needs (the underlying motivation, driven by flaws and ghosts). When hinted at in behavior, props, or dialogue, the fault forms part of the "subtext." "The subtext arises out of the interplay of the emotion-laden background story with the motion-laden foreground story." However assured on the outside, the hero lacks self-knowledge, and this is revealed via subtext.
Given a flaw, the character must conquer it. Hence the character arc. "In the most simplistic terms," says screenwriter Nicholas Kazan, "you want every character to learn something.... Hollywood is sustained on the illusion that human beings are capable of change." Through the plot's act structure, the internal and external conflicts must be reconciled. At the end of the second act, the darkest moment yields to enlightenment as the hero prepares to attain the external goal. Act 3 then shows the firmness of the character's change. She has merged her wants and her needs. Such signs of personal growth are said to gratify the audience. "When the characters are forced to deal with their inner conflicts in order to solve their outer problems, our relationship with them grows and strengthens."
Character development wasn't unknown in classical Hollywood, of course. Screenplay manuals occasionally recommended a change of heart. Harold Lloyd made a career out of playing youths torn by paralyzing anxieties, and the heroes of films noirs and many World War II pictures are troubled souls. By the 1960s, a movie was even more likely to highlight the protagonists' flaws. Consider as an example Kramer vs. Kramer (1979).Made in a period supposedly in the grip of blockbusters, this domestic drama became the year's top-grossing film and won five Academy Awards, including one for best screenplay.
The film opens with Joanna Kramer saying a morose good-bye to her sleeping son, Billy, while her husband, Ted, lingers at his ad agency. As Joanna packs to leave, Ted goes for drinks with his boss, who promises him a promotion if he keeps up the pace. When Ted finally comes home, he finds Joanna neurotically distraught. She declares that Billy is better off without her and leaves. After this inciting event, the rest of the first act establishes Ted's efforts to juggle his workaholic commitments with child care. His efforts to nurture Billy are perfunctory, and Billy becomes angry and distant. By the first turning point, thirty minutes into the film, father and son show no love for one another. Ted has given up trying to cook Billy's French toast, and they sit glumly at the breakfast table chewing doughnuts.
The problems intensify in act 2. Ted's job performance is slipping, and his boss threatens action. After a major quarrel with Ted, Billy feels that he's the cause of his parents' breakup. Ted starts to devote more time to his son. But just when their bonds tighten, we find that Joanna has quietly returned, spying on Billy as he enters school. Billy is hurt in a playground accident, and Ted races the boy in his arms to the emergency room. Later Joanna meets Ted and announces that thanks to a job and a therapist, she's healed: "I want my son." Ted replies, "You can't have him."
Ted now faces enormous obstacles. A mother is likely to win any custody battle, and Ted's chances dwindle further when he's fired. Now he must find a job fast. Casting off his professional ambitions, he interviews for a post below his qualifications and insists that the employer decide immediately. After waiting stubbornly during a staff Christmas party, he gets the job. But this triumph is offset by Joanna's demand to see Billy, and at a park she goes off with him, leaving Ted forlorn. Billy's joy at seeing his mommy again closes the act (at 70 minutes) and provides Ted's darkest moment. Alone, he realizes that the odds are overwhelmingly against him.
The last thirty minutes of the film, starting with the court proceedings, bristle with reversals. Direct examination by Joanna's lawyer brings out the "backstory" the audience hadn't known, building up sympathy for Joanna. She reiterates that her husband "wasn't there" for her and that she was Billy's mother for five and a half years, while Ted has been raising him for only eighteen months. The brutal cross-examination by Ted's lawyer drives Joanna to tears; in an exchange of glances, Ted conveys his compassion. Later, Ted testifies that he didn't understand Joanna's needs, but now he and Billy are a family. Just as Ted expressed concern for Joanna's treatment on the stand, she now realizes that he has sacrificed his all-important job for Billy. He withstands grilling about his low earnings, but he is thrown for a loss when Joanna's lawyer accuses him of neglect during Billy's playground accident. The attorney is exploiting Ted's guilt about the incident, which he had confided to Joanna. Deeply shaken, he watches her tilt her head in shame. Again, the exchange of looks carries the subtext (Figs. 1.1–1.2).
One other central character, Margaret, serves as a measure of Ted's arc. Before the plot started, she was Joanna's friend and advised her to leave Ted. Gradually she comes to recognize Ted's love for Billy, and at the trial Margaret serves as Ted's ally. Yet even her testimony doesn't sway the judge. Ted loses custody, and the last six minutes of the film show Billy's distraught reaction and Ted's preparation of a farewell breakfast. As they now make French toast expertly, father and son work side by side in silence—not the silence of the earlier, enervated breakfast but one that radiates affection. They have Billy's things packed, but when Joanna arrives she asks to talk to Ted alone. She tells him that she realizes that Billy has a home here and that she won't take him. Ted waits, kind and caring, while she goes in to tell Billy.
The three central adults in Kramer vs. Kramer are flawed, and as they change they develop greater self-knowledge. Robert Benton, screenwriter and director, orchestrates the arcs carefully. Ted's adversary, Joanna, is a loving mother but fragile and lacking in confidence. The divorcée, Margaret, could have been made a snide feminist, but she forms a growing friendship with Ted. She supplies a dramatic counterpoint as well when she talks about the possibility of reuniting with her husband. Joanna's climactic change of heart is carefully prepared: she understands that she is still emotionally shaky, and she is genuinely moved by Ted's commitment to their son. Ted has won the external fight, thanks to a change in what the 1980s would have called his priorities: even if he earns less money in a more modest job, he has come to love Billy more fully. In scriptwriter's terms, he has adjusted his wants to his needs. The film's title neatly encapsulates both conflicts—not only Mr. Kramer vs. Mrs. Kramer, but also the struggle within Ted between professional ambition and fatherly duty.
Why did Hollywood screenwriters dwell on flawed characters? Probably Broadway dramas by William Inge, Paddy Chayefsky, and Tennessee Williams, along with middlebrow fiction and European art movies, led Hollywood along this path. Guidance was also supplied by two European theorists of drama. Lajos Egri's The Art of Dramatic Writing (1946) became a bible for many screenwriters during the 1950s and is still praised as indispensable. Egri demands that characters grow in the course of a play, and he shows how to build a plot around the process. How, he asks, can a devoted, conventional wife like Nora in A Doll's House become an independent woman ready to abandon her husband and children? The change is plausible only in gradual stages, so Ibsen takes Nora through phases of irresponsibility, anxiety, fear, and desperation, before she recognizes that her marriage is based on deceit. Egri's recipe of modulated psychological growth helps the writer plan conflicts that will challenge the character to develop step by step, just as Ted Kramer changes from workaholic professional to sensitive father.
Excerpted from The Way Hollywood Tells It by David Bordwell. Copyright © 2006 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Posted December 7, 2013
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