Monday, 17 December 2018

Review: Dan O'Bannon's Guide to Screenplay Structure

One of the oldest criticisms of screenwriting books is that they are not written by working practitoners (the old chesnut of 'those who cannot do, teach'), thus utterly deligitmsing them. Naturally, I think this stance is more than a little hyperbolic and irrational, but if you have that view on the subject, this one's for you.
Dan O'Bannon is the late, great mind behind Alien, Total Recall and Return of the Living Dead. With the aid of friend and collaborator Matt R. Lohr, he delivers a screenwriting book that places emphasis on conflict, as well as creating an exciting three act method called 'Dynamic Structure', derived in part from his background in science. Across linked chapters he breaks down his method, its influences from science like hedonic adaptation, how it applies to several famous films like Psycho and Dumb & Dumber and how you can implement it in your work.

O'Bannon's book is solid enough for your standard discussions on structure, but where it really excels is as a workbook: whereas a lot of tomes will state a bunch of arbitrary rules, O'Bannon regularly encourages you to engage in analysis and ask questions. Whether more literally in the exercises that close each chapter, or more in discussion of what makes effective drama and the place of 'rules' within that. O'Bannon is by no means an adherent: he believes in the uniqueness of your voice and says rules can be bent if they don't aid you. 

His D.S. is less about hitting specific page numbers and more how to consistently excite and wrongfoot an audience. However, he recognises there are fundamentals that stories must adhere to in order to function; chief is conflict, whereby O'Bannon puts focus on giving 'both sides' motivation. Instead of just 'a hero comes up against obstacles', he asks you to also think about the story from the antagonist/obstacle's POV. This, therefore, increases the tension and heightens the stakes as your characters, good or bad, have real, well defined motives that clash and produce richer drama.

As a bonus, he even examines and contasts his D.S. with other paradigms and works, such as McKee, Field and Aristotle. This ends up not being as much of an ego-stroke as one would assume: he acknowledges their historical significance as well as concedes their good points. However, he's not afraid to take them to task: whether it be the arcane thoughts of Aristotle, the strange wording of Lajos Ergi in defining dramatic concepts, or the archness of Field's famous paradigmn. He's not even afraid to acknowledge the limits of his own structure, when he analyzes Lawrence of Arabia. If you want a nice digest of the history of storytelling and dramatic theory, O'Bannon's got you covered.

Granted, the heavy emphasis on structural analysis and conflict does leave the book feeling a little skewed: pacing, characterization, dialogue and theme are all secondary and merely glanced at. O'Bannon doesn't necesserily regard them as inferior, but his emphasis is on effective structure and conflict. These other elements he primarily views as arising from these (character is action and whatnot), rather than dwelling on them as seperate elements. Also, O'Bannon concedes he can offer little meaningful business advice, so those looking for a more well rounded package should look elsewhere. 

However, what it sets out to do it does so with style and relish, making for an engrossing read. If you love genre movies and fiction, O'Bannon's work or haven't cracked the structure code yet, this book is ideal for you.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Patience: The Hardest Skill a Writer must learn

More than agents, producers, deadlines or writer's block, THIS is the one, the almighty thorn-in-side. No matter if you're a screenwriter, playwright, novelist, comics writer or wordsmith of any field, one thing unites us: we all hate silence. The long, seemingly eternal gap; the uncaring pause that awaits us every time we send something out into the world with the faintest of faint hopes it'll click.

Yep, that sums the feeling up...

A crushing malaise can often set in, regardless if the reason why it's being sent off is positive or even lucrative: sending a thoroughly polished manuscript or script to an interested party creates a rush of endorphins and joy, followed by a strange cycle of worry, self-doubt and even slight anger at not 'being taken seriously enough' for a faster response. This can occur, even in submissions that aren't life or death: even just sending something for a friend or trusted second pair of eyes can feel like a slog.

So, what can you do about it, to try and mitigate this crushing despair?
  • TURNAROUND: Most places will take anywhere from 90 days to three months to read something. Usually, details are provided on the company's website, but if you're submitting to an individual, try and ask (politely and without making it all about you) how long they normally take. That way, you just write it up on calendar and not think about it. Then and only then is when you-
  • FOLLOW UP: I cannot stress this enough, but DO NOT spam check up emails every week. Not only will this annoy your reader, it's also bad for said anxiety. If you can't or don't get an answer to the above question, month and a half is a good check in time.
  • SIZE: The bigger the company, the longer it'll take. Even efficient systems can, unfortunately, still not get through everything. Not even close to 50% on good days.
How else can you take your mind off the submission?

  • WRITE: Don't be that idiot waiting and waiting and choosing to freeze themselves in amber until a person says the magic word. The fastest way to stop worrying about one project is to work on another. Plus, it keeps you off the dark path of the 'magic ticket' that I've railled against before.
  • READ: May sound a little obvious and cheap, but just getting into other stories and subject matter can also help keep your mind off. Non-fiction can prove especially handy, as you can use this waiting time to either do research or simply find new inspiration for a project.
  • LIFE: Friends, family, pets, whatever your current job is. All of these are a quick and easy way to let the worry slide off your brain and into the recesses. Don't live the stereotype of the isolated maverick who solely devotes themselves to art. Go out, get some air, maybe even a nice hamburger!
And when all that's said and done, remember this most of all:
  • THERE IS NO 'BIG BREAK': A worthwhile career in any field is the summation of loads of small steps, not one big gamble. You will get lots of nos and contradictory responses on the same script, and it can be maddening. I had a kids pilot get three yes's and three no's, and it was actually the bigger names that took more of a shine. Remember the deadly perils of the 'magic ticket' I mentioned above? The sooner you take the advice to just write, enjoy it and build a varied portfolio, the faster you will not only produce better work, but also the less you will worry about 'do they like it? Do they like it?'