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.

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