The Sticking Place

Dramatic Construction

One of the dilemmas is that many students feel that there is some
secret set of rules to follow, and if you follow them you get it right,
and they get angry with you because you won’t give them the rules.
Well, there are no rules. There never were and there never will be,
because each circumstance is different and each director works
entirely differently.

Alexander Mackendrick

 The thousand techniques are inferior to the one Principle.

David Mamet
(quoting a jiu-jitsu master)

Theorists have been attempting to explain the principles of dramatic construction (and, as such, have been making sweeping generalisations) for many hundreds of years. They have also been applying their ideas to cinema for about as long as the business of filmmaking has been in existence. There is good reason for this emphasis on storytelling. As master director Akira Kurosawa explained in his autobiography, “With a good script a good director can produce a masterpiece; with the same script a mediocre director can make a passable film. But with a bad script even a good director can’t possibly make a good film.”

Several books on the subject of classical dramatic construction were of particular interest to Mackendrick, texts he urged his students (in the film school of the California Institute of the Arts) to read. Representing not just the antedecdents to Mackendrick’s own ideas, as articulated in his book On Film-Making: An Introduction to the Craft of the Director, they are vital to our understanding of how cinematic stories are told. In chronological order:

Aristotle’s Poetics (c. 335 BC)

William Archer’s Play-Making: A Manual of Craftmanship (1912)

Lajos Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing (1946)

John Howard Lawson’s Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting (1949)

Aristotle (384 BC – 322 BC) was a Greek philosopher, author of texts on a startling range of subjects. John Howard Lawson writes: “Aristotle, the encyclopedist of the ancient world, has exercised a vast influence on human thought. But in no field of thought has his domination been so complete and so unchallenged as in dramatic theory. What remains to us of Poetics is only a fragment; but even in its fragmentary form Aristotle’s statement of the laws of play-writing is remarkable for its precision and breadth.”

William Archer (1856 – 1924) was a Scottish critic, playwright and theorist. A friend of Irish writer
George Bernard Shaw, he was one of the first translators of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen into English (see Project Gutenberg for these texts). Here for more about Archer, who explains at the start of Play-Making: “Having admitted that there are no rules for dramatic composition, and that the quest of such rules is apt to result either in pedantry or quackery, why should I myself set forth upon so fruitless and foolhardy an enterprise? It is precisely because I am alive to its dangers that I have some hope of avoiding them. Rules there are none; but it does not follow that some of the thousands who are fascinated by the art of the playwright may not profit by having their attention called, in a plain and practical way, to some of its problems and possibilities.” It’s in Play-Making where Archer cites French drama critic Francisque Sarcey’s definition of drama (one which Mackendrick said was the most useful he ever encountered): “expectation mingled with uncertainty.”

watering the gardener

Lajos Egri (c.1888 – 1967) was a Hungarian-born theorist who taught creative writing for many years in New York and Los Angeles (his letterhead reads: “The Egri Method of Dramatic Writing”) and also wrote a number of full-length plays himself (he was also a prolific poet and short story writer). Egri’s book The Art of Dramatic Writing (originally released as How to Write a Play), translated into several languages and described by the Washington Post as a “masterpiece,” has been in print ever since it was first published. In related publicity material, we find this: “Starting his life as a playwright at the age of 10 in Eger, Hungary, Egri migrated to America with his wife, Ilona, whom he married at age 17! In America Egri became a journalist; wrote and produced plays. In his meeting with writers, both the young and immature, and those who had ‘arrived’ professionally, Egri was struck by the fact that the effective ‘bones’ of dramatic writing continued a mystery for many of them. Those who were not succeeding didn’t understand why. Those who were succeeding didn’t understand why, thus, often, could not repeat their performance!” In a letter written to Egri a few weeks before his death, Ray Bradbury wrote, “There isn’t a week that passes that your name doesn’t cross my lips, when people ask me which books to read to help them in their writing career.”

John Howard Lawson (1894 – 1977) was an American playwright, screenwriter and theorist. Avowedly left-wing (he was head of the Hollywood chapter of the Communist Party USA and testified before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1947), Lawson was an early president of the Writers Guild of America (an interview on the subject here) and years later was one of the blacklisted Hollywood Ten. Author of numerous Broadway plays and Hollywood screenplays, his publications include Film in the Battle of Ideas (1953) and Film: The Creative Process (1964). More on Lawson’s life and work here and here. Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting (in which Lawson cites Aristotle and Archer) is especially useful for students of dramatic construction, describing what Lawson calls “The Cycle of Conflict” and the differences between “activity” and “action” (or, to put another way, between a “situation” and a “story”).

Having been published decades ago, all four of these texts are, to a certain extent, somewhat antiquated, using occasional examples of plays and films (and authors and filmmakers) that contemporary readers are likely unfamiliar with. But they are nonetheless expertly written pieces of prose, full of perennially important ideas that can be endlessly mined for useful guidance when it comes to narrative screenwriting.

Before jumping into all this reading, take a look at this two-hour extract – specifically about story – from the audio/visual project Mackendrick on Film, which was produced to accompany On Film-Making.
For a complete set of clips, go here.


Mackendrick knew that however much he implored them to do so, most of his students would never read these books, which is why he prepared summaries of two of the four.

A version of Mackendrick’s Aristotle handout, which contains a wealth of extracts from Poetics, is here. Two translations of the complete Poetics are available online. Here and here for Butcher. Here for Bywater. Here is a modern translation by Hammond.

Mackendrick’s handout on William Archer, which contains a handful of valuable extracts from Play-Making, is here (a shorter version appears in his book On Film-Making). Archer is particularly good on explaining the key notion of “point of attack” (see here). His book can be found in its entirety here and here.

Extracts (as compiled by Paul Cronin) from Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing - which is a bit long-winded, and many pages of which are taken up with details of specific examples of existing works of drama that you might not know about or be terribly interested in, and has lengthy sections written in a Q & A format (if you like that kind of thing) – are here.

Extracts (as compiled by Paul Cronin) from John Howard Lawson’s Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting are here and here. The entire text of the book is here. Lawson’s other books Film: The Creative Process and Film in the Battle of Ideas are available here and here. Theory and Technique of Playwriting, Lawson’s 1960 book, is here. All texts by John Howard Lawson appear here courtesy of Jeffrey Lawson and Susan Amanda Lawson.

Here for an extract from Mackendrick’s On Film-Making relating to dramatic construction. Here for a glossary of dramatic jargon, as drawn from Mackendrick’s writings. Here for a selection of step outlines, some written by Mackendrick. Here for Mackendrick’s Slogans for the Screenwriter’s Wall, which serve as something of a summary everything contained on this page and more. Here for some of Mackendrick’s exercises for students of dramatic construction.

If you would rather engage with the basics of dramatic construction from a more contemporary perspective, one can do no better than study the work of David Mamet, the prolific American screenwriter/playwright/director, whose many books and essays (including the penetrating
On Directing Film and Three Uses of the Knife) are useful indeed. Here for a selection
(as compiled by Paul Cronin) of Mamet’s thoughts on the subject (and also his pertinent ideas about filmmaking, not least his articulate description of Eisenstein’s theory of montage). Here for Mamet’s Paris Review interview from 1997, which contains insight upon insight. Another good interview here.

Include into the mix the work of perhaps the best-known screenwriting teacher working today: Robert McKee. No great writer himself, McKee knows enough to borrow from the best, and his book Story is full of good ideas taken from Aristotle and Lawson (both are cited in the bibliography). (N.B.: stay away from his second book Dialogue.) Here for some McKee-isms. Here for an article that contains useful background information about McKee, and here for an (unfortunately) convincing critique of his way of doing things.

Someone cited by McKee in his book is Kenneth Thorpe Rowe, a professor at the University of Michigan (where he taught Arthur Miller), whose A Theater in Your Head contains useful ideas. Here for a handful of pages from that book.

This (adapted from a 2014 book) is solid stuff. See John Yorke giving a lecture here. He isn’t wildly inspiring, but his ideas are useful ones, especially for beginners, including his “Ten Questions” to get any screenwriter out of trouble: (1) Whose story is it? (2) What’s their flaw? (3) What is the inciting incident? (4) What do they want? (5) What obstacles are in their way? (6) What’s at stake? (7) Why should we care? (8) What do they learn? (9) How and why? (10) How does it end?

Those with more of a theoretical inclination who are seeking to learn more about story structure and filmmaking should take a look at the work of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson, specifically their books Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique (1999), Storytelling in Film and Television (2003) and The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies (2006). At times somewhat arcane, the Bordwell/Thompson texts are nonetheless worth close study, for much practical information can be extracted from them. Bordwell and Thompson also maintain a voluminous website. Dig into pages like this one, or here, then move methodically through the links, and it may be some time before you reappear from cyberspace.

There is, inevitably, a continuity of thought running through these texts and, indeed, all competent articulations of the most fundamental principles of dramatic construction, and it’s worth noting that to a great extent, Aristotle, Archer, Egri, Lawson, Mackendrick, Mamet, McKee, Rowe, Yorke and Bordwell/Thompson all say the same things. One might even go so far as to paraphrase Alfred North Whitehead: all writings about dramatic construction are a series of footnotes to Aristotle. You could select any three of these names, ignore the others, and probably not miss anything radically important. In his 1948 book The Human Nature of Playwriting, Samson Raphaelson recommends that students “go to the library and find a book or two on dramatic technique. I don’t think it matters too much which book. Each book has its friends and its enemies among teachers, and I propose that you explore for yourselves.” It’s a good way of thinking about this subject, because there are texts about dramatic construction that I either don’t know about or don’t particularly appreciate, but that work for you, and however imperfectly I might think those books represent the key principles, it’s probable that they do cover the basics and will serve as a good starting point for you. There’s no point in me pushing John Howard Lawson on you if it’s nothing but meaningless jumble. Pick up a different book instead. Or take a completely different approach, and by do doing, learn it all your own way. Frances Taylor Patterson, author of one of the earliest studies of screenwriting practice – Cinema Craftsmanship (1921) – put it well in her 1928 book Scenario and Screen: “An actor tells the story that a friend of his, knowing that he was ambitious to write a play, sent him a copy of William Archer’s Playmaking. When he began to delve into the principles of stagecraft laid down by Archer, he realized that he had learned most of the theories from knocking around the theater over a period of years, playing all sorts of parts and learning all sorts of things by bitter experience. He and Mr. Archer arrived at the same conclusions, but by different routes.” Of course, much of what you might come to absorb from books and practical experience is likely to be wholly commonsensical, things you knew instinctively, without even thinking about them.

Consider also that in 2012 a list of twenty-two “story basic” (detailed commentary here) were compiled by a former employee of Pixar Studios, many of which bear a striking resemblance to Mackendrick’s teachings. Note that several key creatives at Pixar (John Lasseter, Brad Bird, Andrew Stanton – see his TED talk here, in which he mentions William Archer and “expectation mingled with uncertainty” - Pete Docter, Mark Andrews, et. al.) were students in the film school of the California Institute of the Arts when Mackendrick was there (he ran the place between 1969 and 1978, and continued teaching until his death in 1993). It’s unclear whether any of these individuals actually took any classes with Mackendrick, but it seems entirely likely that at one time or another they were exposed to his ideas via some of his many handouts written for and distributed to students. (While we’re talking about Pixar, this, from Michael Arndt, writer of Toy Story 3, is worth a read.) One student most definitely influenced by Mackendrick is Mark Kirkland, who has directed more episodes of The Simpsons than anyone else. “My understanding of character, plot, theme, staging and film grammar all come from Mackendrick,” he says. “I use his ideas every day at work.”

US-cover

All that said, the ideas on this page are merely guideposts, presented to help you see the bigger picture, to provide you with a toolbox into which you can reach when you run into trouble while writing, to assist you in identifying, diagnosing and, ultimately, remedying problems with your work. As Mackendrick explained, his teachings and student handouts “mean nothing when they are first explained. They mean something when they can be related to an immediate and specific problem in what the student is currently working on.” So what you have here on this page isn’t the be-all and end-all of anything when it comes to the theory behind cinematic storytelling, nor even the classical narrative tradition (which has always only ever been just one way of doing things). It’s merely a collection of ideas worth thinking about, absorbing and understanding, then probably moving beyond. The fact is that after reading everything above, doubtless you will be able to think of a multitude of excellent films that appear to correspond in absolutely no way to some of the most basic concepts of dramatic construction, and yet keep audiences thoroughly entertained. As it should be. After all, the trick as a storyteller is to absorb the principles and, by doing so, find your own unique techniques, your own way of doing things. The learning curve kicks in when you start exploring how each film you watch works within the “rules,” how some subvert them creatively, how some apply them with either rigidity or subtlety, how some fail at every turn.

In The Art of Photoplay Making, published in 1918, Columbia University screenwriting instructor Victor Oscar Freeburg explains that the writer must construct their story “as deliberately as if he were the architect of a house. An architect has to recognize and obey certain unchanging laws of gravitation, equilibrium, tension, and stress. He has no choice in the matter. He cannot alter, ignore, or repeal these laws. In the same way the author must recognize and obey the laws of the human mind, laws which have not changed since the world began. People become interested, pay attention, get excited and calm down, remember and forget in exactly the same way today as when the first savage told a story or scratched the rude picture of a beast on the wall of a cave.” It’s understandable why so many people appear to be resistant to things like “rules” when it comes to creative writing, but I nonetheless find it hard to disagree with Mr. Freeburg on this point.

A useful take on this (useful because it doesn’t come from a practitioner or theorist of cinema) can be found in the work of cartoonist Scott McCloud, in his wonderful book Making Comics, which presents its important ideas entirely in comic form, and on one of the first pages of which we read: “I won’t tell you the ‘right’ way to write or draw because there’s NO SUCH THING. Any style, any approach, any tool, can work in comics if it’s right for YOU. But, your choices NARROW when you want your comics to provide a specific REACTION in readers. That’s when certain methods might do the job for you – and others WON’T. There are NO LIMITS to what you can full that BLANK PAGE with – once you understand the PRINCIPLES that all comics storytelling is BUILT upon. In short: THERE ARE NO RULES. And HERE THEY ARE.” (Several of McCloud’s key ideas precisely mirror Mackendrick’s. Of the audience: “We want them to UNDERSTAND what we have to tell them…” is a version of Mackendrick’s constant emphasis on clarity of storytelling. McCloud’s “…and we want them to CARE enough to stick around ’til we’re DONE” is, of course, a version of the question the narrative filmmaker is hoping that the audience is constantly – if unconsciously – asking itself: “What Happens Next?” Of the basic facts of each and every scene, of the information flow offered to the reader, McCloud writes of “Who does what, where it’s done, how it’s done and so forth,” which is similar to Mackendrick’s limerick ending with “who should do what with which and to whom.”)

As is by now hopefully clear, taken together the ideas presented here on this webpage can be nothing but a starting point for students of dramatic construction. For no one should they become the final word. As Mackendrick writes at the start of On Film-Making, the handouts he created for students represent only “my own method of filmmaking, the one that suits me. If I bully you into trying things my way, it is not because mine is the only way, or even the best way. Certainly it will probably, in the end, not be your way. But I suggest you make a real effort to follow my formulas as a temporary exercise. Not to ‘express yourself.’ Not yet. You can do that as much as you like, later. So put aside your hunger for instant gratification and creativity, at least for long enough to understand some basic ideas and practical pieces of advice that you are perfectly entitled to discard later.”

“Dramatic Construction” was the name of one of two classes Mackendrick taught for several years at CalArts (and also of one of the two sections of On Film-Making). The other was “Film Grammar,” the basic tenets of which can be gleaned from two of the most important books ever published on the art and craft of filmmaking: Film Technique by Vsevolod Pudovkin (extract here) and Film as Art by Rudolf Arnheim, both of which were strong influences on Mackendrick and his conceptual understanding of cinema when it came to his thinking as a teacher. The books are available here and here. Why is a consideration of film grammar so important to the student of dramatic construction? Because form can never be entirely separated from content. Writing for the cinema requires an understanding of how it functions as a storytelling medium at the most fundamental level, which is through images, not words. Here for Mackendrick and others discussing film grammar.

Creating a character relationship map for your story – and by so doing making clear the interconnections between your fictional creations – may help you understand what tensions potentially exist between them (i.e. what is driving the story forward) and in which direction the narrative might usefully move.

The condensed version of all this comes from John le Carré, who offers up a good starting point when it comes to determining what is a SITUATION and what is a STORY: “‘The cat sat on the mat’ is not a story. ‘The cat sat on the dog’s mat’ is a story.”

“Write from experience” is the worst piece of advice ever offered in a screenwriting class. For God’s sake, use your imagination instead. On that note, probably better to stay out of school altogether. Explains David Mamet: “Education is the worst thing to happen since kale.”

One more gem from Ms. Patterson, on the pitfalls of screenwriting, also from her book Scenario and Screen, a chapter entitled “The Scenario Editor,” in which she notes that such people “have to harden their hearts to the pathos of futile effort and the appalling waste of human endeavor which day after day their mail reveals. A constant tide of manuscripts, penned by all sorts and conditions of people, must be stemmed by rejection slips and turned back to its source… Most of the people who besiege scenario offices have an unshakable belief that they can write, a presumption which is rarely substantiated by any particular performance. Usually the more the would-be writer talks of his ability, the less evidence of it can he produce. The urge to write photoplays seems to be entirely independent of either talent or equipment. People lacking both present themselves at the offices of the scenario editor with a chronicle of banalities culled from a too accurate observation of all the cheap situations that have been in the producer’s bag of tricks for the last ten years. Rarely do they exhibit a gleam of originality. Indeed, their minds are no so much occupied with the fashioning of a good story as with their fair rewards.” Nearly a century later,
plus ça change…

Finally, don’t for a moment worry about whether or not your script is correctly formatted (i.e. based on what you believe to be industry standards). Wrote Leslie Peacocke in his book Hints on Photoplay Writing, published in 1916: “Don’t make the mistake of thinking the market success of your submitted scenario rests upon technical instructions about how to build the scenes in front of the camera. Studio department heads are paid to take care of that. What they want from you is an idea.” Nothing has changed in a hundred years. Know that at this stage of the game, writing a shooting script is not your job. Creating a story is all that matters. And note too this advice from Capt. Peacocke: “Do not attempt to be ‘literary.’ Stick to simple language – the simpler, the better – as the reader is anxious to get at the heart of the story and cares nothing about literary style.”

An antidote to all this mishegas is here.

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