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

One principle is worth a thousand techniques.

David Mamet
(quoting his jiu-jitsu teacher)

Theorists have been attempting to explain the principles of dramatic construction for as long as dramatists have been producing plays, and 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 writes 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.”

Lajos Egri (1888 – 1967) was a Hungarian-born playwright and theorist who arrived in the United States in 1906 and taught creative writing in Los Angeles in the years before his death. His book The Art of Dramatic Writing (originally released as How to Write a Play) has been in print ever since it was first published. Readable and refreshingly undogmatic, it was described by the Washington Post as a “masterpiece.” Egri writes in his preface: “This book, using a dialectical approach, is itself subject to the laws of dialectics. The theory advanced here is a thesis. Its contradiction will be the antithesis. From the two will be formed a synthesis, uniting both the thesis and antithesis. This is the road to truth.”

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 “action” and “activity.”

All four of these texts are, to a certain extent, somewhat antiquated, occasionally using examples of plays and films (even authors and filmmakers) that contemporary readers will be 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 from Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing are here.

Extracts 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 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.

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 popular book Story is full of ideas taken from Aristotle and Lawson (both are cited in the bibliography). Here for some McKee-isms. Here for an article about him. Someone else cited by McKee in his book is Kenneth Thorpe Rowe, whose A Theater in Your Head contains useful ideas. Here for a handful of pages from that book.

Those with 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). They also run a voluminous website: davidbordwell.net. Occasionally arcane, the Bordwell/Thompson texts are nonetheless worth close study, for much practical information can be extracted from them.

It’s worth noting that to a very great extent, Aristotle, Archer, Egri, Lawson, Mackendrick, Mamet, McKee and Bordwell/Thompson all say the same things. There is, inevitably, a continuity of thought running through these texts and, indeed, all competent articulations of the most fundamental principles of dramatic construction. You could probably select any three of these names, ignore the others, and not miss anything radically important. One might even go so far as to paraphrase Alfred North Whitehead: all writings about dramatic construction are a series of footnotes to Aristotle. 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 - 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. 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.”

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.

For that reason, taken together the ideas presented here are, and will probably always remain, a sturdy starting point for students of dramatic construction. But they could never be 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.”

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“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, at least when it came to his thinking as a teacher. The books are available here and here. For those seeking a more modern take on the grammar of cinema, read Mamet’s On Directing Film. 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.

An antidote to all this mishegas is here.

watering the gardener