Ten things you need to know about screenwriting
Expert screenwriting advice for beginners and pros from John Yorke of the BBC Studios Writers' Academy
The first rule of screenwriting is there aren’t ten rules of screenwriting. But…
Try typing the name of any newspaper alongside the number 'ten' into Google and a tsunami of lists descends upon you: the 'rules of…' , 'places where…' , 'bests of…', worsts and favourites only starts to peter out around page 25 of the search engine’s results. Arbitrary constructs built to tame a wild and uncontrollable reality, lists are, in essence, absurd and it’s easy to be lofty and dismissive, but the urge to confer shape, to order to stabilise is engrained in all of us – and it’s from this that dramatic – indeed all narrative – structure is born. As Nick Hornby discovered in High Fidelity – and every magazine editor knows – lists are profoundly attractive and addictive. In that spirit, here are ten things that all screenwriters probably should know.
1) The architecture of all stories is fundamentally the same
Take just one story - a dangerous monster threatens a community and one person takes it on themself to kill the beast and restore happiness to the kingdom. It’s the story of Jaws, released in 1976. But it’s also the story of Beowulf, the Anglo-Saxon epic poem published some time between the eighth and eleventh centuries. And it’s more familiar than that: it’s The Thing, it’s Jurassic Park, it’s Godzilla, it’s The Blob – all films with real tangible monsters. If you recast the monsters in human form, it’s also every James Bond film, every episode of House or CSI. You can see the same shape in The Exorcist, The Shining, Fatal Attraction, Scream, Psycho and Saw. The monster may change from a literal one in Nightmare on Elm Street to a corporation in Erin Brockovich, but the underlying architecture – in which a foe is vanquished and order restored to a community – stays the same. The monster can be fire in The Towering Inferno, an upturned boat in The Poseidon Adventure, or a boy’s mother in Ordinary People. Though superficially dissimilar, the skeletons of each are identical.
2) Without empathy your work won't work
A whole generation remembers how they flinched when they witnessed the fisherman’s decapitated head fall out of the boat in Jaws. Professor Christian Keysers of the Netherlands Institute for Neuroscience has conducted extensive research into the way we watch – and react to – stories, and his analysis suggests that when empathy works we really do become one, physiologically, with the protagonist. Think of how your body reacts when you watch the laser beam creep closer to Bond’s groin in Goldfinger. As his heart accelerates ours beats faster too. Watching someone being hit activates exactly the same areas of the brain as being hit – the physiological reactions, though fortunately not the pain, are identical. Stories thus literally place us all on the same wavelength. We live what our protagonists live. If that connection doesn’t take place – if at some level the protagonist isn’t us – then any narrative simply won’t work.
3) The study of screenwriting is older than screenwriting itself
The fundamentals rules that govern screenwriting are the fundamentals of narrative, and there’s a whole history of structural analysis preceding the advent of film. What screenwriters now call Inciting Incidents (the explosion in a character's life that kick starts a story) were articulated as long ago as 1808 by A.W. Schlegel. The rise of film was inevitably accompanied by a rise in screenwriting gurus pedalling 'how to' manuals – and Epes Winthrop Sargent has some claim to being the first. His The Technique of the Photoplay, written during the gold-rush period of the silent movie industry in 1912, is not only hugely entertaining, it has the virtue of being refreshingly honest. There’s no quasi-mystical mumbo-jumbo, he makes it very clear that film is a business, and it’s all about selling product. Under the title of Chapter XVI – THE DRAMATIC STORY, he outlines in the sub menu header his agenda:
Easier than comedy to most persons – crime and violence not in themselves dramatic – death not always dramatic – heart interest makes the strongest appeal
Much wisdom can be found in Sargent’s book, but it’s here that the drive to understand structure has become no longer an intellectual pursuit, but a profit-driven enterprise. For better or worse it’s where narrative study enters the self-help 'ten easy steps to…' arena.
4) Reality television is drama
All reality television – from The X Factor to Undercover Boss – has an essentially dramatic structure built around a three-act core. Here’s the mission – here’s the pursuit of the goal – here are the crisis, climax and resolution. Indeed, it’s when reality television fails to follow the rules of drama that it withers. Simon Cowell’s British show Red or Black? died by featuring almost entirely passive protagonists (a cardinal dramatic rule) – and Wife Swap tells an instructive tale too.
Audiences initially tuned in to enjoy the brutality of the conflict (it’s hard not to be prurient occasionally), but the programme was at its most effective and rewarding when the protagonists changed – when the repressed and emotionally crippled father learned to play with his children. Perhaps because it’s harder to manufacture real change from reality, but perhaps, too, because the programme-makers prioritized argument and sensation over growth and maturity, viewers eventually tired of the carnage and the show was cancelled (it is harder still to sustain prurience for long). When the show worked, it embodied archetypal change; it became uncomfortable to watch when the protagonists strayed and refused to learn anything at all. Drama demands transformation and reality follows in its wake.
5) Perfect structure doesn't give you perfect drama
Notting Hill is a perfectly structured film, The White Ribbon isn’t, but which is the superior work? Your answer will tell you much about the kind of person you are and where you stand on the axis between creativity and commerce. That tension, between tradition and its subversion, radiates across all forms of art. Alex Ross’s monumental history of twentieth-century music, The Rest is Noise, gleefully illustrates the fundamentalism that overtook classical music after the Second World War – a world where any hint of tonality was labeled fascist and John Cage could announce that ‘Beethoven was wrong’. In every artistic medium there is always an iconoclast who will insist, like the composer Pierre Boulez, ‘it is not enough to deface the Mona Lisa because that does not kill the Mona Lisa. All the art of the past must be destroyed.’ It’s as true of drama as of art or music, and out of that urge, great work can be made. Structure creates expectation, answer will follow question just as dominant will resolve to tonic, but of course you don’t have to resolve. The White Ribbon doesn’t answer the questions it poses purposefully; its argument is that those questions are unresolvable. Michael Haneke’s film shows just how the bastardized version of the archetypal story can give us great art; but that doesn’t invalidate the archetype. Marcel Duchamp famously drew a moustache on the Mona Lisa, but as he well knew, his work could not exist without the painting itself.
6) What happens next?
Jack Reacher’s creator Lee Child sounded almost apologetic when he described what gave his work such narrative momentum: ‘You ask or imply a question at the beginning of your book and you absolutely self-consciously withhold the answer. It might feel cheap and meretricious but it absolutely works’. Child echoes no less an authority than E.M. Forster: ‘Story’, he said, ‘has only one merit, that of making the audience want to know what happens next. And conversely it can only have one fault; that of not making the audience want to know what happens next.’ All narrative, be it in print, celluloid or the ether, works in exactly the same way – by engaging our curiously and withholding its satisfaction. The legendary journalist Alistair Cooke said the secret of broadcasting was simple; '(It’s) the control of suspense. No matter what you’re talking about. Gardening, economics, murder – you’re telling a story. Every sentence should lead to the next sentence. If you say a dull sentence people have the right to turn off.’ If narrative doesn’t force you to ask 'what happens next' it isn’t working.
7) It's all about opposition
The British writer Jimmy McGovern was an angry young schoolteacher when he started working on Brookside thirty years ago; he was also the most exciting new writer on British television. He wrote about working-class life with a rawness and intensity that stopped you mid-step – no one, you felt, had ever written with such anger, such humour; no one had trumpeted quite so eloquently the socialist ideals they believed in. The Channel 4 soap was a bastion of old socialist values, largely conveyed through the figures of Bobby Grant, a shop steward, and his supportive wife Sheila. It was ground-breaking in terms of its passion and the locality of its voice, indeed it redefined the soap genre – but it was also one-dimensional. No one disagreed with Bobby. It teetered on propaganda. And then something extraordinary happened. McGovern became a truly great writer when he not only helped introduced the Corkhills, a family of strike-breakers with an errant policeman son, but, far more significantly, gave them ‘equal rights’. He loved them as much as his left-wing heroes, and insisted that we love them just the same. Almost overnight it transformed Brookside from a very good soap to the best drama on TV. So what happened? Essentially McGovern got bored with preaching to the choir. ‘Making a paedophile sympathetic’, he discovered, ‘is a fantastic challenge for a writer.’
Epes Winthrop Sargent spoke in his book of the futility of one-sided 'purpose plays'. McGovern taught himself the same lesson, with extraordinary consequences for British drama.
8) Cause and effect is at the root of everything
All narrative is effectively a chain of cause and effect – this happened because of this. Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow and Nicholas Nassim Taleb in The Black Swan write at some length about our tendency to fall into what Taleb calls ‘the narrative fallacy’. We impose sequential reasoning on all phenomena. This report appeared on a local news item some years ago:
Police are today investigating a house fire.
A woman and three children are being kept in hospital.
It’s understood she was involved in a custody battle.
‘What happened?’ we immediately want to ask, and we find our answer by linking the three statements together in the most simplistic manner possible. Most will conclude the husband was behind the fire but of course, there’s nothing in those sentences to suggest that at all. From Agatha Christie to The Sixth Sense, our need to impose causal logic creates a wonderful playground for writers to have fun.
9) You can break the rules, but do you want to?
The sheer volume of stories that end in sexual union and/or its symbolic manifestation in marriage suggest that at one level stories provide a template for healthy procreation. From the earliest folk tales to the rom-coms of today the same message proliferates – only on achieving balance and harmony as an individual will one be rewarded with sexual congress. From E. T. to When Harry Met Sally, the same story skeleton in which boys learn to become men is readily apparent. Nor is it confined to men. From The Taming of the Shrew to Jane Eyre the same process is visible: girls slough off their juvenile flaws and grow into fully realized women. The essential male version – epitomized in 50 years of James Bond – is that the hero saves the world and thus gets the girl. In a no-doubt noble attempt to subvert latent misogyny, Skyfall tries a different tack. James Bond saves the world and gets a secretary. While one might applaud the intention, it’s difficult to see how that’s an advance for either side.
10) You don't need to understand structure to write it
Jimmy McGovern wrote perfect structure from the minute he began on Brookside. He didn’t study it – nor did Richard Curtis, because writers don’t need to – at heart it’s an instinctive process, a product of psychology, biology and physics. The most important rule of screenwriting is that you don’t need to know the rules of screenwriting. But… there are two important caveats. Understanding structure almost certainly won’t damage a writer in any way, but more importantly not to study it deprives one of something truly extraordinary. The more you dig into narrative structure the more it reveals its ineffable beauty. As Delecroix memorably said, 'First learn to be a craftsmen, it won’t keep you being a genius'.
John Yorke, who was formerly head of drama at the BBC and C4, leads the BBC Studios Writers' Academy, a year-long training scheme for new writing talent which is open for submissions until 7 May.
Find out more about the scheme here