On The `Screenwriting Convention’ (or, the screenwriting orthodoxy)
In his paper `The Principle of Relativity‘ (1905) Einstein has a heading called “Defects of the Present View.” (It’s an excellent paper, and I highly recommend it.) It’s in this book:
This book `On the Shoulders of Giants’ includes, in their entirety, the works: The Principle of Relativity by Einstein; On the Revolution of Heavenly Spheres by Copernicus; Principia by Sir Isaac Newton; Dialogues Concerning Two Sciences by Galileo with Alfonso De Salvio; and Mystery of the Cosmos, Harmony of the World, as well as Rudolphine Tables by Kepler. And even a cool foreword by Stephen J Hawking.
At this precise point in history (2012) where exactly is “the screenwriting convention” at?
And what are: “The Defects Of The Present View”..?
Q: First, define what you mean exactly, by “the screenwriting convention” anyway, JT.
JT: Okay – but I don’t need to, someone has already done it.
In his excellent 2004 PhD thesis, Dr Ian Macdonald explains:
“…there is an industrial consensus… about the construction of the screen idea, based on the terminology and discourse of a sample of the popular manuals and textbooks of screenwriting. Within this… a synthetic outline of the views found in these sources… I term ‘the screenwriting convention’.”
Macdonald then examines popular screenwriting manuals, and goes on to say:
`Table 7 lists concepts identified according to function, drawing together some of the common terms (shown in italics) used by the sources consulted.’
Source: PhD Thesis: Macdonald, IW 2004, ‘The Presentation of the Screen Idea in Narrative Film-making’, Leeds Metropolitan University. Note – this PhD thesis by Macdonald is available online, at:
And: is well worth reading. In fact – if you are a screenwriter (or: want to be) I would say it is essential reading. This PhD is the result of a Bourdieuian analysis of the film and TV industry. (You will not get that information anywhere else. It will truly open your eyes, to the realities of the screen industries.)
Macdonald also notes:
`…screenwriting is characterised by some clear and specific norms, and that these cohere in a view that I term the ‘screenwriting convention’.
This convention is based on quasi-Aristotelian ideas of drama, is often presented as a ‘natural’ state which encompasses what has been termed classic narrative or classical narration (Bordwell, 1985 p.156 passim)
…there is an authoritativeness attached to the convention, in which reference is sometimes made to ‘principles’, which makes it difficult to challenge the convention without stepping outside the set of norms that are thus presented.
Quasi-official bodies with authority over education in the moving image have presented requirements for accreditation that fall within the convention, which suggests that it dominates the field.’
(Macdonald 2004: 284 – emphasis mine)
At the risk of my over-explaining this idea, this is how Macdonald re-phrases it, below.
Macdonald examines the screenwriting `discourse’, as:
`expressed through manuals and textbooks and the use of common documents, and through an original survey of the views of screen-readers, as the ‘screenwriting convention’.
This convention, based to an extent on Aristotelian ideas (Poetics, 1996) is part of the system of beliefs adhered to by screenwriters and screen-readers. Their work is shaped by these beliefs, ranging from an understanding about common goals for development of the screen idea to specific measures of success.
The question of what screenwriters, and those who read screen ideas, believe they are striving for, is crucial because it defines and shapes their activities.’ (Macdonald 2004: 6-7 – emphasis mine)
So, the `screenwriting convention’ is the way that `everyone’ currently feels screenplays should be written.
i.e. What exactly makes: “a good screenplay”.
But… does it?
If that is so, then:
Why do 7 in 10 films lose money?
Let’s examine more closely the work of the current most-famous, most-popular, and most-academically-cited screenwriting gurus: Syd Field, Linda Seger, Christopher Vogler, Michael Hauge, John Truby, Robert McKee, Richard Stefanik, Blake Snyder.
8 screenplay manuals*:
- Screenplay by Syd Field
- Making a Good Script Great by Linda Seger
- The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler
- Writing Screenplays That Sell by Michael Hauge
- The Megahit Movies by Richard Stefanik
- Story by Robert McKee
- The Anatomy of Story by John Truby
- Save The Cat! By Blake Snyder
And yet – while these screenwriting teachers have all done truly great things to educate screenwriters in the art and craft of writing – there is one major problem: they apparently do not use consilient (scientific or empirical) methods in their story systems…
This situation results in various proprietary screenplay guru `story templates’:
But – we must ask – How were all these story / screenplay templates derived?
Was it by consilient, and empirical study? e.g.:
- Did these authors choose a clearly defined data-set of films?
- Did they do an empirical content analysis of those screenplays?
- Did they also do: a comparative study of unsuccessful films, noting the difference?
Did they arrive at their `story systems’ – by an analysis of various films chosen to illustrate – these film story “patterns”? (i.e. What Colin Martindale in The Clockwork Muse calls: `the proof by example method’)…
Also, can these same guru `story patterns’ also apply to movies that don’t succeed? (Answer: Yes.)
And – so, overall, what is the `consensus’ then – of the (current, problematic) dominant “screenwriting convention”?
(I assert that it is problematic – as 7 in 10 films lose money. Yet – almost 10 out of 10 of those films use the dominant “screenwriting convention”. That is at least a 70% `failure’ rate, in fact, it is closer to 90% `failure’ rate.)
Now it certainly may not be the fault of the screenwriting convention (and the `screenplay guru’ books.) But it would likely be much better, if the theories of successful screenwriting used consilient (scientific and empirical) methods
As a summary then (not fully comprehensive, but, indicative) – this, below, is –
How the Hollywood “screenwriting convention” – in general – tells it:
In more detail, the consensus of the Hollywood “screenwriting convention” tells it thus:
`Aristotelian’ 3-Act structure / `paradigm’ (but actually, this is: “4-act”?) (But – wait: Did Aristotle ever say “3 Acts?” No – he didn’t…)
- The `screenwriting convention’ says: You should have three “acts” in your screenplay: Act 1 – approx 25 mins; Act 2 – 60 mins; and Act 3 – 30 mins. But – in fact, they say you should have 4 “acts” – as the “middle, 2nd act” is split in half by a midpoint, and should be treated as 2 separate “acts”.
- (But wait: don’t a lot of the films that flop, also have this same structure?)
Character Arcs: Where the protagonist is transformed, (or “grows” psychologically)
- The convention suggests: Your hero/protagonist needs to “change”; grow; learn something by the end of the film story.
- (But wait: don’t a lot of the films that flop, also have this same structure?)
Narrative `closure’ – (usually, the Protagonist/Hero’s goal is achieved, and importantly, the Protagonist/Hero is still alive)
- At the end, all `loose ends’ should be tied up. Mission accomplished; or of Mission Failed, the hero still “learnt something”/was transformed psychologically.
- (But wait: don’t a lot of the films that flop, also have this same structure?)
Avoid Flashbacks and Voice-Over Narration
- McKee and others rail against Voice-Over (note: McKee also states Casablanca is “the perfect film”, but also note that: it has voice over.)
- Flashbacks are often frowned upon as `lazy/amateur storytelling’.
- (But many of the greatest films have voice over? Kubrick’s films, and see Primer (2004))
A Triumphant Hero (the `Good Guys’ win, and/or the `Bad Guys’/Villains/Antagonists get their come-uppance)
- Good triumphs over evil. Villains are punished…
- But arguably 17/20 of the top 20 RoI films are `Villain Triumphant’ stories?
A screenplay length of: 90 to 120 pages (90-120 mins).
- (But – Note that: in reality, a 120-page screenplay is ¼ harder to finance than a 90-page one, as it is roughly ¼ more expensive.)
- So, note – anything over 90 pages is less likely to get made.
Average scene length of: 2 mins 30 secs (McKee, in `Story’)
- But – these scene length “prescriptions” are not based on much that is empirical.
- (Where is the study of scene lengths? i.e. Where is the empirical data?)
Adaptations & sequels (Lord Of The Rings, Harry Potter, Twilight, Terminator 2)
- Sure – let’s study the big Hollywood blockbusters that – nobody but the established Hollywood writers get to work on anyway. (So, how is this relevant to 99% of screenwriters? And moreover – the `established Hollywood writers’ don’t need any screenwriting manuals anyway…)
- So, sure: go ahead and adapt a massive blockbuster novel (assuming that you can get the rights.) Why not. Just don’t expect that screenplay to get made – without you the writer/filmmaker getting fired first…
So – in short, this (above) is a summary of some of the key/core principles of what we all know, as: “the screenwriting convention’.
Also – I assert that – though they certainly need to be aware of these film story `principles’ above (the Hollywood “screenwriting convention”) these principles are – possibly – a waste of time, for around 99% of screenwriters/filmmakers.
Reason Being: Your movie screenplay is extremely unlikely to get produced (mainly as: the budget will be too high for an early-career writer) and – even if it does get made, that movie is possibly, unlikely to make money – as it is not based on empirical or scientific story principles…
These film story `principles’ from the guru manuals may have some value for Critics(?) – and, possibly, for those in the Academy (academia) – who are not working screenwriters.
But – I do not believe they should be taught as `gospel’ in the Academy (in universities, film schools, etc).
Reason being: They are not consilient – i.e. not based on empirical or scientific evidence.
Instead they are rather, generally speaking, based on: the authority of the author.
So – let us ask: What Are The Criteria (if any) of the screenplays/films that result in this “screenwriting convention” – In these so-called “`good’ film story principles”?
When we look at the films examined by the above screenplay gurus: they include the likes of Chinatown, Witness, Casablanca, Tender Mercies, Gandhi, etc.
Namely, films written by experienced screenwriters – for whom `the rules of the game’ are very different to anyone trying to break in…
Some of the films `studied’ in these guru books are:
- Oscar-winners – (which of course are important to study – but – many of them are also not. So the data-sample is not uniform. And: Who writes Oscar-winning screenplays anyway? Established Hollywood writers write them… Please, check the credits of Oscar-winners: http://www.filmsite.org/bestscreenplays4.html – with 2 exceptions, all these writers had extensive writing careers, and the 2 exceptions are explained by habitus anyway.)
- “Well-known” films… (Is this really a good criteria for success? Plan 9 From Outer Space and Battlefield Earth are also `well-known’ films. Should we necessarily study and emulate them?)
- “Critically well-regarded films” (If you are a filmmaker/screenwriter, you soon discover how well `Critical Reviews’ pay your bills…** Even so, they (the films) are not all critically well-regarded. So again, the data sample is unempirical.
- Many are average-to-low ROI films – and with production budgets that are out of reach of most screenwriters and filmmakers.
So, can we ask:
- Why are we looking at those exact `example’ films, again?
- How exactly are they relevant to: most screenwriters?
- How will they help a screenwriter/filmmaker write – or make – a film that will get produced, (let alone, be likely to be successful..?)
To repeat: overwhelmingly, the films studied are screenplays that are written by very-experienced, extensively-credited writers.
This is not very useful for early-career filmmakers and in fact, 99% of writers/filmmakers. (A sculptor does not start out by trying to create Michelangelo’s `Statue of David’ with their first produced work.)
Take a look at the first produced films by your favourite screenwriter/filmmaker, and ask yourself: Why – and how – did it get produced? Research this.
Also ask: Was it low-budget? Research this also. (Please, do not just take my word for it; check this for yourself.)
So – for the average filmmaker – is knowing – and doing – all these things in your screenplay (using `principles’ from the `guru’ manuals) actually useful?
…Will that movie get made? (…What are the actual real-world odds?)
Well: there are approximately, 50,000 screenplays registered with the 2 x US Writers Guilds (WGA East and WGA West) each year. (In fact more like 70,000 if we include Film Story Treatments).
Of these, less than 2% are made.
(So, the odds are: not good).
Unfortunately, with your screenplay, you are also at the back of a queue, called The Black List: http://blcklst.com/ – This is a list of screenplays, that are the favourites of the Hollywood creative executives – that have not yet been produced,
Take a look at the Black List projects, and their Loglines, and consider this: If a filmmaker like Tarantino has films on The Black List, that can’t even get financed and produced, then – what are the chances your screenplay will cut past all those screenplays? .
Now, this is not to discourage spec screenwriters. If you are determined, then keep doing whatever you’re doing.***
All I am saying is, as a screenwriter/ filmmaker, you probably need to do something different to everyone else.
– The existing strategies clearly do not work as well as should be expected.
98% of screenplays are rejected, and – of those that actually get made – 70% of them lose money.
So, that’s a summary of the situation.
As Einstein would have it: These are “the defects of the present view.”
The existing film industry model / “screenwriting convention” is: perhaps, broken. (i.e. Defective).
And it is not also hard to see why. Many of the conventional screenwriting manual authors use the same (non-consilient, unempirical, unscientific) methods that Aristotle used – over 2 thousand years ago – to analyze ancient Greek plays…
So – I know, my saying all this is both controversial – and in fact: heretical.
“The only interesting ideas are heresies.” (Sontag and Rieff 2008)
So, I freely admit – my view is an original heresy, and – my doctoral thesis is a polemic.
It in fact takes great courage to say all that I am saying, and disagree with convention/the “old, traditional ways”. (Look at Galileo. Look at Einstein. Look at Maxwell.)
Look at what Thomas Kuhn says in “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions“…
`For the… professional group affected by them, Maxwell’s equations were as revolutionary as Einstein’s, and they were resisted accordingly.’
Typically, a scientific revolution – exactly like I am hereby proposing – is resisted.
(Note the resistance to consilience in general, in The Arts.)
But – I am saying it because: I believe it is the truth, and because I sincerely believe this will help filmmakers and screenwriters everywhere…
In fact – the people it will help most is: worldwide film audiences. It possibly means better movies, and more of them. (And less of the `cinematic garbage’ that currently finds its ways onscreen.)
To be clear – Are these same Hollywood “story principles” appropriate for filmmakers who want their story to reach the widest audience possible, relative to the film’s budget?
i.e. Who want their film to go `viral’?
Who want their story to reach: the widest audience possible?
(and – in fact – I am not even sure that the word “principles” applies… Is a random characteristic of a group of randomly selected films actually “a principle” of any kind..?)
…Are these “conventional” `principles’ actually useful for the majority of writers/filmmakers?
I assert: No – they are probably not.
7 in 10 films lose money – and: those same films use these so-called conventional “story principles”(!)
The reason for all this – is simple: in general, the films “studied” by screenplay `gurus’ are: not exclusively the most viral stories. Their methodology is unempirical – and non-scientific.
And – many of the films studied by the gurus, that result in these “story systems” also include many films that did not go viral.
But: there is an alternative.
…Just sayin’. Recall that:
“The only interesting ideas are heresies.”
High-RoI Story/Screenplay/Movie and Transmedia Researcher
The above is (mostly) an adapted excerpt, from my doctoral thesis: “Communication, Creativity and Consilience in Cinema”. It is presented here for the benefit of fellow screenwriting, filmmaking and creativity researchers. For more, see https://aftrs.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky
JT Velikovsky is also a produced feature film screenwriter and million-selling transmedia writer-director-producer. He has been a professional story analyst for major film studios, film funding organizations, and for the national writer’s guild. For more see: http://on-writering.blogspot.com/
* (I strongly advise that you buy – and read – all these screenwriting books. You need to know the convention before you can subvert it! And there are great things in each and every one of the screenplay guru books, and some of their techniques I have used myself.)
** (See also this post, on `Whether Critical Reviews matter’. i.e. The short story is: Not really. They do, and they don’t.)
*** (It’s your life, you can spend it however you see fit. This point is fairly self-evident, I would imagine.)
Hawking, S. (2002). On The Shoulders of Giants: The Great Works of Physics and Astronomy. Philadelphia: Running Press.
Huntley, Chris (2007) `A Comparison of Seven Story Paradigms‘, Write Brothers Inc.
Kuhn, TS & Hacking, I (2012), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 4th Ed, University of Chicago Press, Chicago.
Macdonald, Ian W. (2004), ‘The Presentation of the Screen Idea in Narrative Film-making’, PhD Thesis, (Leeds Metropolitan University).
Sontag, Susan and Rieff, David (2008), Reborn: Journals and Notebooks, 1947-1963 (1st edn.; New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux) xiv, 318 p.
Snyder, B, `Save The Cat!’ story/screenplay beat sheet diagram – from http://www.blakesnyder.com (retrieved February 4th, 2012)