Is Screenwriting in a `pre-Science’ state?
Okay – so, (possibly) with regards the domain of Screenwriting, I am a heretic… (Although: this has certainly never been my intended goal.)
Mainly as: in times gone by, heretics have gotten themselves crucified, hung drawn and quartered, and burned at the stake, though preferably, not all at once. (Though sometimes – apparently – they turn out to be Saviours).
In 1890, James Frazer published The Golden Bough, a comparative study of mythology and religion. He revealed that Humanity’s belief evolves – from a belief in primitive magic, then to religion, and finally, to science. (Also known in philosophy as: an evolution from mythos to logos).
And, the reason I am (possibly) a heretic:
I would like to (reluctantly) hereby assert that: Screenwriting – as a domain – is in a `pre-Science’, that is, a `pre-paradigm’ state. (- I use the word `paradigm’ in the sense of: a scientific paradigm – and not `screenplay structure paradigm’).
In the excellent study of the history of science – `What Is This Thing Called Science?’ (2000) – Alan Chalmers points out just exactly who Thomas Kuhn is.:
`Introducing Thomas Kuhn –
Inductivist and falsificationist accounts of science were challenged in a major way by Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure Of Scientific Revolutions, first published in 1962, and then republished with a clarificatory PostScript eight years later.
His views have reverberated in the philosophy of science ever since.’
Okay – so, now we know who Thomas Kuhn is. Prepare yourself for: `The Wrath Of Kuhn’…
`Kuhn’s picture of the way a science progresses can be summarized by the following open-ended scheme:
pre-science – normal science – crisis – revolution – new normal science – new crisis
The disorganized and diverse activity that precedes the formation of a science eventually becomes structured and directed when a single paradigm becomes adhered to by a scientific community.’ (Chalmers 2000: 108)
Let us ask: Is it possible that the domain of Film Screenwriting is in a pre-science state? Or a crisis state, in Kuhn’s terms?
To return to basics – let us ask:
What is `the scientific method’?
Put simply, it is exactly this:
How many screenwriting manuals actually use this method? (How many study an empirically-defined data set? Most screenwriting manuals just use illustrative examples, not empirical or scientific studies of film narrative.)
Returning to Chalmers again, further explaining the work of Thomas Kuhn on scientific paradigms:
`A paradigm is made up of the general theoretical assumptions and laws and the techniques for their application that the members of a particular scientific community adopt.
Workers within a paradigm, whether it be Newtonian mechanics, wave optics, analytical chemistry or whatever, practice what Kuhn calls normal science.
Normal scientists will articulate and develop the paradigm in their attempt to account for and accommodate the behaviour of some relevant aspects of the real world as revealed through the results of experimentation.
In doing so they will inevitably experience difficulties and encounter apparent falsifications. If difficulties of that kind get out of hand, a crisis state develops.
A crisis is resolved when an entirely new paradigm emerges and attracts the allegiance of more and more scientists until eventually, the original problem-ridden paradigm is abandoned.
The discontinuous change constitutes a scientific revolution.
The new paradigm, full of promise and not beset by apparently insuperable difficulties, now guides new normal scientific activity until it too runs into serious trouble and a new crisis followed by a new revolution results…
A mature science is governed by a single paradigm.
The paradigm sets the standards for legitimate work within the science it governs.’ (Chalmers 2000: 108)
Now; Screenwriting isn’t currently a Science…
(Although… maybe now, it is?)
Or possibly: Screenwriting is a Science, now.
But – in terms of “the art and science of dramatic composition” – Screenwriting does not currently have one single general paradigm/framework.
Instead, to the contrary: it has (literally) thousands of disparate ones.
Please see this list: over 2,000 Screenwriting Manuals on Amazon.com
And: none of them use an empirical (nor, scientific) method, in choosing which films to study, and `derive’ their screenwriting theories from.
`…it is possible to describe some of the typical components that go to make up a paradigm.
Among the components will be explicitly stated fundamental laws and theoretical assumptions.
Thus Newton’s laws of motion form part of the Newtonian paradigm and Maxwell’s equations form part of the paradigm that constitutes classical electromagnetic theory.
Paradigms will also include standard ways of applying the fundamental laws to a variety of types of situation. For instance, the Newtonian paradigm will include methods of applying Newton’s laws to planetary motion, pendulums, billiard-ball collisions and so on. Instrumentation and instrumental techniques necessary for bringing the laws of the paradigm to bear on the real world will also be included in the paradigm…
A further component of paradigms consists of some very general, metaphysical principles that guide work within a paradigm.’
So – What do we currently have, in the domain of Screenwriting?
Many screenwriting `gurus’ (and over 2000 books on Screenwriting) that clamour amongst each other – suggesting that their own `story/screenplay system’ is better, and is indeed `the “right” one’.
And yet: none of them use a scientific (nor, even empirical) method…(?!) This is a highly problematic situation for screenwriters, and film storytellers in general (directors, producers, actors, story development executives, distributors and marketers, etc.). These professionals have a need to know a) what has empirically worked before and b) Why and c) How they can use that information themselves in order to tell more effective feature film stories. (i.e. `Effective’ in the sense of: reaching the widest international audience with their film story, for – comparatively – the least Film Production – and even Marketing – budget).
Turning now to empirical methodology – and Sir Karl Popper, in The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Popper 1990):
`According to my proposal, what characterizes the empirical method is its manner of exposing to falsification, in every conceivable way, the system to be tested.
Its aim is not to save the lives of untenable systems, but on the contrary, to select the one which is by comparison the fittest, by exposing them all to the fiercest struggle for survival.’
And now – here is the kicker:
`It is the lack of disagreement over fundamentals that distinguishes mature, normal science from the relatively disorganized activity of immature pre-science.
According to Kuhn, the latter is characterized by total disagreement and constant debate over fundamentals, so much so that it is impossible to get down to detailed, esoteric work.
There will be almost as many theories as there are worked in the field and each theoretician will be obliged to start afresh and justify his or her own particular approach.
Kuhn offers optics before Newton as an example.’
So – if you had not yet had a chance to do this, please do: take a look at this list of over 2,500 Screenwriting Manuals On Amazon.com
Noting that: there are over two-and-a-half-thousand screenwriting “teachers” all claiming “their” screenplay system is: the best one; the most effective one; the one you want.
And yet: none of them use an empirical method.
Where is the empirical evidence that these systems actually will work? (This is a deeply serious question. A screenwriter’s career can depend on this.)
Anyway, to return to my original point, I would like to assert that:
Screenwriting is currently in a `Pre-Science’ State.
We are still using Aristotle – derived (also, non-empirically) from Greek plays, from 2200 years before film was invented – as a basis for Feature Film so-called `dramatic principles’.
Regarding the use of Aristotle’s prescriptions in Poetics – perhaps the philosopher of science Paul Feyerabend expresses it best, in Against Method:
`Why should the perceptual world of the ancient Greeks coincide with ours?’
Alternately – just imagine, if you will – a world in which: 10 out of 10 movies made money.
Because: their stories were all great. (Instead of now, where most films are bad, and 7 in 10 movies lose money, only 2% of screenplays are made – and not even Hollywood screenplay gurus have any real idea what will work. They usually just fall back on the old chestnut of William Goldman’s: “Nobody knows anything…”)
If more than 2 in 10 movies made a profit, and more than 2% of screenplays got made (as is currently the case, and has been for at least over 20 years): imagine how much easier – and better – life would be – for all writers and filmmakers – and most of all, for film audiences…
What it will take – to revolutionize the domain of screenwriting – and therefore, film storytelling – is for someone to come along and present the domain with a new approach; an empirical way of studying film.
And, preferably, someone, who has:
- Spent about 20 years `in the trenches’ both in Hollywood and internationally. (Say, working as a professional story analyst – for the major studios and also for film funding organizations.)
- Read all the major books on screenwriting many times each – and has internalized all that knowledge
- Written many feature film screenplays (over 30 would be good) and had some produced.
- Has a Science and Maths background – as well as an Arts, Literature and Drama background.
- Someone who is creative (i.e. see Csikszentmihalyi’s definition)
(Or, failing that – maybe just some random genius, who knows…?)
And: If that person can present a new screenwriting paradigm, using a scientific method, then screenwriting can exit its current pre-paradigm state – and evolve to realize its full potential.
But – anyway – until that happens, we are stuck with Aristotle. And – with the current screenplay “gurus”.
And until then: most likely, 7 in 10 movies will keep losing money…
(And: Where does that leave `7 in 10′ screenwriters?)
Answer – possibly, here:
And so – until then – screenwriters – and filmmakers – and the creatives will suffer.
But.. “Some day, this war’s gonna end…” (Kilgore, Apocalypse Now)
See the following link for more on” a potential solution to this problem – namely, a scientific and empirical approach to successful feature film screenwriting.
…Thoughts, comments, feedback?
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/
Chalmers, A. F. (2000), What Is This Thing Called Science? (3rd ed. edn.; Buckingham: Open University Press).
Feyerabend, Paul K. (1984), Against Method (Rev. edn.; London: Verso) viii, 296 p.
Frazer, JGS (1890), The Golden Bough: A Study in Comparative Religion, Macmillan & Co., London.
Jansen Media (2012), 9/11 – Explosive Evidence: http://www.smh.com.au/tv/Documentary/911-Explosive-Evidence-4313104.html
Kuhn, Thomas S. and Hacking, Ian (2012), The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (4th edn.; Chicago ; London: University of Chicago Press) xlvi, 217 p.
Popper, Karl R. (1990), The Logic of Scientific Discovery (Cambridge: Unwin Hyman Inc.).