So you wanna be a screenwriter, ya gotta learn the rules

In the early nineties I was a highly paid software consultant specializing in migrating large mainframe systems from one manufacturer base to another. For example going from IBM to Burroughs or Burroughs to IBM. I had developed two models to help me estimate pricing/cost. I was very succe$$ful.

I had bachelor's degree in business with a major in marketing and a certificate in computer programming. I applied to the top five colleges in the US for their MFA program. You needed to submit some project you had completed as part of your application. All I had was the first draft of a script loosely based on my experiences in Vietnam as a Marine. Certainly not competitive with all of the youngsters with a BFA and requisite related project. I was turned down by all: USC, UCLA, etc., including Temple University.

Backup plan. I applied to and got accepted at Temple U into their MA program for a graduate degree in Mass Media and Communications . I lived in a suburb of Philly so it was convenient. You had to take certain required courses and had room for electives. For electives I took classes related to Film and Media Arts.

To finish my MA degree I had to take a final exam related to Mass Media and Communications. My final exam committee consisted of three professors. The committee chair was a PhD prof who liked my work since I knocked down high A's in his classes. One of the other profs was a similar situation. The 3rd prof on my committee was one I had not taken any classes with.

Each prof created a question for my exam. Three profs, three questions related to: SCREENWRITING THEORY, FILM HISTORY AND THEORY, and COMMUNICATION THEORY AND METHODS. The one question I enjoyed the most had to do with screenwriting theory. When I finished, the prof said I had done a better job writing about screenwriting theory than most of his PhD candidates.

I'm going to post the Q and A here in three installments. Here's PART 1:

Question 1: Screenwriting Theory

1. Define the characteristics of the screenplay written for Classical Hollywood Cinema. Include the following:

(a) Discuss the concepts of drama as defined by Aristotle.

(b) Describe the influence of 19th century Theater and playwriting and the characteristics of the "well made" play.

(c) Define contemporary characteristics of the screenplay written for Classical Hollywood Cinema.

(d) Discuss alternatives to the Classical Hollywood Cinema model.


In The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960, Bordwell, Staiger, and Thompson's (BS&T, 1985) theoretical construct of Classical Hollywood Cinema (CHC) is based on the idea that Hollywood films constitute a coherent aesthetic tradition. Classicism denotes aesthetic qualities such as elegance, unity, and rule-governed craftsmanship. Hollywood Cinema denotes the historical function of Hollywood's role as the world's mainstream film style.

However, it is classical in that the underlying aesthetic and structural concepts originated with the Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle. The Poetics considers the art of fiction - invented narratives. The basic concept of narrative is to tell a story. Drama is based on conflict told through action. Aristotle's term is agon, meaning contest, from which we get the words protagonist, antagonist, agony, and antagonize.

The Poetics, based on Aristotle's notes about the Greek theater of his time, fourth century B.C., considers the art of fiction. It analyzes only imitative narratives of tragedy and epic form. His emphasis and analysis is based on empirical data from tragic drama of contemporary Greek playwrights. The analysis moves from a general perspective of imitative arts to specifics of imitative poetry, primarily tragedy.

Key terms and references imply that Aristotle assumed his readers knew his philosophy and the plays he discusses. Many terms are explained in his other works, such as the Rhetoric. He believes the origin and development of poetry comes from the human instincts of imitation, harmony and rhythm.

The pleasures derived from imitations of art are based on satisfaction of our need to know and understand. Imitation has to do with intellectual and moral content of art, therefore, is related to philosophy. Harmony and rhythm refer to aesthetic pleasures of form.


Aristotle defines six elements of tragedy. Three of these he calls essences: plot, character, and theme. The other three refer to the medium of presentation: language, music, and spectacle. These six parts are based on what the characters do, how humans act.

a. PLOT is the formative principle and the artistic equivalent of action - the combination of the incidents of the story, i.e., its structure. This action is an inward process that works outward. It is the expression of a man's rational personality. Action (praxis) does not mean physical activity, but is the motivation from which deeds spring. It is the whole working out of a motive to its end in success or failure. The plot is then the character's actions as indicated by deeds, incidents, situations, mental processes and motives that underlie the resulting outward events. The intention of the play is realized through the plot - a representation of one "complete action."

b. CHARACTER consists of two components: ethos and dianoia. Ethos is the moral element that reveals a state or direction of the will. Ethos is revealed in the dialog and action of the character. Dianoia represents the intellectual element of rational conduct through which ethos can find outward expression. Individual ethos or character is revealed through language and action. Aristotle maintains there are four elements to creating characters. Each character should be: (1) good, i.e., have some moral purpose; (2) appropriate, primarily adhering to the concept of typage; (3) realistic in presentation; and (4) consistent in manner and idiosyncrasies.

c. THEME, or thought processes of the characters, is shown via dialog where speech and argument for a given situation is presented. Here it is important for the poet to understand politics, including ethics, and the art of eloquence. Theme is revealed when the characters say what is appropriate to the occasion and is shown when enunciating some universal proposition.

d. DICTION or language allows the characters to express their thoughts in words. The words provide a major visible factor for the imitative process of an action.

e. MUSIC, or melody, is referred to as the greatest of the pleasurable accessories of tragedy. Melody, in conjunction with diction, is a major means of the imitative poetic art.

f. SPECTACLE refers to public performance and costuming. It is described as the least artistic of the six elements and has the least to do with the art of poetry. This is because the poetry effect can be obtained without public performance.


Aristotle defines the "quantitative parts" of tragedy as the sections in which Greek tragedies were traditionally written: Prologue, Episode, Choric song, and Exode. Contemporary studies discuss the relation between tragedy and the ritual forms from which it was derived, primarily the Dionysian ritual, such as expressed in Oedipus Rex, and discussed in the Poetics.

Greek tragedy is an outgrowth of rites celebrated annually at the Festival of Dionysus. These rites are supposed to include initiation ceremonies and are intended to purify the neophyte by the enactment of symbolic ordeals and sacrifices. Included are rites of spring that are symbolic enactments of death and rebirth of a "season-spirit." This spirit represents the cyclical death and rebirth of the world. Rebirth of the tribe occurs by the return of its heroes or dead ancestors. Fergusson (1975) relates the notes of Gilbert Murray on the ritual forms of Greek tragedy concerning the kind of myth underlying the various season-spirit celebrations. Murray cites five key components of the ritual:

a. An AGON or contest - typically the Year against its enemy, Light against Darkness, Summer against Winter.

b. A PATHOS of the Year Daimon. This is generally a ritual or sacrificial death, in which Adonis or Attis is slain by the tabu animal, the Pharmakos stoned, or Osiris, Dionysus, Pentheus, Orpheus, Hippolytus are torn to pieces (sparagmos).