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).

c. A MESSENGER to announce this Pathos. It seems seldom or never to be actually performed under the eye of the audience.

d. A THRENOS or Lamentation. A particular characteristic is a clash of contrary emotions, such as the death of the old being also the triumph of the new.

e. An ANAGNORISIS, discovery or recognition, of the slain and mutilated Daimon, followed by his Resurrection or Apotheosis or, in some sense, his "Epiphany in glory." It naturally goes with a PERIPETEIA or extreme change of feeling from grief to joy.

From Fergusson we see a diagram of the relation between the "parts" of the Play according to Aristotle, and the Parts of the Ritual according to Murray:


│ Aristotle's Quantitative and Organic Parts │


│ Prologue │ P │ Episodes │ C │ Episodes │ C │Episodes│ Exode │

│ │ a │ and │ o │ and │ o │ and │ │

│ │ r │ Choric │ m│ Choric │ m│ Choric │ │

│ │ o │ Song │ m│ Song │ m│ Song │ │

│ │ d │ │ o │ │ o │ │ │

│ │ e │ │ s │ │ s │ │ │


│Beginning│ Middle │ End │


│ Complication │Reversal & │Pathos, or│Unravelling│

│ │Recognition│Scene of │ or │

│ │ │Suffering │Denouement│



│ Parts of Dionysian Ritual (after Murray) │


│Messenger │ Agon or Contest, │ Anagnorisis │ Pathos │E│

│ often │ season-spirit │ or │ with │p│

│ gives a │ against its │ Recognition │Messenger│i│

│ Prologue | antagonists │ and │ |P│

│ │ | Threnos or | |h|

│ │ │ Lamentation │ │a│

│ │ │ │ │n│


In his analysis of the "organic parts" of plot structure, those parts used to produce the tragic effect, Aristotle defines at least ten requisite elements.

a. EXPOSITION: The dramatic unity of action prescribed is created by the narrative structure of beginning, middle, and end. This structure provides the background for the conflict between the antagonist and protagonist. The emphasis is on the law of necessary and probable sequence of events where successive incidents are connected together by an inward and causal bond. The length of the plot should be appropriate to allow the character to move from one extreme state of human fortune to another. The driving force for the appropriate length is the unity of action based on the wholeness, order, logical sequence, and continuity required by the character to reach his goal.

b. FORESHADOWING: Artifice (components of drama that are constructed such as events, costumes, props, or set dressings) should be reserved for matters outside the play for future events that require to be foretold. This foretelling of events is in keeping with the concept of probability. An example is found in the film Outrageous Fortune where the protagonist is shown to be an extraordinary jumper during ballet lessons. During the climax, the protagonist defeats the antagonist by jumping cliffs. The audience has been set up to believe the plausibility of the event by foreshadowing her jumping abilities in an apparently mundane prior circumstance.

c. DISCOVERY/REVELATION: Revelation, or recognition, occurs with a shift from ignorance to awareness via the process of discovery. The recognition is finest artistically when a peripety (reversal) takes place at the same time. It is accomplished via language and action.

d. POINT-OF-ATTACK: Adjustments to do something about the conflict.

e. COMPLICATION: The beginning of the reversal. Complication in plot is for the benefit of the audience since the emotional impact of complications and reversals are the justification for constructing the plot in the first place. It occurs by placing obstacles in the way of the protagonist.

f. REVERSAL: An unexpected yet logical shift in the events of the play from happiness to unhappiness or the reverse (peripety). Reversal occurs when the protagonist is set back from forward motion.

g. IRREVERSIBLE ACTION/POINT OF NO RETURN: An action that cannot be undone. Pathos is the fatal or painful event around which the action revolves.

h. CRISIS: Occurs due to inner conflict forcing a decision between hard choices.

i. CLIMAX: The point where the conflict is brought into the text or action.

j. DENOUEMENT: The solution, clarification, or unraveling of plot. It should spring from the character of the protagonist and not brought about by the gods (artifice such as deus ex machina, where a "machine of god" is brought in to defeat the antagonist).


Technical proficiency in the art and craft of screenwriting is emphasized in contemporary books and seminars on the subject. This attention to craft was evoked by Aristotle and expounded by Eugene Scribe (1791-1861), father of the French "well-made play" (piece bien faite). Scribe's technique created a tricky method for dealing lightly with social and moral themes, to make them seem amusing to his contemporary jaded society.

Scribe combined the light satirical spirit of Comedies - vaudevilles with the intricate technique of comedie d'intrigue. The vaudevilles were simple plays in which comic and satirical or jovial songs bound serious scenes together. The comedie d'intrigue descended from classical comedy via literary and popular drama of Italy and Spain. In these comedies, the elements of action, structure of complication and reversal, sustain suspense and delay resolution.

Scribe's works for the theater totaled at least 374. The characteristics of his dramas, described by Stanton (1956), include seven structural features:

a. LATE POINT OF ATTACK. The play deals with the culmination of a long story, the greater part of which has occurred before the curtain goes up. The action is through exposition and is always delayed until the foregoing events have been related for the audience's benefit. The plot is based on a secret known to the audience but withheld from certain characters. These characters have been long engaged in a battle of wits until the revelation in the climatic scene serves to unmask a fraudulent character and restore to good fortune the suffering hero, with whom the audience has been made to sympathize.

b. INTENSE ACTION AND SUSPENSE. A pattern of increasingly intense action and suspense, prepared by exposition is used. This pattern is assisted by contrived entrances and exits, letters, and other devices.

c. SERIES OF REVERSALS. A series of difficulties in the hero's fortune is caused by his conflict with an adversary.

d. SCENE A FAIRE. The recognition scene is the counterpunch of peripeteia, the greatest in a series of mishaps suffered by the hero. This "obligatory" scene marks the lowest and highest point in the hero's adventures, brought about by the disclosure of secrets to the opposing side.

e. QUIPROQUO. "Something for something" in which a central misunderstanding is made obvious to the spectator but withheld from the participants. This occurs when two or more characters interpret a word or situation in different ways, all the time assuming their interpretations are the same.

f. DENOUEMENT. A logical and credible unraveling of the plot.

g. RECURRING PATTERN IN EACH ACT. The reproduction of the overall action pattern in the individual acts.

Scribe's five-act structure corresponds to the classical three-act structure with multiple scenes:


│ Classical three-act structure │


│ Act 1 │ Act 2 │ Act 3 │

│ Scene 1 Scene 2 │ Scene 1 Scene 2 │ │


│ Scribe's five act structure │


│ Act 1 │ Act 2 │ Act 3 │ Act 4 │ Act 5 │

│Late point│Series of │ Preparation │ Scene a Faire: │ Quiproquo │

│ of attack │reversals│ for │Obligatory scene│ and │

│ │ │Scene a Faire│ disclosure of │ denouement │


Scribe used the standard technical methods of his predecessors. However, his deployment of technique was unique. He kept all the comedic tricks in use throughout the play. His plots were more complicated than those of contemporaries Beaumarchais, Moliere, and Plautus. Scribe employed Aristotle's Poetic technique of probability and logic, making his plots and characters plausible, following the Rhetoric demands of common sense. His denouements evolved from the events of plot via careful and precise expository preparation.

A typical Scribian play opens with the hero overwhelmed by adverse circumstances and dominated by an opponent. The first act is expository since the play opens in medias res (the middle of the action). The problem is explained and the audience is prepared for the final revelation of THE SECRET. The action begins near the end of act one and progresses in the form of a BATTLE OF WITS and skillful strategy between the hero or his clever and more worldly representative and his antagonist.

Often two women, a naive girl whom he wishes to marry and an older woman to whom he is obligated and who objects to his marriage love the hero. His problem is to extricate himself without embarrassment and without compromising the woman. The contest is a seesaw and the conflict becomes more rapid. After several alternations, the hero undergoes an unexpected reversal of fortune - the classical peripeteia. Then a secret is divulged and the opponent suffers defeat. This scene a faire is the hero's greatest triumph. The unraveling occurs in a climatic, classical recognition scene, followed by a quick denouement.

Precise timing creates excitement. Suspense is created by foreshadowing clues about impending events for the audience but not the characters, especially in act one. Vital information is divulged to characters only at the crucial required moment. Complication is created often through the misdelivery of a letter or other document. Some mundane incident or detail, casually introduced earlier, turns out in the scene a faire to have major significance.

The will of characters in this type of drama is subordinate to the requirement of plot. Historical fidelity, as well as character and truthful values, is sacrificed to the mechanism of plot, for the sake of entertainment. The technique of the well-made play works best in light or satirical comedy.

Victorien Sardou, Scribe's chief disciple, provided an additional bridge to other countries of the Western world. Several of his successes were adapted half a dozen times in England and the United States by such playwrights as Clement Scott, B. C. Stephenson, and are believed to serve Oscar Wilde as a model.

In England, Scribe's comedies began to appear in 1819. By 1830, Scribe's work was imported to England, Norway, and other countries. Ibsen, between 1851-1856, had directed 21 plays by Scribe. Many British social dramatists, including T. W. Robertson and Shaw, made use of Scribe's dramaturgy. Oscar Wilde studied Scribe, Dumas, and Sardou while living in Paris.

Another major influence from this period was Dumas' Camille. He adapted this play in 1852 from his 1847 novel La Dame aux Camelias. Not exactly adhering to the well-made play genre, the play has still exerted considerable effect on English and American realistic social drama. Since its introduction, the erring woman and her relation to society have held the center of the stage, instigating the modern comedy of manners. Here the topic is a kept woman of everyday contemporary life. A recent example would be Pretty Woman, a commercial success based loosely on the Cinderella myth.

The imprint of Aristotle and Scribe is found consistently in contemporary Hollywood rulebooks and seminars that insist on character-centered cause and effect plots. The classical film makes history unknowable apart from its effects upon individual characters. Impersonal causes and coincidence are only permitted for the initial situation. We are permitted the mischance that triggers the intrigue in Scribe or Sardou, but contemporary norms appeal to Aristotelian notions of plausibility and probability also prescribed by Scribe.



Classical Hollywood Cinema (CHC) is a theoretical construct that promotes the treatment of the Hollywood film product as a distinct artistic and economic phenomenon. CHC has evolved into a predominantly narrative film that emphasizes story causality and character motivation, very much like the story that a psychoanalyst tries to uncover from an analysand.

According to BS&T, the basic premise of the narrative film construction is "causality, consequence, psychological motivations, the drive toward overcoming obstacles and achieving goals. Character centered -- i.e., personal or psychological --- causality is the armature of the classical story" (p. 13).

BS&T describe the following common characteristics of CHC. The story depends on the assumption that action will spring primarily from individual characters as causal agents. Narrative depends on personal psychological causes: decisions, choices, and traits of character. It includes the classical counterforce (antagonist) to oppose the goals of the hero (protagonist). Time and space are subordinated to the cause and effect chain. Plot orders the story chronology in a logical order via flashback and dialog versus a strict chronological sequence. Narration, when used, tends to be objective and unrestricted. Strong degrees of closure are emphasized. The protagonist is generally at a higher level because of personal change.

Carl Sautter (1988), an award-winning writer, describes the basic structure as that which is from English Literature 1-A, where we learn there are three dramatic acts in a play: Act one (beginning), Act two (middle), and Act three (end). For years, this was the basic paradigm used by screenwriters. Graphically it looks like:

│ beginning │ middle │ end │


30 pages 60 pages 30 pages

Syd Field (1979), a writer-producer whose books are commonly used as college texts, expands on the three-act paradigm and suggests his model as the structure for the development of any screenplay. He has added additional elements to the screenplay model:

│ Act 1(p 1-30) │ Act 2 (p 31-90) │ Act 3 (p 91-120) │


│ │first last│ │

│ │half half│ │

│ X │ X X │ │

│ │ │ │ │ │ │

│ V │ V │ │ │

│ plot point I │ mid point │ │ │

│ p.25-27 │ p.60 V │ │ │ │ plot point II │ │

│ │ p.85-90 │ │


│ set up │ confrontation │ resolution │

Field's additional elements are the midpoint and plot points at the end of act one and act two, which are used to spin the story in another direction. He indicates that plot point I should occur between pages 25-27, the midpoint should occur at page 60, and the plot point II should occur between pages 85-90. Field describes his paradigm as the foundation of a good screenplay. Linda Seger (1987), script consultant and educator, refers to these plot points as the first turning point and the second turning point.

Each screenplay explores the nature of a subject, which is determined by action and character. Action is what happens; character is whom it happens to. The screenplay elements of form and structure are expanded by articulating the subject in terms of action and character in a few sentences. Field emphasizes the need for extensive research in the subject so you can operate from a position of choice and responsibility: the more you know, the more you can communicate. Field diagrams the nature of subject as follows:



action character

______│______ _________│____________

│ │ │ │

physical emotional define the need action is character

Field's approach to characterization is diagrammed below:


(from birth to present) │ (from start of movie to end)



│ _____│______

character define action is

biography the need character


professional personal private

│ │ │

work marital, alone


The need of character provides a goal, a destination, an ending to the story. All drama is conflict; if you know the need of the character, you can create obstacles to fulfill the need. Dramatic characters interact in three ways: (1) They experience conflict in achieving their dramatic need. (2) They interact with other characters in an antagonistic, friendly, or indifferent way. (3) They interact with themselves.

Characters are made into real, multidimensional people by defining components of their professional, personal, and private lives. The process of building a character should involve the following dimensions: Define the NEED of a character. Create a character biography so you understand the character's history. Determine the character's specific POINTS OF VIEW, or way he looks at the world. Provide an ATTITUDE, a way of acting or feeling that reveals character opinion. Create a PERSONALITY with visual manifestations. BEHAVIOR is action, what a person does is what he is. Use REVELATION about other characters during the progression of the screenplay. Character and audience then share in the discovery of plot points that sustain the dramatic action. IDENTIFICATION using stereotypes or common character traits draws the audience in.


Apart from the dominant CHC style, few other modes of film practice exist. BS&T describe three significant ones. First is the 'art cinema.' Realism and authorial expressivity are used in the so-called art film to create events and situations that do not have the typical CHC cause and effect properties. Unresolved issues and endings are the typical fare of this type of film. Emphasis on patterned violations of the classical norm often put the author to the fore. This is in contrast to the intended seamlessness of CHC artifice.

Secondly, avant-garde cinema is concerned with the rejection of narrative causality. Thirdly, is the 'modernist' cinema in which spatial and temporal systems share the role of structuring the film with that of narrative. A problem with these alternatives is that a unifying factor such as cause and effect plot is not available to assist the audience in interpreting the film.

Dancyger and Rush (D&R, 1991) address issues and problems encountered in writing screenplays for alternatives to the CHC format. D&R refer to Scribe's model as the restorative three-act structure (RTAS), which is the basis for most CHC scripts. This is due to the nature of the story related in this form. Most often, a return to complete order in the denouement implies that the audience can vicariously break the rules of society, without threatening the structural framework of society. The basics of the RTAS as defined by D&R follow.


CHARACTER CHANGE. RTAS is about the intersection of a particular action and a specific character so that the working out of the action is the working out of character. Each act is used to articulate character change.

THE CENTRAL CHARACTER. Typically, there is only one character who carries the plot through the act breaks. Each act turning point is based on an action or decision made by the central character.

RELATING INTERNAL AND EXTERNAL CONFLICT. The internal psychology is because the central character is wrong about something key in his life. This allows for a final realization in the third act, which leads to redemption and restoration. The external manifestation of the conflict is derived via either/or main character decisions forcing character tension and turning points.


THE POINT OF NO RETURN. RTAS brings focus to a finite period intended to be a single defining moment in the central character's life. The act one turning point functions as a one-way gate. Emphasis is on the difficulty in the turning point decision and its role on the rest of the story.

FALSE SOLUTION. The first act decision and turning point appear to solve the crisis at hand for the central character. However, the audience knows the story has only begun and hopefully looks forward to character resolution.


MOVING AHEAD OF THE CHARACTER. For much of the story, the audience is ahead of the central character, especially during the second act. The audience waits for character reversal and the final moment when the character is forced to face responsibility for his situation.

ACT OF CONSEQUENCE. This act reaches climax when the character accepts responsibility for the mistake of the false solution. During this act, the character catches up with the audience. Once the character recognizes his revelation, he is prepared for the act three resolution and restoration.

CHARACTER ASSERTION. Once the self-revelation is achieved, the character asserts himself to battle the opposition. The audience and the character become coordinated as they both make the connection between self-realization and success.