Dan O'Bannon's Guide to Screenplay StructureComplications Ensue
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Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Dan O'Bannon was known for his work on DARK STAR, ALIEN, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD and TOTAL RECALL. Not a bad run for a science fiction screenwriter. Over the course of 35 years, he also wrote a book about screenwriting, which is now coming out a few years after his death.

(That alone is impressive, because these days publishers seem primarily interested in books only if the author will be out there beating the drum for his book. An author needs a "platform." )

It's a little hard for me to critique a screenwriting how-to book. If the author is saying sensible things, he's saying things that most professional screenwriters know, although we probably all crystallize the rules in our own way. I've got my own book and my own approach. And it's hard for me to remember what I didn't know when I was just learning how to do this.

But I did enjoy DAN O'BANNON'S GUIDE TO SCREENPLAY STRUCTURE. I like that he doesn't just analyze screenplays that hew to traditional three-act screenplay structure and ought to work. He also looks at screenplays (and plays) that have other structures (like Shakespeare's 5 acts). And he looks at movies that have messy stories that ought not to work, and yet did very well -- for example DUMB AND DUMBER.

He has an interesting analysis of LAWRENCE OF ARABIA: what is the story actually about, amid all the swirling themes and conflicts.

He has another interesting analysis of PSYCHO, which famously breaks the rules by changing main characters -- and plots -- midway through. It shouldn't work, and yet, it's a classic.

I can't say that the book told me anything that I didn't know at some level. But an odd thing happened while I was reading it. I realized a pair of fairly serious flaws in a feature I was writing. I had given my hero a series of lucky breaks in the third act, when all the breaks should normally be going against her. I had also made the confrontation with the Big Bad the second-to-last set piece, when it needed to be the last.

(I was trying to save a Big Surprise for last. But you should probably never sacrifice drama for the sake of a surprise.)

It was an odd thing, because I know you should never give your hero a lucky break after the first act, and I'm not even sure Dan O'Bannon says that in his book. And he doesn't talk about drama vs. surprise. But just following his line of thinking about the movies he was dissecting got my brain working in ways that it had not been working, and I came to grip with two structural flaws that my readers and pitchees had not caught.

Any book that does that is worth a read.



"his book?" Really? How about "his or her book?"

By Blogger Bananana, at 10:55 PM  

Yes, Bananarama, "his or her."

By Blogger Alex Epstein, at 11:03 AM  

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