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A Poetics for Screenwriters

A Poetics for Screenwriters

Lance Lee
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  • Book Info
    A Poetics for Screenwriters
    Book Description:

    Writing successful screenplays that capture the public imagination and richly reward the screenwriter requires more than simply following the formulas prescribed by the dozens of screenwriting manuals currently in print. Learning the "how-tos" is important, but understanding the dramatic elements that make up a good screenplay is equally crucial for writing a memorable movie. InA Poetics for Screenwriters,veteran writer and teacher Lance Lee offers aspiring and professional screenwriters a thorough overview of all the dramatic elements of screenplays, unbiased toward any particular screenwriting method.

    Lee explores each aspect of screenwriting in detail. He covers primary plot elements, dramatic reality, storytelling stance and plot types, character, mind in drama, spectacle and other elements, and developing and filming the story. Relevant examples from dozens of American and foreign films, includingRear Window, Blue, Witness, The Usual Suspects, Virgin Spring, Fanny and Alexander, The Godfather,andOn the Waterfront,as well as from dramas ranging from the Greek tragedies to the plays of Shakespeare and Ibsen, illustrate all of his points.

    This new overview of the dramatic art provides a highly useful update for all students and professionals who have tried to adapt the principles of Aristotle's Poetics to the needs of modern screenwriting. By explaining "why" good screenplays work, this book is the indispensable companion for all the "how-to" guides.

    eISBN: 978-0-292-79797-0
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-v)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vi-viii)
  3. Introduction
    (pp. ix-xii)

    A Poetics for Screenwritersremedies the lack of a concise summary of all essential aspects of the screenwriter’s art and its place in society, the psyche, and the history of drama. No such text exists at present despite the many manuals, textbooks, specialist writings, individual memoirs, and collections of essays on the market. Some manuals, although short, omit significant aspects of the art in order to present a particular method.A Poetics for Screenwriterspresents not another method but an overview of the essential elements that both a beginner and a professional should find useful within whatever method they may...

  4. I Context
    (pp. 1-29)

    Modern man arrives on the evolutionary stage with a creative explosion. Our stone tools show a new variety, complexity, and beauty, while the great cave paintings like those at Lascaux and Altamira, or the even earlier works from parts of the world other than Europe, are our first memorable achievements. Some paintings in other parts of the world are eighty thousand years old. The creative response to experience is so deep-seated in us that we often equate creativity with health and its absence with illness. When anyone, at any age, looks at anything or does anything in a healthy way...

  5. II Primary Plot Elements
    (pp. 30-61)

    Short form: A screenplay is a filmed, enacted, immediate, sequential symbolic imitation of an action with a complete Beginning, Middle, and End that falls within the larger fundamental story pattern, possessing an inherent significance, generated by the action of characters attempting to and ultimately resolving conflict-generating problems, whose outcome embodies the vision of the screenwriter, whose purpose is to please, divert, illumine, master, and resolve crucial innate drives in each audience member.

    Complete form: A screenplay is a story that falls naturally within the fundamental story pattern that we experience as immediate, enacted, sequential, and filmed. The immediate surface is...

  6. III Dramatic Reality
    (pp. 62-74)

    Our sense of reality is deeply plastic: we can believe inStar Warsequally withKramer vs. KramerorThe Virgin Spring. But what makes these more than just images that follow consistent rules? What creates our sense of thedramaticreality of these stories? When we see Princess Leia’s defenders inStar Warsshow fear and anticipation of the impending attack, we begin to engage with the story: when the robots argue just like we might do over what direction to take on Tatooine, we engage more deeply: which wayisthe help they need? When R2-D2 is alone...

  7. IV Storytelling Stance and Plot Types
    (pp. 75-87)

    A screenwriter wrestles with where to attack the story. Much of the fundamental story pattern must remain as backstory: where, then, should the action start? Moreover, a screenwriter must first face the task of establishing character and conflict before introducing the critical complication that generates the bulk of the action (II, 5–6, 11). That critical complication is our clue:the point of attack is the complication that requires an unresolved problem from the past to appear progressively as a necessary element for the resolution of the protagonist’s immediate problem. That is the complication that incites the motion.

    This is...

  8. V Character
    (pp. 88-98)

    What do we mean bycharacter? Characters areimagined men and women of any age drawn from the heart, people like Ada and Baines ofThe Piano, or Hamlet, or Book and Rachel ofWitness, or Ted and Joanna ofKramer vs. Kramer, even people that are creatures with human attributes like the centipede or glowworm inJames and the Giant Peach, or mechanisms like the robots inStar Wars. The centipede inJames and the Giant Peachwho hungrily imagines that a seagull has become a flying cooked carcass is different only in appearance from the Little Tramp’s hungry...

  9. VI Mind in Drama
    (pp. 99-106)

    Hollywood suffers from the notion that ideas are for academics and are inherently at odds with dramatic action and emotion. Independent and foreign films are capturing the market for meaningful drama because they are often aware that nothing is more likely to lead to action or to be felt more passionately than an idea. We are heirs to a century of ‘‘isms’’ that continue to drench the world with blood or, in the case of religious sects, appall and amaze us with their burning Armageddons and mass suicides.

    Ideas are inescapable. They drive the heart. Reason for a character is...

  10. VII Spectacle and Other Elements
    (pp. 107-123)

    Spectacle has a profound impact on us. Paleolithic caves provided spectacular settings for art and whatever rites they may have housed, as do the great cathedrals, while the images of Nazi torchlight parades or May Day parades through Red Square are emblematic of the twentieth century. The March on Washington climaxed by Martin Luther King Jr.’s ‘‘I Have a Dream’’ speech was a great spectacle. Raging floods or fires or man-made spectaculars like the opening ceremonies of the Olympics rivet us. Our summer vacations often return us to the nature our forebears lived in harmony with before the rise of...

  11. VIII Developing and Filming the Story
    (pp. 124-132)

    Screenplays start with a glimmer of vision seen darkly through the glass of the imagination. Characters or conflict or theme may suggest themselves from limitless directions (II, 2–3; V, 1), but such elements aredevelopedthrough revision as a screenwriter explores his material, including the larger, fundamental story pattern in which the immediate drama takes root (I, 1).

    There are as many ways of developing a story as there are screen-writers, each approach judged by its individual usefulness. Some writers use a premise and treatment (see 2, below). Some do all the work in their heads before writing, others...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 133-136)
  13. Screenplay Author List
    (pp. 137-146)