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Over at Go Into The Story, they have – like Jesus in the desert, if I recall the story correctly – recently finished reading 40 screenplays in 40 days. It’s an impressive list of scripts, and it’s almost inconceivable that anyone could read them all and not learn something. Almost.

However, there’s an odd trend which you can see if you look at many of the readers’ comments. In looking at some of the greatest examples of the art of screenwriting, crafted long before the Vogler Memo or Syd Field ever started telling people the one perfect way to write a screenplay, many of the readers feel justified in taking the scripts to task for not fitting their idea of what a screenplay should be.

Here’s commenter John S, talking about the screenplay for Some Like It Hot:

Also the first coincidence points to the other problem I had: the set up was needlessly long. The characters and story could have been sufficiently introduced all in one action set-piece (either the funeral shoot out or the garage shoot out). You’d save pages and eliminate the need for the first coincidence.

He goes on:

But Billy Wilder wouldn’t listen to me then and I doubt he cares now.

That’s right, John, and nor should he. He and I.A.L. Diamond wrote one of the funniest movies of all time, in which there’s never a dull moment, and that has come to be regarded as one of the finest examples of the feature-length comedy. You’ll forgive me if I applaud his decision not to take advice on his screenplay from comments left on a blog post.

And that’s not an isolated comment. On Witness, Network, and Psycho there are comments about the protagonist not being introduced early enough, the scene description being too dense, and it being unclear who the protagonist is. In every case, no matter how successful the screenplay or the film, there were frenzied attempts to explain why it wasn’t a good example of the one, true screenplay format that we’ve all been taught you have to strive for.

Too many old screenplays just seemed to break the rules.

A couple of months ago I was working in a writers’ room. During a brainstorming session, someone came up with a really nice moment. Someone else’s response was “That’s great. That can be our Act II turn.”

We didn’t have any characters yet. We didn’t have a plot or genre yet. We hadn’t even yet nailed the premise, but somehow we were confident enough to start flinging around where the act breaks were, where the story beats were. Before we even had a story.

I’m starting to think that screenplay theory is simply there to give people without any creativity some sense that they can contribute to a creative process. As long as a producer can say that “the inciting incident doesn’t raise the stakes enough” they feel that they are, no matter how vague, numinous, and unhelpful the jargon, helping to ‘break the story’. Getting their hands dirty in the muddy trenches of narrative. Kicking some story ass. Breaking that tale’s spine open and feasting on the jellied marrow of structure. Hell, yeah.

This is not to say that I think that these rules don’t have their uses, but I do think that if a great film doesn’t fit your paradigm then perhaps it’s your paradigm that’s broken. Not the film.

I first read Syd Field almost a decade ago, and decided that his analyses of screenplays were almost useless. He ignored scenes that didn’t fit what he was trying to say, and made his rules so general that the only consistent thing you could take a way was: In a film, something happens to somebody; they struggle with it; it gets resolved one way or the other.

As far as it goes, that’s generally true. However, as soon as you start talking about anything more specific: about ‘midpoints’, a ‘save the cat moment’, and what should happen at the bottom of page ten, then you are clearly spouting arrant nonsense. These are not rules. These are things that can be seen usually in some genres of screenplay. And they have become a self-fulfilling prophecy as more screenwriters and readers know the paradigms and assess the value of scripts with them in mind.

These ‘rules’ do have uses. They can help you see where an aspect of your script that you’re not happy with is falling down, by trotting out the standard answer to problems at around page so-and-so. They are helpful when getting notes from producers and readers because they provide a common language and analytical tool with which to look at a script.

My fear is that because it is such a simple tool to use, everyone feels like they can use it. Story is no longer the purview of those who try to create stories. Any development exec can see what’s wrong with your script: you’ve failed to state the theme on page 5.

In Tales From The Script, Larry Cohen says:

Used to be two people would come into a meeting and work on a script with you. Now eight people come into a meeting, and they’ve all got yellow pads, and they’ve all got their opinions, and most of their opinions are bad, and most of them took Robert McKee’s writing class.

I worry that these paradigms have become self-reinforcing. Because they are easy to understand, and you can check ‘quantifiably’ if someone has written to them, they have become a standard way of assessing how good a screenplay is. Not how well-told it is, whether or not the story touches someone’s heart or mind, or if it is something that has never before been seen on screen, but how well it fits the model.

A startlingly original script may get people’s attention, but it would be hard to be optimistic about it making its way through development unscathed. Are we simply not telling wonderful stories because they don’t fit our ideas of what stories should look like?

I’ve used the paradigms myself. They are a great way of breaking down 120 blank pages into smaller, do-able tasks, all the while ensuring that you will not stray too far from what people expect.

However, I’ve found that the real moments of life, the ones that really lift a script, have come from being surprised by the characters or by my just going with a vague sense of the sequences that will happen. These chance moments, the exciting moments of discovery often lead down blind paths, or to having to massively rewrite the opening to accommodate them, but they are the moments of which I am most proud. At which something different or surprising has happened.

My scripts, when written strictly to formulas are like a pub roast. They may be well-prepared; the meat may be well-sourced and nicely rare; all of the trimmings may be there, but there’s something missing. They don’t come blasting in from the kitchen on a wave of steam and sweat with the love of a home-cooked roast. You don’t get the sense that someone (maybe you) has spent the best part of a day peeling, basting, chopping and Yorkshire-pudding-makinging because they love the company of those around them.

To change metaphors, my paradigm-dominated scripts are beautiful children, but fragile. They’re geishas. They will move around within the cloistered walls of my low ambition for them, but they will never learn to run because I’ve bound their feet too tightly.

Well no more. From now on, I’ll let my scripts run and yell and run sticks along the railings when I’m out with them. They’ll paddle barefoot. There’s time enough for shoes later…

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