With his concise yet detailed book “A Poetics for Screenwriters”, Lance Lee has written the ideal companion volume to any methodologically based manual of Hollywood screenwriting. His book offers not a method or an approach to writing screenplays, but a structural overview of the basic building blocks that comprise classical Hollywood narratives. In addition, as his title suggests, Lee sets screenwriting in the context of dramatic literature in general and thus thinks of his task as an updating, broadening, and clarification of the dramatic principles Aristotle puts forth in his Poetics. Lee’s approach employs order, common sense, accessible language, and a plethora of clear examples taken from such films as High Noon, Blue, Kramer vs. Kramer, Jurassic Park: The Lost World, Fanny and Alexander, Raiders of the Lost Ark, On the Waterfront, Witness, The Godfather, and The Usual Suspects, to name just a few.
Just as Aristotle emphasizes the cathartic quality of tragedy, so Lee also emphasizes drama’s-and hence narrative film’s-ritual function. In chapter one, he links screenwriting’s plots to coming of age rituals that effect simultaneous personal and social transformation as a new member joins the adult social order, a basic pattern of problem, action, crisis, and transformation that he locates in tragedy and comedy alike. More generally still, he suggests that dramatic conflict plays out the perennial conflict between Dionysian passion and Apollonian control. He links these two ritual functions of transformation and balance in the form of the Jungian hero, a metaphor for ego integration and our stand-in, who must overcome the conflict between the monstrous passions of the unconscious on the one hand and life-affirming civilization on the other. Consequently, drama, broadly understood to include film, “is an engine of transformation” that confers on its audience “a vicarious sense of wholeness” (7).
This initial context of ritual transformation leads Lee to suggest a basic plot pattern that undergirds the entire book: after Aristotle, in chapters one and two, he posits a beginning, middle and end structure in which the beginning lays out the conflict, incorporates pre-existing problems into the situation the hero and heroine are already trying to solve, and formulates a plan of action; the middle attempts to resolve the conflict by implementing that plan of action, but ends in a crisis when that plan collapses or appears to do so; and the end contains the action taken in response to the crisis as well as the climax which resolves the conflict-either through success or failure--and renders all known (6-7). This pattern, which Lee illustrates time and again with examples, dictates a perennial three-act structure and comprises a motif to which the book returns frequently.
Chapter one goes on to give an overview of the history of drama, concluding its summary with a discussion of the extent to which classical Hollywood narrative is indebted to Naturalism and realism as they appear in Ibsen’s writing. There follows a complementary section devoted to film’s contributions to the dramatic tradition such as its compelling reality effect, the intimacy of the camera’s gaze, its ability to render dramatic rhythm “viscerally visible” (23), and its tight linking of writing and visible behavior. The chapter ends with a discussion of the audience, which introduces the book’s second recurrent point, namely the importance of audience identification. Without that identification, Lee argues, the story doesn’t exist and the transformative ritual function is not fulfilled.
Starting with both succinct and elaborated definitions of a screenplay in terms of its elements and purpose, chapter two turns to the fundamental elements of plot. As one would hope, Lee’s discussion of the central notion of conflict gives concrete advice: conflict, he writes, arises from a problem that must be resolved and from a collision of wills. There must always be something at stake and an obstacle to be overcome. Above all, conflict must be clearly defined, experienced moment to moment, and involve the very survival, in one sense or another, of the hero or heroine (34-36). The chapter in general is a practical one, lying at the heart of the book’s project. In it, Lee defines terms such as “scene” vs. “sequence” and discusses such writerly concerns as how to choose material and treatment; establish character and conflict; and construct a backstory, preparation for future events, and exposition. He also gives nuance to his beginning, middle, and end plot structure by introducing the elements of complications--or dramatic problems--major and minor reverses, types of discoveries, and the dramatic obstacle. Finally, he breaks the three basic building blocks of beginning, middle and end down into their own constituent beginnings, middles, and ends, illustrating their recommended structures and variations through several examples.
Chapter three explores in more depth the second primary principle of the book after structure, that is, audience identification. In it, Lee links his emphasis on emotions to the cause-and-effect structure of classical Hollywood narrative. Without a cause-and-effect structure, he claims, character behavior will not make sense, thus frustrating audience empathy, sympathy, and understanding. Likewise, in a discussion highly reminiscent of Aristotle, he argues that in order to foster audience identification, every element in a screenplay should be necessary and probable. That is not to say, however, that irrational behavior does not have a place, for to some extent all screenplays examine irrational behavior. It simply becomes one of the problems raised in the plot. Avoidable improbabilities, on the other hand--particularly those of setting--are an unpardonable lapse, although Lee is practical enough to admit that improbabilities of plot or premise will intrude. He recommends only reporting rather than showing such improbabilities, for present credulity elicited by the probable elements that are shown can cover a multitude of sins. He suggests that Sophocles, for example, does well not to show Oedipus, fearful of killing his father, attacking and killing a man old enough to be his father, moreover one attended by several of his subjects, for the event strains credulity.
The fourth chapter, which returns to concerns of plot, namely plot types and genres, is useful for its advice about where to begin a screenplay: Lee recommends starting with “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” (75). Eschewing the overly restrictive neoclassical imposition of the three unities, Lee divides plots broadly into organic and episodic. He favors the former, since organic plots try to observe the standard of the necessary and probable and speak to the ritual function of drama more effectively. His organic ideal of writing comes through in his advice on the use of flashbacks, which he likes for their realism, that is, their fidelity to the fluid sense of time our minds experience as we mix past and present. Nonetheless, such fidelity is not alone sufficient: flashbacks “must be immediately motivated in the cause-and-effect flow of the action, and all flashbacks must help define the immediate action or move it forward” (85). Lest the budding screenwriter, however, think that plots can be written to formula, Lee concludes the chapter with a discussion of exceptions to the general rule of the three-act plot structure that he emphasizes.
Chapters five, six and seven are shorter treatments of the issues of character, theme, and spectacle, respectively. Unlike Aristotle, Lee puts equal emphasis on character and plot and links both to emotion: character, situation and plot are all made real through the emotion of identification. He has an interesting psychologistic explanation of the genesis and effect of forcefully drawn characters: a character arises from a conflict or drive in the writer; writing distances him or her from that conflict, and the strength of feeling behind the character evokes a similar response in the audience (89). Such an insight is a reminder that Lee approaches his Poetics more as a creative writer than an academician, and the rest of chapter five bears that out. It consists more or less in a checklist of elements such as consistency, vividness, motivation, and an inner life, outer life, and past that need to be defined in order to present a fully realized character. Chapter six is Lee’s limited defense of theme--which he calls ideas--in Hollywood films, a collective too apt to be dominated by what he dismissively refers to as “genre writing,” which favors thrills at the expense of thought. In this chapter Lee grants structure its ultimate function: it is not simply a pattern of organization per se, but a structuring principle for our “attending” to the film, “which is to say that structure communicates meaning and ends in knowledge” (102). This attending, however, works not through an analytical understanding of the structure, but through emotional identification. Unlike film theorists like David Bordwell, Janet Staiger and Kristin Thompson whose Classical Hollywood Cinema postulates that we watch films interactively by constructing hypotheses about what is to happen, Lee feels that our ability to predict the action, i.e., become analytically astute viewers, is a sign of bad writing. Instead, like the characters, we should be in a “state of immediate, desperate ignorance” able to be surprised by the turns of plot (103).
Just as theme is subordinated to emotion in chapter six, so is spectacle to identification, music to mood, and dialogue to behavior in chapter seven. This chapter is something of a catchall for the terms not yet discussed such as symbol and metaphor, dramatic irony, comedic turns, and adaptation. It returns to Lee’s highly pragmatic approach of chapters two through five and contains useful discussions of the qualities of dialogue, which should be appropriate to the characters, economical, expressive of emotion and sparing of dialect; and of comedy, which utilizes techniques such as verbal misconstruction, reductio ad absurdum, mistaken identity, dramatic irony, implied reversals, and physical comedy. Throughout the chapter, he bears in mind a writer’s concerns, such as how to approach an adaptation, and pitfalls, such as the underuse of contractions, overuse of stage directions, and sheer use of speechifying rather than showing characters reacting to one another. The section on comedy is particularly well developed in comparison to the others, although Lee admits that a full treatment is beyond the scope of the book.
The final chapter gives an overview of how to develop and film screenplays. Lee offers the reader a wide range of examples for invention and a useful checklist of questions pertaining to structure. He defines terms used in the film business such as “premise,” “treatment,” “stepsheet,” and “storyboard,” and discusses the conventions of design, language, and length used in writing and/or drawing them. He concludes with a couple of sections that realistically discuss the lesser status of the writer in Hollywood relative to the creative control a playwright or a film director exerts. Lee has some advice for minimizing that loss of creative control, such as working with a director who respects the writer’s work and contracting the right to make revisions. In words of careful encouragement, he warns that filmmaking is a collaborative business and screenwriting a lonely one necessitating great perseverance in writing and persistence in marketing the finished screenplay.
This book is perhaps most useful because of a feature that receives short shrift in a review such as this one, that is, in its heavy use of examples to illustrate all of its points. Lee comes across as an inspired teacher, able to render the abstract concrete through explanatory illustrations. The sheer variety of screenplays he draws on (over 140) provides convincing evidence for the prevalence of his structural analysis of classical Hollywood cinema. Anyone interested in going into screenwriting would be well advised to follow his recommendations, for as much as Lee may deplore genre films, Hollywood does tend to be formula-driven and a wise writer knows both the formula as well as its potential for supple variation. For those interested in more avant-garde writing, however, the book is less useful, for even such classics as Last Year at Marienbad are beyond the purview of Lee’s argument. Nonetheless, within its frame of reference, it is an invaluable analysis of the purpose, structure, emotional appeal and dynamics of the successful Hollywood screenplay useful not only for the student of film but the student of drama as well.