(The following article has been adapted from a section omitted from an early draft of my new book, Screenwriting and the Unified Theory of Narrative. Originally intended to occupy “Chapter 1: The Failure of Screencraft,” the section has been edited and reprinted here.)
Much of the confusion found in the investigation of screencraft arises from the fact that its history has been a short one. Though narrative cinema has existed for about one hundred and twenty years, serious academic analysis of its form and structure only began in earnest roughly four decades ago. The growth of the cinematic narrative from its birth to its current position as the world’s most dominant mode of storytelling did not begin under close academic scrutiny. In its early stages, the cinema was ignored by all but a handful of critics for reason that moving pictures were widely considered little more than low-brow entertainment and thus unworthy of serious artistic evaluation. In fact, it took several decades for cinema's proponents to convince the world that cinema was indeed an “art.” Yet even among the academic minds who supported the medium, the storytelling component of cinema was paid little attention. Rather, the critics preferred debating aesthetic concepts, leaving narrative study as a neglected child. Instead, the process by which cinematic storytelling found its form was largely motivated by economic concerns.
From its beginnings, the cinema was recognized not so much for its potential as art, but its potential as popular entertainment. The earliest of film producers were businessmen, many with backgrounds in the management and promotion of live entertainment. These men recognized that this new invention could have the same appeal as the traveling troupes of actors, musicians, and comedians common at the time, yet could be distributed far and wide at fraction of the cost. Yet the business of entertainment is still a business, and businesses requires consistent profit. So, to ensure a predictable return on investment, early producers created films with content they had already seen crowds enjoy. This led to films based on certain narrative “formulas.” Audiences may complain that the movies of today are formulaic, but early narrative films of the silent era were so repetitive that they often presented the identical story again and again, the only difference being changes in actors or setting. This may sound like anything but an artistic process, but what few if any realized was that these early attempts to engender a consistently-positive audience response began the process by which cinema would sort out what types of storytelling were well-suited for its medium and which were not. Cinema became subject to a Darwinean survival of the the fittest where the successes spawned innumerable offspring while the failures were discarded and forgotten.
These films seem extremely rickety by today's standards because the medium had not yet found the ideal ways to tell its stories though montage and the moving image. Some early films were simply filmed stage plays. Others tried to imitate literature. But neither of these older methods of execution were a successful match for the cinematic form. The motion picture possessed certain qualities found in no other forms of storytelling. This gave the cinema unique advantages as well as limitations. With the help of such innovators as D.W. Griffith, Edmund Porter, and later the likes of V.I. Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein, the cinematic narrative eventually found its own language, one which accentuated its advantages and avoided its disadvantages, allowing cinema to come into its own as an unique method of storytelling with it own particular rules and structures.
In such a way, the cinematic narrative form eventually “found itself,” much like how an animal species eventually evolves into perfect adaptation to its environment through natural selection. This was not done by plan, but through trial and error. With time and technical advancements, the feature film became standardized to a certain length and presentational style. After decades of hits and misses, trial and error, innovation and imitation, the cinematic narrative found a vague form which provided consistent success.
The remarkable thing about this process was that by pursuing economic concerns, the cinema grasped in the dark and unwittingly found the principles by which it might become an art. By responding to the positive or negative reactions of the audience, filmmaking stumbled upon the rules of viewership and the techniques which could be used to garner a desired response. Screencraft “learned” proper structure and technique in the same way as one trains a dog. With every reward or rebuke, the cinema eventually learned to keep its behaviors within proper and effective parameters.
By overviewing the Darwin-esque process by which narrative cinema evolved from its childish beginnings to a sophisticated art form, we may conclude that the “rules” that determine an individual narrative film’s success or failure are predicated on two things:
- How well the story's form, structure, and content fit the specific technical requirements of the feature film's required length and audio/visual form (the physical factors of the cinematic medium).
- The story's ability to elicit a satisfactory intellectual, emotional, and visceral response from its viewer via the execution of that story's content (the psychological factors of viewership).
Once cinematic storytelling had learned to adapt itself to these factors (settling into the the proper groove, if you will), the evolution of cinematic storytelling became somewhat stable for a number of decades. In America, this is critically known as the “Classic Hollywood” period or the “Golden Age of Filmmaking.” Though there were hits and misses, bad films and good ones, nearly every film managed to achieve somewhat consistent results.
Though the 1960s were known as a time of great upheaval in the world of cinema; a decade of furious academic debate and experimentation, beginning in Europe and eventually spreading across the world; this influence was once more largely limited to the realm of aesthetics. The narrative component of cinema was again a neglected child and, as far as Hollywood was concerned, remained relatively unchanged.
It was not until the initial excitement of this “New Wave” began to subside in the early-to-mid 1970s that the film industry met its next crucial turning point, one which finally pushed the narrative component of filmmaking to the forefront of critical interest. This period is known for the rise of the first generation of entirely film school educated filmmakers, including the likes of Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, George Lucas, and Francis Ford Coppola. Educated in both the traditional styles of classic Hollywood and the experimentation of the New Wave, this generation set itself apart in that they did not seem to view themselves as engineers of spectacle or experimentative artists, but rather embraced the role of master storytellers. With their emphasis on story, this generation initiated the “blockbuster era” of Hollywood, creating films which achieved both critical praise and enormous commercial success. It was with this that Hollywood finally woke up to the preeminent place that storytelling held in the creation of successful feature films.
It was in this same environment that an academic interest arose in the realm of screenwriting. Strongly influenced by Aristotle’s Poetics (the first known work of dramatic theory, written circa 335 BC), writer-analysts attempted to apply the Aristotelian method of inquiry to the cinematic narrative, just as Aristotle had done with Greek tragedy, in an attempt to discover just what made a good cinematic narrative, what made a bad one, and why. The Aristotelian method is marked by the use of categorization in order to organize complex systems based upon observable similarities. The analyst then attempts to isolate “invariants” – traits consistently repeated from one instance to the next. If enough invariants are found, this may suggest a logical pattern. With over seventy years of evidence now in front of them, the analysts of cinema could reflect intellectually upon the cinema's past successes and failures, and through comparison and contrast seek out the previously unnamed factors that separated the “good” films from the “bad.” Essentially, these dramatists wished to find a way to do by intentional design what cinematic storytelling had previously found success doing by accident or intuition. In this way, the modern field of screencraft was born.
It should be noted however that like the early producers of the silent era, this study was once again motivated more so by commercial and economic reasons than the artistic or academic. The film industry remained as it had always been; a business. A successful business demanded consistent profits, which in this case meant a consistent supply of blockbuster films. At the time, studios still tried to predict success by old fashioned formulas based on superficial elements, such as the story's setting, genre, premise, or star cast. These methods did not prove entirely reliable, producing just as many bad films as good ones. Aware of this, the dramatists of this period hoped to identify some magic formula that if imitated could produced successful results every time. If this sorcerer's stone could be found, it would theoretically mean everyone involved could win. Better-written films meant a larger number of successful films. This meant more profit for the studios, more successful careers for the writers and directors, and more enjoyable experiences for audiences. Theoretically, this narrative alchemy could provide the best for everyone.
Through their study, these dramatists reached the same conclusion as Aristotle before them: the key was structure, structure, structure. Early books on this subject cobbled together crude cave paintings of what story events ought to happen when, how characters should behave, and what actions they should take at given moments. They quickly labeled this vague form as a universal pattern all cinematic narratives must follow. While these “script gurus” would later expand upon this original structure and add their own interpretations, the basic paradigm remained generally the same since its beginnings.
One cannot overlook the effect this new school of thought eventually had upon Hollywood. In the effort to produce consistent successes, many writers, producers, and even executives took these methods to heart. This achieved positive results, but found drawbacks as well. First, the cinema's newfound emphasis on structure had a stabilizing and normalizing effect on the narrative content of Hollywood films. This indeed brought more consistent audience success. But it also had a homogenizing effect on narrative output. Hollywood storytelling transitioned from a reliance on formulas to one on patterns. While the producers of earlier eras sought to imitate superficial content which had seen previous success, this new era aspired to provide fresh and original content which nevertheless followed the same basic structural patterns, creating stories which felt familiar, yet were superficially different. This ultimately gave rise to the oft-repeated studio request, “Give me something the same, but different.”
Unfortunately, there were also great flaws in Hollywood's new narrative religion. Certain difficulties arise when the Aristotelian method of inquiry is applied to the art of storytelling. Firstly, the method assumes that everything in a given system can be separated into clearly distinct categories where every instance is either this or that, fish or foul, with nothing in between. However, artists and audiences alike tend to value originality and avoid such obvious genericism. Secondly, in most fields of investigative study, the rules this method seeks to uncover are eternal and unchanging. Fields such as physics, mathematics, geology, and even biology all seek principles outside of man's control which have always remained the same and always will. However, unless it is viewed from a strictly historical standpoint, storytelling is very much a living and constantly evolving thing. New stories are created every day and the societies and cultures that both create and consume them exist under a constant state of change.
Furthermore, the “script gurus” behind these new paradigms made the mistake of evaluating success or failure from the same narrow mindset as the producers of the early silent era. They saw only WHAT was successful, but rarely considered WHY. Their methods only copied what seemed to be successful structures while overlooking the physical and psychological factors which acted as the underlying determinants of that particular structure's success. They understood the result, but not the cause. The form, but not the function. With only such superficial knowledge, the structures taught by the gurus were too stubborn and inflexible. The methods were unable to explain and often ignored successful films which did not match the pattern and were unable to adapt themselves to unique or nontraditional story concepts which did not fit Hollywood's usual mold. By understanding the what, but not the why, scripts created in strict adherence to the gurus' patterns often rang hollow with audiences despite technically being what was considered structurally sound. Many writers reacted to screencraft like schoolchildern who memorized their lesson word for word, but made no effort to understand what the lesson meant.
In addition, the evaluative methods used by the “gurus” were often highly suspect. First, the pool of evidence from which they drew their conclusions was far too shallow, often consisting of only a few dozen mega-hit films, chosen based on the author's personal taste or ease with which their principles could be related. This did not provide a wide enough data set to prove anything “universal.” Therefore, the reasoning found in these methods remained highly selective and contained massive blindspots. Second, the majority of early investigation sought only similarities and ignored differences. Rarely in these texts does one find an attempt to explain a critically or commercially successful film which does not fit the pattern. In an effort to defend the hypothesis, aberrant successes were usually overlooked, intentionally ignored, or written off as flukes. Finally, the conclusions drawn from these small selections were quite often educated guesses or personal opinions passed off as fact. Yet still, many accepted these notions as truth despite the lack of anything resembling a scientific method based on evidence and experimentation considered necessary in every other serious field of inquiry.
As such, Hollywood’s narrative “religion” indeed currently remains much more like a religion than any serious field of investigation. Nevertheless, many writers and producers accepted its tenets as iron-clad truths, regardless of the fact that later analysts found cause to regard many early conclusions as inaccurate, incomplete, or in some cases false. As critical voices have pointed out with increasing frequency in recent years, these flaws have grown to have a stultifying effect on Hollywood films. Out of a desire to guarantee consistent commercial success, many on the creative end have embraced this strict and unresponsive “one road” approach to narrative, causing audiences to complain that films have become stale, repetitive and formulaic. Ironically, the economic concerns which once fueled the expansion and refinement of the cinematic narrative have now caused the industry to reverse course. The desire for consistency and predictability now acts to limit the possibilities of cinematic storytelling. This is primarily because the inflexible application of the current teachings of screencraft is built on a fallacy. The “universal” formulas, as they have been preached to developing writers and producers, are not in fact or in any way universal, and are not ideally-suited to every story told.
If any further progress is to be made in the study of screencraft, analysts must question previous claims, test existing presumptions, and abandon the outdated Aristotelian method of inquiry. We must no longer look solely at what is successful, but seek to understand why. By understanding the causes of success or failure in relation to the intellectual, emotional, and sociological needs to the audience, we may reach a more flexible and accurate method to understand the field of cinematic storytelling and its proper execution.