Monday 26 November 2012

Book Review: The 21st Century Screenplay

Linda Aronson is an English-born, Australian playwright, scriptwriter, comic novelist and screenwriting theorist. She has taught screenwriting to professionals across the world, having come most recently from a six-month tour of Europe, which culminated in an appearance at the London Screenwriters Festival.

Her previous book Screenwriting Updated (published in Australia as Scriptwriting Updated) was the leading text on how to write non-linear films, until it was superseded by The 21st-Century Screenplay in 2010.

True confession: I've been talking about writing this review for about a year now, but I kept putting it off, excusing myself that there were other things to talk about instead.

The truth is, I have felt intimidated.
"Linda Aronson is one of the great and important voices on screenwriting."  —Dr Linda Seger, author of "Making a Good Script Great"
The first screenplay I wrote that was ever seriously considered by producers was a story with a parallel narrative. I didn't fully appreciate that fact until long after it had been given a pass by... well, everyone.

Once it dawned on me that I needed to know more about the theory of structure than the usual three-act, single protagonist model, I went looking. And found nothing. Until I saw a reference to Linda Aronson on Twitter. And one thing led to another. I'm still hoping that the interview she agreed to do last year will finally appear here in December.

Now to the book.

It's big. Almost 500 pages, including a decent index (thank you). To put it in context, it is almost one hundred pages longer than Christopher Vogler's The Writers Journey. Vogler himself refers to The 21st-Century Screenplay as an "atlas."
"A lucid and eminently useful atlas of screenwriting technique. All the vague confusing things that teachers and studio executives say about flashback, turning points and multiple protagonists are whipped into coherent shape here, in a comprehensive, precise and extremely practical theory. An essential tool in any writer's kit."Christopher Vogler, author of "The Writers Journey"
It's not really a book, it's a kind of mini-encyclopaedia. It should, in my opinion, have been published as at least two separate books, possibly more. It is divided into six Parts, and some of those Parts are divided into as many as six Sections, and a given Section can have up to eight chapters. There are fifty-six chapters in total.

Part 1 looks at creativity and getting ideas. With expanded examples and exercises, it could be a book in its own right. Part 2 addresses conventional narrative structure and, again, could be a book in its own right. Woven through Parts 1 and 2 are twenty-five "development strategies" which could—this is getting repetitive—provide the framework for a book of their own.

So how is it, 125 pages into this one book, I'm already saying it could be three different books? The best way to understand this is, Linda Aronson has so much good stuff to say, and feels she has so little time in which to say it, that she has tumbled it all out into one place.

And it is good stuff. Even Part 2, which deals with Conventional Three-Act Structure and could have been a simple regurgitation of Syd Field, contains a remarkably different approach to the subject. Regular readers will know I have been working on my own comparative analysis summary of structure theories for years, lining up alongside one another the key outlines of Syd Field, Linda Seger, Michael Hauge, Christopher Vogler, Viki King, Blake Snyder, John Truby, David Mamet, Brian McDonald, etc. Linda Aronson has a completely fresh approach, for which she takes no credit. She calls it "the Extended Smiley/Thompson plan" and says of it:

by Prof. Sam Smiley
"I first came across it many years ago in a class on stage writing run by Paul Thompson of New York University, who says that he developed it from Sam Smiley's book on playwriting."
The Extended Smiley/Thompson plan is kinda like a beat sheet, but not really. I won't go into it here, other than to say that over the last year I have found myself drawn back to rereading this section many times.

Part 3 is called "Practical Plotting" and provides a lot of common-sense information on the art of screenwriting. Part 6 is called "Getting It On The Page." It rounds out the practical advice section of the book. There's good, solid, practical advice here, but nothing you couldn't find in a heap of other books. 

If those Parts were the whole book, I would say it represented excellent value and that you should think about buying a copy. But there's more here.

Part 4 steps into the largely unexplored world of "Parallel Narrative." Part 5 reports on "Films with Structural Flaws": or Why Films Fail. This is an area that wouldn't make sense without Part 4, so they belong together, preferably as a separate book.

Parts 4 and 5 are what the fuss is all about. 

If you'll be happy writing a few short films, or maybe a couple of three-act, single protagonist features, you don't need this book. Stick to Blake Snyder, Michael Hauge, Linda Seger, or Christopher Vogler. 

But if you've ever dreamed of writing something with the complexity of a Pulp Fiction, The Usual Suspects, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, The English Patient, Crash, Fried Green TomatoesCity of God, 21 Grams, The Hours, or Memento, you need this book.

To be clear, a parallel narrative is about "two or more complete stories in the past and present." It is not "a linear three-act structure with a chunk of action from two thirds of the way through the story stuck at the start to grab the audience," as found in a film such as Michael Clayton.

I had naively assumed that there was but a single type of parallel structure and had been trying to work out the principles governing that. Linda Aronson tells us that there are "six different sorts of parallel narrative films, each structured differently and each transmitting a different philosophy." To explain:

"These six fall into two main categories: films that jump about in time and films that don't. The films that stay in one time frame are often called ensemble films, and there are three main kinds. The films that jump about in time are often called non-linear films, and there are two main kinds. Finally, there is a hybrid, which is very like one of the ensemble forms, but it incorporates time jumps."
If that sounds complicated, we've only just begun. For example, the non-linear forms include six classes of flashback, and four classes of consecutive story. But don't worry, there are over 250 pages explaining everything.


I won't attempt to summarise it all here. What follows is a brief explanation of each of
the six different sorts of parallel narrative films, together with some examples of films that adhere to that structure. For the rest, you need to buy the book.

1. Tandem narrative:

Films with equally important stories on the same theme, in the same time frame, with the action jumping between stories. Same theme, different adventures.

Traffic, Lantana, Nashville, Love Actually, Crimes and Misdemeanours, City of Hope

2. Multiple protagonist narrative:

Films about a small team of people thrown together in a group 'adventure'—a quest, a reunion, a siege (emotional/actual). All the main characters are versions of the same protagonist. Same team, same adventure.

Galaxy Quest, The Big Chill, Saving Private Ryan, Little Miss Sunshine, Mystic River

3. Double journeys narrative:

Multiple protagonist films with two characters journeying towards each other, in parallel, or apart (physically/emotionally). Two lives in parallel.

The Departed, Finding Nemo, The Lives of Others, The Queen, The Proposition

4. Flashback narrative:

There are six varieties of flashback, some simple, some complex, each serving a different story purpose. Some films have several kinds.

i) Flashback as illustration: a simple backstory device, e.g., when a detective asks, "Where were you on the night of April 5?" and we flash back to what happened.

ii) Regret flashback: non-chronological fragments from an unsuccessful love relationship (as in Annie Hall and And When Did You Last See Your Father?).

iii) Bookend flashback: a scene or sequence in the present that appears at the start and end of the film, 'bookending' the story (Saving Private Ryan, Fight Club).

iv) Preview flashback: the film starts on a scene or sequence midway or two-thirds through, then flashes back to the start, running through chronologically to the end (Goodfellas, Michael Clayton).

v) Life-changing incident flashback: one life-changing moment is revealed bit-by-bit in one flashback shown several times incrementally (Catch-22).

vi) Double narrative flashback: two or more complete stories centered on one enigmatic outsider are told in different time frames, with the action jumping back and forth between the two. Films in this form drop into two categories according to their view of human nature and each is structured differently. They are:

5. Consecutive stories:

Films that tell separate stories (with different protagonists) one after the other, coming together at the end. Their point is to make a political or philosophical comment. There are four main sorts.

i) Stories walking into the picture: new protagonists will walk into shot and the film switches to their stories (The Circle, Ten).

ii) Different perspectives: different versions of the same event (Run Lola Run); or different characters' versions of the same event (Rashomon).

iii) Different consequences from the same event: (Atonement).

iv) Fractured frame/portmanteau: several stories are split up and held within one story, which forms a frame (Pulp Fiction, The Butterfly Effect, City of God, The Joy Luck Club).

6. Hybrid:

Fractured tandem:

Fractured tandem runs equally important tandem narratives but fractures them, jumping between time frames (21 Grams, Babel, Crash, Three Burials of Melchiades Estrada).

Autobiographical narrator using voice-over:

The voice-over autobiographical narrator, honest or unreliable, can appear in all parallel narrative forms. It causes significant structural changes in double narrative flashback. Some films have a narrator who tells someone else's story, not their own, and who is either a minor player or an unidentified storyteller.


If you're worried about which is the best approach for your material, there is a whole chapter telling you how to decide.

The only other thing to emphasize is that
this is an advanced book. To follow much of it you need to be film literate. No, I mean seriously film literate. If you haven't seen most of the films listed in this brief summary, you're going to struggle to understand the points being made.

The 21st Century Screenplay is an extraordinary book. At less than $20, it represents an accessible investment for every serious screenwriter. You won't read and grasp it all in a weekend. It's a book which demands study; it's a book that will reward study. That's not something I can say about every screenwriting book on my shelf.

If you're serious about screenwriting, I recommend that you buy this book.


There is an interesting article (here) in The New York Times, 21 November 2012, which notices a trend in dispensing with storytelling conventions in the current crop of films.


Ed Love said...

This goes to #1 on my list of sw books to buy. Thanks for the great review. Utterly fascinating!

Unknown said...

Now I've learned something. My stories are double journeys narratives. I wonder how much of the point of view has to change to ensure this? I guess I'll have to buy the book if I want to find out.
Thanks for the concise summary as always, Henry.