Essays (book reviews)

Linda Aronsonís
Scriptwriting Updated: New and Conventional Ways of Writing for the Screen
(Sydney: Australian Film, Television and Radio School/Allen & Unwin, 2000)


Manual Labour


The world is full of “how to write a screenplay” manuals. They have titles like Making a Good Script Great, Writing Great Screenplays, The Writer’s Journey and How to Write a Selling Screenplay. One can even speak of a veritable curse of such manuals – well, I did, at any rate, in a polemical 1999 essay [reprinted in Mysteries of Cinema].


Most of these guides for aspiring screenwriters (those in English, at least) come from America. This tends to mean that they are focused solely on mainstream industry successes – the plots of Witness (1985), Chinatown (1974), Casablanca (1942) and the Star Wars franchise are analysed over and over, as if yet to betray their sure-fire, box-office secrets. And they usually strenuously preach the need for “strong” narratives with a “central conflict” and a sole, unambiguous hero.


Australia eventually made its way into the screenwriting advice industry, first with Screenwriting: A Manual (Oxford University Press, 2000) by Jonathan Dawson [1941-2013], and then Linda Aronson’s Scriptwriting Updated: New and Conventional Ways of Writing for the Screen. (Note: according to the author’s official website, Scriptwriting Updated was effectively “superseded” by its “long-awaited, much-expanded successor”, The 21st Century Screenplay [Allen & Unwin, 2010].)


Aronson’s book has met with international success – and has even received the nod from such USA script manual gurus as Linda Seger and Christopher Vogler. There’s a welcome novelty factor at play in this acclaim: Aronson shows an awareness of traditions beyond Hollywood, such as Australian and British cinema.


“I think the American passion with one hero travelling a journey of redemption is historical”, commented Aronson in an interview I did with her. “The great literary icon of their culture is The Pilgrim’s Progress: Man in charge of destiny, Man changing to become better. It’s exactly what their notion of a film hero conforms to. In Europe and Asia, fate and a perceived lack of personal control is the norm. Australia comes between the two – we love the Pyrrhic victory”.


The most striking and valuable aspect of Aronson’s book, however, is her attempt to bridge the gap between old-fashioned principles of screen storytelling and the newer forms that have emerged in films including Pulp Fiction (1994) and Run Lola Run (1998). “I feel that film structure is rapidly changing, and we should embrace that process of change – indeed, work to take it further”.


At stake is the classical three-act structure that most screenwriting manuals claim to be the one, true foundation of all good films. It is simple enough to claim that a story has a beginning (a normal situation is disturbed), a middle (consequences of that disturbance) and an end (restoration of equilibrium) – that is, if it proceeds in a clear, linear fashion and plays out essentially between a hero and a villain.


But what, Aronson asks, of films with elaborate flashback structures, like Atom Egoyan’s adaptation of The Sweet Hereafter (1997)? What about parallel narratives, like Sliding Doors (1998)? Films with multiple characters, like American Beauty (1999)? Although Aronson doesn’t say so, many such films mark the long-delayed effect of the radical art cinema movements of the 1960s and ‘70s (such as the Nouvelle Vague) upon popular movies.


Paul Thompson’s foreword pitches Aronson’s book to a “new wave of screenwriters” because it “covers the great divide between the exception and the rule” in contemporary screenwriting practices. There is, in fact, an intriguing paradox at the heart of Aronson’s method. “My research has revealed that even the most complex forms of multiple story are actually heavily dependent on the nuts and bolts of the traditional three-act story”.


Scriptwriting Updated is a very nuts-and-bolts type of book, full of charts, diagrams, step-by-step breakdowns and checklists of useful questions. It reflects Aronson’s own practical background in the film and TV industries, with work on series including GP and Something In the Air, and Paul Cox’s early feature, Kostas (1979). She is also a playwright and novelist, nominated for the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for her second novel for young adults, Rude Health (1999).


Aronson’s scriptwriting advice balances free creativity – she often returns to Edward de Bono’s ideas about lateral thinking – against what she sees as the importance of structure, planning and plain, hard work. “Writing is a very intuitive, emotional business”, she comments, “and you need to impose objectivity. You really need a way to escape the emotional connection you have with the dialogue and characters”.


Aronson’s early training in music convinced her that ideas and emotion cannot be reliably and regularly transmitted without technique. “I have no problem with the notion of teaching people to write – an issue that many people seem to have a problem with. Of course, writers must have talent.  But to say that the teaching of writing is impossible or destructive is like telling a talented musician that the best thing they can do is shut themselves in a room and teach themselves”.  


In Aronson’s view, the new narrative structures now proliferating need more structure, not less. She rates Mike Figgis’ Time Code (2000), for example, as a fascinating but ultimately failed experiment. (I personally find it insufferable and inexcusable on every level.) “The interesting thing about parallel narrative is that, when it works, it works because it pegs its multiple stories to the high dramatic moments in the three-act structure. It’s the use of those dramatic high points that help the multiple narrative films cope with their inherent problems with pace, meaning and closure”.    


As someone with an intensely practical investment in screenwriting, Aronson is understandably fixed on what makes a movie “work” or “hold”. But sometimes the search for rules (so typical of screenplay manuals) can overwhelm the significance of the exceptions. Robert Altman’s Short Cuts (1993), for instance, is faulted for slowness, repetitiveness, “shaggy dog” false leads, absence of cohesion and connection, and a lack of eventful actions that would move its multiple stories forward in a satisfying way. This amounts to a gross misunderstanding and manhandling of Altman’s artistic intentions – one shudders at the thought of what a typical Alan Rudolph movie would do to her, let alone one by Tsai Ming-liang or Chantal Akerman.


For Aronson, the crucial concern is “audience expectations”. A recurring refrain of her book is the question “what film are we in?”. Like many writers, she seeks focus, clarity and economy in screen storytelling. But isn’t Altman’s agenda (to take one just one prominent example), honed across three decades in a market overlapping mainstream and festival/art cinema, rather different? We need to understand, in a more comprehensive and open-minded way, what is truly new about new narrative forms.


Aronson cheerfully admits the subjectivity of her judgments and awaits the commercially successful “difficult” movie that will “prove me completely wrong about everything”. Which is easy escape-hatch rhetoric to use, if one is unlikely to encounter anything much beyond the major or minor box-office charts!


In the meantime, Aronson continues to road test her screenwriting theories to ever-expanding audiences around the world. “I believe that writing and making films is hard because art is hard. Unfortunately, no one book or teacher or lecture is going to teach you all you need to know about writing. More’s the pity!”


© Adrian Martin March 2001

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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