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Storytelling in the New Hollywood: Understanding Classical Narrative Technique [Paperback]

by Kristin Thompson
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)

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Book Description

December 5, 1999 0674839757 978-0674839755 1

In a book as entertaining as it is enlightening, Kristin Thompson offers the first in-depth analysis of Hollywood's storytelling techniques and how they are used to make complex, easily comprehensible, entertaining films. She also takes on the myth that modern Hollywood films are based on a narrative system radically different from the one in use during the Golden Age of the studio system.

Drawing on a wide range of films from the 1920s to the 1990s--from Keaton's Our Hospitality to Casablanca to Terminator 2--Thompson explains such staples of narrative as the goal-oriented protagonist, the double plot-line, and dialogue hooks. She domonstrates that the "three-act structure," a concept widely used by practitioners and media commentators, fails to explain how Hollywood stories are put together.

Thompson then demonstrates in detail how classical narrative techniques work in ten box-office and critical successes made since the New Hollywood began in the 1970s: Tootsie, Back to the Future, The Silence of the Lambs, Groundhog Day, Desperately Seeking Susan, Amadeus, The Hunt for Red October, Parenthood, Alien, and Hannah and Her Sisters. In passing, she suggests reasons for the apparent slump in quality in Hollywood films of the 1990s. The results will be of interest to movie fans, scholars, and film practitioners alike.

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Editorial Reviews

From Library Journal

ThompsonAcoauthor of The Classical Hollywood CinemaAdoesn't agree with current film historians who claim that a "post-classical" style (fragmentary scenes often built around spectacular stunts, stars, and special effects) now dominates American moviemaking. The classical narrative style, a unified narrative of an easily understood chain of cause and effect with a goal-oriented protagonist that was popularized in Hollywood's Golden Age, remains the norm. To prove her point, she analyzes the narrative structure of ten popular films of the 1980sAincluding Amadeus, Alien, Tootsie, and Parenthood. This analysis of individual films forms the bulk of the book. Thompson also takes the opportunity to critique another popular notionAthe three-act pattern predominant in Hollywood screenwriting manuals. She prefers a film structure divided into four parts of roughly equal screen time: the setup, the complicating action, the development, and the climax. Well argued and well presented, this book is recommended for academic and special subject collections.AMarianne Cawley, Charleston Cty. Lib., SC
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.


Thompson...trespasses on the turf of the screenwriting gurus here, gun in hand, to blast away at the three-act structure universally accepted in the business since Syd Field codified it in his 1979 book Screenplay. In its place she proposes four acts, sections of roughly equal length which she labels 'setup,' 'complicating action,''development' and 'climax and epilogue.' (Alistair Owen The Independent)

It was wonderful to read a book where I felt the writer knew what was going on in my mind while I was directing the film. Kristin Thompson was able to illuminate all the structural twists and turns of the plot, the character development, as well as the small details and symbolic references that directors put into their work, but often go unnoticed by the average moviegoer. (Susan Seidelman, Director Desperately Seeking Susan)

Thompson's insightful analysis of Ground Day and of the screenwriting process in general should be fascinating toboth writers and audience alike. More thoughtful writing and more discerning audiences can't help but lead to better movies, and this informative and provocative book is a step in that direction. (Harold Ramis, Director, Ground Day)

How refreshing to encounter a film scholar who understands that, first and foremost, movies must be written. Thompson's book offers an invaluable resource not only to professionals, but to any dedicated moviegoer who wants to better understand the intricate cratf of telling stories on film. (Ted Tally, Screenwriter, The Silence of the Lambs)

Product Details

  • Paperback: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (December 5, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674839757
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674839755
  • Product Dimensions: 9 x 7 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #780,550 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
26 of 30 people found the following review helpful
By A Customer
While this book covers some of the same ground (if not the same exact screenplays) as Thomas Pope's well-written GOOD SCRIPTS, BAD SCRIPTS, Ms. Thompson clearly knows her stuff.
Just to have an educated author present an argument against 3-Act structure is provacative (Hollywood wants formulas, not new paradigms). In the rush to collapse the shelves of bookstores across America, too many "how-to-write-a-screenplay" tomes have twisted the 3-act structure into a cliched checklist far removed from any aesthetic considerations. This book shows the limitations of not only the 3-act philosophy, but other screenwriting "rules" as well.
While the critiques of all the films were full of insights, I preferred the chapters which discussed the differences/similarities between "old Hollywood" and "new Hollywood" with regard to "classic" storytelling and today's movies' cookie-cutter-characters with every-plot-point-in-its-place.
For both writers and the viewers this book proves to be a thought-provoking read not only about film, but the nature of story itself. You'll never look at movies, or your own memories, the same.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Finally some real INSIGHT in a screenwriting book March 12, 2007
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I have read some three dozen books on screenwriting -- most just rehashes of what others have already said. They tend to be mostly accurate but never helpful or illuminating. But Kristin Thompson's book is different and here's my analogy explaining how: If screenwriting was a foreign language then those other manuals might be able to teach you the mechanics (vocabulary and grammar), but Thompson will make you fluent. I can not recommend this book highly enough.
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I'm surprised this book hasn't received more attention.

Through detailed analyses of several popular films, Thompson argues that effective films feature a major turn near their midpoint (where less effective films tend to sag). This turning results in a structure of 4 acts of roughly equal length, rather than the uneven 3 acts (Syd Field's quarter, half, quarter) typically touted in screenwriting books. If true, Thompson's theory could revolutionize the way young screenwriters approach their stories, and spare countless filmgoers the watch-glancing and bun-shifting that occurs during the drawn-out 2nd acts we often sit through.

If you find your 2nd act running out of steam, and/or want a fresh perspective on filmic plot structure, read this book. Better yet, test its theory first: skip to the middle of some of your favorite films and see whether a major turn occurs near the halfway point, pushing the story in a new direction and reinvigorating it. (E.g., Ghostbusters: first half is fun & games, but at the midpoint the demondogs grab Dana and Louis and the Gozer story kicks in.)

(To be sure: Thompson's book isn't a how-to or a simple cure-all; there's much more than that going on her analyses. I just wanted to comment on this one aspect.)
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5 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Check it out at the library September 7, 2002
This book analyzes 10 movies -- their structure, plot points, etc, protagonists, antagonists, etc. It didn't take me long to get through the book because several of the chapters focus on movies I didn't like.
Once through the book and I think you'll find all you need. This isn't one that you pick up again and again to get you through the rough spots. Borrow it from your local library, spend a day or two pulling out what you need and then return it. There are many other books that will be more useful to you as references.
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