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Dan O'Bannon's Guide to Screenplay Structure: Inside Tips from the Writer of ALIEN, TOTAL RECALL and RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD Paperback – January 1, 2013
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About the Author
Matt R. Lohr is an award-winning screenwriter, essayist, and critic. His views on contemporary and classic cinema can be found on his blog, “The Movie Zombie.” He lives in Los Angeles.
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Anyways, I saw that he wrote a screenplay book and thought I would pick it up and see what one of my favorite screenplay writers has to say. I was pleasantly surprised at the oddness of this book.
Mr. O’Bannon starts his book by reviewing a handful of other seminal story how-to’s. Poetics, Story, The Art of Dramatic Writing among a few others. He gives an opinionated run down of the high points of each book.
He then goes into structure by conflict. Something I found refreshing and somewhat similar to the process Mr. Etheredge teaches. He also breaks down several movies using this structure technique.
The most interesting point in the book is how he defines conflict as a transaction. Two characters or groups of characters who disagree on how to resolve an issue. I like this thought process and I am using it on my current story to see where it goes.
The last few chapters he goes on a rant about different aspects of film production. Not sure what to make of that but it was interesting reading none the less.
I am always looking to refine my writing process. I think everyone’s is different. The only way to find out what works for you is to write, read and try new things.
O'Bannon, who penned such popular films as Alien and Total Recall, presents what he calls "Dynamic Screenplay Structure." His deceptively simple method looks at the modern three-act structure and how it relates to "reversals" of the plot – in other words, developments which send the story in a completely new and (hopefully) surprising direction. It is his belief that this simple approach can salvage even hugely problematic scripts.
Citing examples from both classic and contemporary cinema, O'Bannon and his co-author, Matt Lohr, skillfully provide an entertaining look at how both successful and unsuccessful films either use or fail to use this approach and what this means to the would-be writer. At once a witty commentary on the current state of filmmaking and a helpful tool for the writer who needs to rework a flawed script, this book is bound to be of interest to even the casual student of film theory.
Dan O'Bannon tragically passed away in 2009 after a lengthy battle with Chrohn's disease, but his legacy lives on, both in his on-screen work and in this useful and engaging book that belongs in every serious film enthusiast's library.
As a bonus he gives you the run down on the evolution of story structure from the beginning of Greek theater. This synopsis alone would make the book worth reading.
I think this book would be helpful for people who are interested in the process of screenwriting but it'll be even more helpful for people who already have story ideas and are looking for an answer to the question "how can I best present my ideas to the audience (and producers)?"
Top international reviews
The Alien that Dan wrote, and the variation that Ridley Scott directed, is based on rhetorical repetitions that build to a dramatic climax of options. Dan's criticism of Dramatica (and I am not an advocate for Dramatica, even though I do use Dramatica), is somewhat cursory. The Alien that Dan wrote, is a fundamental piece of Sci-Fi, as in the literature of an idea for a monster that is distinctive and distinctively different to the Vampire, the Predator, the Werewolf, for example, that did not require much in the way of development, as per the dynamic interplay of the story and characters' dynamics. Aspects of story that Dramatica does help to develop and guide one, to keep consistent. It should be pointed out that the original Predator follows a similar form to that of Alien, which is probably why it was that Predator did not WOW the critics, on it s release.
The Ridley Scott version of Alien, did try to fatten things out, beyond the appeal of a straight Sci-Fier, via an emphasis of the characters' interrelationships and their relationship to the company. I felt that this was rather overly done, via the whining of Parker and Brett, and one could conclude that Alien is akin to an industrial dispute without the option of arbitration, with the Alien acting as the company's unstoppable, union-busting enforcer.
Dan's dynamic structure will help to make it more likely that the story will work. Yet the writer needs to be mindful of how their workable story, may face significant issues, when it comes to broadening the appeal of their story. A phenomenon that is a challenge for many other stories. For example: Predator, The Verdict, etc.