The Way Hollywood Tells It: Story and Style in Modern Movies

By David Bordwell | Go to book overview

1. CONTINUING TRADITION,
BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY

We can see Hollywood’s judicious balance of continuity and innovation in the emergence of contemporary screenwriting rules. Contrary to those who would argue that today’s movies are mere agglomerations of star power, special effects, raucous comedy, and shattering violence, the dozens of screenplay manuals pouring from the presses have demanded tight plot construction and a careful coordination of emotional appeals. We can’t take these manuals wholly on faith—we’ll need to test them against finished films— but their consolidation of studio-era principles nicely exemplifies how modern American moviemaking pays its tribute to tradition.


Acts, Arcs, and Archetypes

Few screenplay manuals inspire confidence. If you want proof that contemporary Hollywood is formula-ridden, look no further than Syd Field’s “Paradigm,” with turning points absolutely required on script pages 25–27 and 85–90. One author explains that in action movies “the Sidekick’s main jobs are to help the hero, provide comic relief, and be murdered by the henchman at the end of Act 1 or the end of Act 2.”11 The jacket blurbs compete in zany hyperbole. Lew Hunter dubs William Froug “THE premiere screenwriting teacher in the history of motion pictures,” while Hunter’s own book is praised as “the final word on screenwriting.” Apparently not, though, since Hunter says of another manual, “This is the best book on screenwriting today—even better than my own!” Long on anecdotes and famous names, the books have a confessional charm. Field says that years after attending UCLA and working in the film industry, he suddenly realized that act 1 had to set up the story and introduce the main characters. Later, when teaching a course on screenwriting, a student asked him, “What is a screenplay?” “The question took me by surprise. I had no answer, so I just kept talking.”12

Screenwriting manuals have been published for nearly a century, proliferating at moments when the industry welcomed outsiders.13 As the studios downsized in the 1960s, writers were no longer on contract, and story departments shrank. Each film was a one-off production, and the screenplay formed the core of a package that might attract a director and a star.14 The aspiring writer submitted an original screenplay (a “spec script”) to an agent, who shepherded it to a studio or an independent producer. The odds were overwhelmingly against that script’s being bought or filmed. With luck, it would serve as an intriguing writing sample for other assignments.

The flood of manuals that broke forth in the late 1970s responded to this

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