The other day a young screenwriter asked yours truly how I go about constructing a script.
“I start at the end. I need to know my ending and resolution—two distinct narrative end-points—before I start writing the script.”
The young screenwriter asked if my story ideas start with character or plot.
“Sometimes character, sometimes plot. A story I’m working on now started with an image. I met a female sniper. She had a beautiful manicure—nails laquered red as a Chinese vase—except for her trigger finger which was absent nail polish and bluntly cut. I can’t get that image out of my mind.”
How do I build a story from that image?
“I place that character within a landscape, a moral landscape, and develop a theme. For instance, with this character I pose a simple dilemma or conflict: Can she make herself vulnerable to love?”
“That’s it?” The young man asked.
“That’s more than enough.”
The young screenwriter asked if I could recommend any books on screenwriting.
The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri (1888−1967). It’s not a screenwriting manual, rather an in-depth study of classical dramatic structure, first published in 1946. Egri, a Hungarian-American theorist, writes primarily about the theater—to which I am allergic—but his analysis of dramatic construction is the most perceptive I have ever encountered and applies equally to film, novels or short stories. Premise, character, conflict: these are Egri’s ABC’s.”
“My young friend wanted to know: what’s commercial? What are the studios looking for?”
“The studios are made up of executives and they are looking to keep their jobs. As screenwriter William Goldman said: Nobody knows anything. Write a great script, that’s all you can do. It might not get produced but, hopefully, it will gain attention.”
Preston Sturges, perhaps the greatest producer-writer-director in Hollywood history—before the inevitable and tragic burn-out—did formulate Eleven Rules for Box Office Appeal:
1. A pretty girl is better than an ugly one.
2. A leg is better than an arm.
3. A bedroom is better than a living room.
4. An arrival is better than a departure.
5. A birth is better than a death.
6. A chase is better than a chat.
7. A dog is better than a landscape.
8. A kitten is better than a dog.
9. A baby is better than a kitten.
10. A kiss is better than a baby.
11. A pratfall is better than anything.
I believe Sturges was wrong with rule #11. In fact, the weakest parts of any Sturges film are the pratfalls, the physical comedy which, in his movies, filled with some of the wittiest dialogue ever written, are just awkward, and usually ruin the pace of his scenes.