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Structural Elements That Define Good Screenplay Film Studies Essay

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Film Studies
Wordcount: 2600 words Published: 1st Jan 2015

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Through my prism, a good screenplay can be made in many ways, as long as the writer of the artwork keeps up to some basic rules that have been reinforced through the years. In a relation to that, there are three essential elements without which it is impossible to create a fine script. The chief structure of a script should be based on the concept of thesis-antithesis-synthesis and accordingly it is supposed to consist of at least three acts, respectively beginning, middle and end. Key features also include a good conflict and a good character without which the screenplay can be defined as boring and unstimulating. One must not forget, though, that a good character is also a matter of a personal vision.

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To begin with, the idea of thesis-antithesis-synthesis is not just an important feature of a good film script but it is also not new. It is the simple formula created by Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel that came to be a feature in every good movie or play the common spectator sees today. Thesis is defined as a separate action that breaks out during a film or as a character who performs an action. In contrast, antithesis is actualized when an action opposite to the thesis act occurs. It is the converse of the thesis, as annotated. When combined, thesis and antithesis devise the synthesis. Synthesis is the resolution of the clash between the thesis and the antithesis, without matter if the result is positive or negative. Hegel’s concept also plays key role in finding out what the premise of a certain screenplay could be. A good example of Hegel’s formula being used is Frank Capra’s American drama film It’s a Wonderful Life (1946). To supplement, the scenes where George is on the verge of committing a suicide and Clarence’s successful attempt to prevent it is an illustration of how this dialectical method is applied. In one of them, George’s view that killing himself will make everyone happier is challenged by Clarence who presents himself as having been sent by God to protect him. In another one, ‘the guardian angel’ reveals to the protagonist what would have happened, had George never been born – his brother, Harry would have died at the age of eight, because George would not have been there to save him [the scene of Harry’s grave]; George would also have neither wife, nor kids, had he never existed; he would not have built a house for them and for himself too. In the final act, the conflict between the thesis (George’s wish to commit suicide) and the antithesis (Clarence’s way to show the protagonist what the world would be like without him) gets resolved: George prays to God to bring back the life he has had, realizing how wonderful it was and gets back to his wife and kids. As a result, the premise of the film is conspicuous: life is a gift that should not be spurned.

Furthermore, it is well known that the conflict is the heart of any story, be it a screenplay or a play that is performed in theaters. Therefore, a story without any real conflict is not a story at all. In his book, Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting, the famous screenwriting instructor, Robert McKee talks in details about the levels of conflict that are present in a certain screenplay. He explains that there are two main types of conflict – external and internal. Although in most screenplays the external conflict (conflict that occurs as a result of social conditions) is dominant, a good story should include a large portion of internal conflict (a conflict within the character) as well. In terms of the external conflict, it is clear that a protagonist in the film usually gets what they want in the end. However, if they carry out their wish without any obstacles on their way that will try to prevent them from doing so, the piece of work will be considered disinteresting and such motion pictures surely disappoint the viewer. So, to strengthen the conflict, the obstacle is often made to be superior to the protagonist in some ways. For instance, in The Terminator (1984), the main protagonist, named Kyle Reese, is sent back in time from the future with an assignment to protect Sarah Connor. The obstacle he has to deal with, however, is not a human but a cyborg (living human tissue over a metal skeleton), stronger, faster, and extremely hard to kill. This technique makes the viewers ask themselves whether Reese will deal with the obstacle or Sarah will be killed. In contrast, a great illustration of an internal conflict can be seen in George Lucas’ film, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005). The chief character, Anakin Skywalker is a Jedi Knight whose wife, Padme Amidala is pregnant. One night, while sleeping, he has nightmares of her dying in childbirth. Later on, Palpatine, who is the main antagonist, uses this nightmare Anakin tells him about and ascertains Anakin that there is a power to cheat death but it cannot be learned by a Jedi and the only way to achieve this power is by embracing the dark side of the Force. From this moment on, the struggle inside Anakin reaches deeper level. It appears that he is supposed to choose between two things: saving his wife from certain death by selling his soul to the dark side or remaining loyal to the Jedi and, as he fears, possibly losing Padme. There is one emblematical scene that clearly shows that fear. It is an intercut combination of the young Skywalker sitting alone on a chair in the Jedi temple council chamber thinking of his wife and Padme in her apartment, possibly looking in direction towards the Jedi Temple. The Jedi is confused as he keeps on starring outside. Minutes later, Palpatine’s voice-over could be heard: ‘You do know, don’t you, if the Jedi destroy me, any chance of saving her will be lost’. In this moment, tears run off Anakin’s face, as if he says to himself ‘I can’t do it, I can’t let her die’. When watching this scene, after Anakin leaves the Jedi temple, we think that the conflict within him has finished. But actually, a lot more is to come, to which I will pay greater attention when I talk about good character being necessary to create a good screenplay.

In addition, a story, that is considered to be in the category of ‘good stories’, will also comply with the concept of a good character which is usually the protagonist. When I say good, though, it does not mean that the character themselves are the so called ‘good guy’ but that there must be enough levels of internal conflict within the character. Of course, before creating levels of conflict within the character, one has to know their character as screenwriter Syd Field says in his book Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Knowing the character means to know: whose story it is? Who is the main character? What do they want? Without these basics, a character would not even exist. Nevertheless, are these basics enough for a character, so that they can be called a good one? Certainly not. This is the place where deeper levels of conflict are necessary to be shown, without matter if they are internal within the protagonist or interpersonal (between the protagonist and other people. It is well known that it is even preferrable to have a mix of both. To this common statement, I would add that a mix of both types of conflict has to be present indeed but the writer has to be careful how they do that mix. If it is so complex that the creator themselves have difficulties interpreting the levels of conflict, this will lead to a confusion and disinterest in the eyes of the spectator. For instance, if one gets back to Anakin Skywalker as presented in Star Wars Episode 3, they will find out that there are many levels of conflict some of which can be seen even after he has turned to the dark side of the Force. In the scene where the young Jedi turns to the dark side, before the turning point itself, there is a mix of extrapersonal struggle and internal conflict within Anakin. The intramural struggle actually emerges as a result of the extrapersonal clash between Jedi Master Mace Windu (the black guy with the purple lightsaber) and Chancellor Palpatine who has now been revealed to be Darth Sidious – the main antagonist in the movie. As soon as Anakin enters the hall where the two Force masters fought each other some minutes ago, we see the following picture: The chancellor is on the ground, next to a broken window. Mace Windu is about to finish him off. This is where the mixed conflict starts. Palpatine’s words ‘He is a traitor!’ mark the beginning of this mixed struggle. Windu then addresses the same words towards Palpatine. Afterwards, the close up of Anakin’s face and his facial expression show some confusion, as if he asks himself ‘Who is right? Who should I listen to?’. In an attempt to persuade Anakin to help him, Palpatine again states he could save his wife from certain death. In a response, the Jedi Master implies to the young Skywalker that the chancellor is only trying to turn him into his ally by talking such lies. As he puts his arm on his face to prevent himself from being blinded by the shining lightning bolts which the chancellor shoots from his hand, the collision inside him gets stronger. Shall he trust Palpatine/Darth Sidious in what he says? Or shall he take it that Master Windu is right? For the common viewer, the answer who is right and who is wrong is obvious. Not for the young Skywalker though. Suddenly, the mixed struggle turns into an interpersonal row between the two Jedi whether the chancellor shall be killed or tried and respectively jailed. On the other hand, after Anakin helps Sidious kill the Jedi Master, an internal sense of regret arises within the now ex-Jedi which, nevertheless, is ended by his new master. As a result, the viewer can infer that it is namely the great deal of confusion which sets forth the rise of interpersonal conflicts combined with interpersonal struggles that make Anakin Skywalker a good character.

Finally, last but not least important is one of Syd Field’s main ideas that a good character is also a matter of point of view. When he says ‘point of view’, he means, that a good character must represent the vision of the role they are in. He illustrates his concept with the example that if one’s main character is a parent, they have to behave like such and to share a point of view parents have. Here, Field is undoubtedly right. To illustrate, in the film Home Alone 3 (1997), the main protagonist is an 8-year old kid named Alex, whose mother obviously shares Syd Field’s idea shown in the instance of a parent character he gives. The act where Alex falls ill to chicken pox is an implication of that. He starts getting worried about staying alone at home because it looks like it is happening to him for the very first time. An 8-year old child that has no quite real concept of when things happen, would normally be afraid of becoming a victim of a tornado during the winter, or a thief (as he calls them ‘grown up crooks’), or even of his own imagination. This is only one of the moments where actress Haviland Morris and respectively her character, Karen Pruitt, the mother of Alex, shows her parental point of view. Her conspicuous reaction to her son’s fears would be to try and suppress them which she succeeds by explaining him that tornadoes, for instance, do not manifest during the winter. In addition, she clarifies to her little urchin that they (his family) live in one of Chicago’s safest neighborhoods. As for imagination, she truly replies that it is under nobody’s control but under his own. In the set where Alex calls the police twice because he really saw a thief but nobody trusts him, her parental point of view manifests again in a divergent way. Alex is surely right but what he lacks is evidence. Therefore his mother’s likely response is to not trust him but the police chief, to tell him off and respectively being annoyed with him. In contrast, by the end, when everyone finds out Alex Pruitt is right and the thieves are apprehended, Mrs. Pruitt’s understandable action is to apologize to her son for mistrusting him. This is namely how Home Alone 3 reflects Syd Field’s statement that every character has to represent the role they have been assigned properly.

To summarize, a good screenplay can be created in many ways. As it became understandable from the above expressed thesis and argument, nevertheless, there are some standard elements, without which it is not possible to achieve this desired effect. At least a three-act structure is crucial, so that a certain film or play can find its place among the good pieces of art. The three-act structure must consist of thesis, antithesis, and synthesis. The synthesis can be positive, negative or between the two, i.e. bittersweet. A good story consists of a conflict shown in many manifestations and circumstances, internal (within character) or external (between people, factions, etc.) alike. Turning points are essential within a conflict as well, without matter if they are in favor of certain character or for their embarassment. The final piece that a screenwriter has to think about well, is a good character. This means lots of levels of conflicts within the respective personality as well as good character from the point of view of their creator himself/herself. With the instances given through citing works of Syd Field and Robert McKee, and the films cited above, the basic idea of a good screenplay structure has been consecrated.

WORDS: 2500 (without bibliography, filmography and footnotes)


Capra, Frank, It’s a Wonderful Life scenes online at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pA_AgSDgXc8HYPERLINK “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pA_AgSDgXc8&feature=related”&HYPERLINK “http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pA_AgSDgXc8&feature=related”feature=related in Steve Chen’s www.youtube.com (2005, Google Inc., San Bruno, CA)

Definitions online at: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/Hegelian+dialectic in Lexico Publishing Group’s www.reference.com owned by InterActiveCorp

Field, Syd, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, (1979, 1982, 1994 Dell Publishing; New York)

George Lucas, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Script, scenes 88 and 125, found at Col Needham’s http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Star-Wars-Revenge-of-the-Sith.html

George Lucas, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith Script, Scene 128 found in Col Needham’s http://www.imsdb.com/scripts/Star-Wars-Revenge-of-the-Sith.html (1990)

McKee, Robert, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, (1997 New York, USA)

Sanders, Steve, http://www.steves-digicams.com/knowledge-center/how-tos/filmmaking-tips/screenwriting-what-makes-a-good-story.html in wwwHYPERLINK “http://www.steves-digicams.com/”.HYPERLINK “http://www.steves-digicams.com/”stevesHYPERLINK “http://www.steves-digicams.com/”-HYPERLINK “http://www.steves-digicams.com/”digicamsHYPERLINK “http://www.steves-digicams.com/”.HYPERLINK “http://www.steves-digicams.com/”com , (1997, Internet Brands Family, El Segundo, CA, USA)


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