“Writing Drama: A Comprehensive Guide for Playwrights and Scriptwriters” by Yves Lavandier. Translated from the French by Bernard Besserglik.
Yves Lavandier took a degree in Civil Engineering, then studied film at Columbia University, New York, between 1983 and 1985. One of his tutors was Frantisek (Frank) Daniel, the same teacher who inspired Paul Gulino, author of “Screenwriting, the Sequence Approach”. During this time he wrote and directed a number of shorts, then returned to France and embarked on a full time screenwriting career, mainly for television.
In 1987 he established a number of writing workshops, and produced a 12 page handout on the theory of screenwriting. When the handout grew to 100 pages he decided it was time to write a book. “Writing Drama” is the result of twenty years of film study, writing and teaching.
With 595 pages, 23 chapters (with an average of over 20 sections per chapter) and references to 1,467 different films and plays, “Writing Drama” is one of the most comprehensive books ever produced on the subject. It has become something of a bible for filmmakers in Europe and, since its translation into English in 2005, is now available to non French speakers.
“Writing Drama” is one of the most comprehensive books
ever produced on the subject.
He begins with the essence of drama – conflict – and provides an exhaustive examination of the subject. Here are just a few of the subtitles in the “Conflict” chapter – how conflict arises, conflict and the prospect of conflict, emotion, on the nature of conflict, conflict and plausibility, spectacle and unreality, drama as a critique of spectacle, conflicts without identification, ineffective conflict.
His 35 page chapter on obstacles poses interesting questions, such as “can we do without a villain?” and “what are inadequate obstacles”.
CRITIQUING THE EXPERTS
Lavandier has so many ideas, theories and observations that it is impossible to agree with everything he says, but I doubt whether any reader will fault his diligence and scholarship. He is a great fan of Hitchcock, but is also very critical where criticism is required (Hitchcock was also quite critical of Hitchcock). In a recent interview he set out his ideas on critiquing the experts.
“…I believe there are no untouchable works or writers….Many buffs tend to set up a shrine and cling to it. Then they go out on a limb to justify it all, weaknesses included, and forbid anyone to touch their holy space….I think it’s healthy to be (intellectually) free to express reservations about the classics.”
I believe there are no untouchable works or writers.
For the record, Lavandier is quite critical about the one feature he wrote and directed – “Oui, Mais..” – readily conceding that it was not a box office success.
There are so many well presented ideas in this book that it is impossible to do it justice in a short review. However, a selection of quotations will provide some of the flavour of “Writing Drama”.
UN PETIT GOUT DE LAVANDIER
On structure: “…no work of art can be created outside a system. Drama is language; a language is based in grammar, and grammar means rules.”
On conflict: “…the eternal fist fight is rarely the most interesting aspect of conflict in a given situation. We see this clearly in ‘8 Mile’: five-year-old Lilly is a terrified witness to family arguments and the beating up of her brother (Eminem). Her distress is more intense than the conflict she is watching.”
On American writing: “Excess is undoubtedly one of the secrets of the success of American cinema. This is not something that the Americans decided on consciously; simply excess is part of their culture. Everything in the United States is on a large scale: canyons the size of the Grand Canyon in Colorado, waterfalls the size of Niagara. Streets, buildings and motor cars that are all larger than life. The Americans do not do things by halves: when they are racist, they create the Ku Klux Klan.
What is a deficiency in other areas
can be a huge advantage in cinema.
When their police want to stake out and raid a drug trafficker’s home, it is a whole Washington district that goes up in flames. Militants against abortion do not stop at murder. There are psychoanalysts for dogs, clinics for plants and kindergartens for adults. Only in the United States are preachers so crazy, the television reality shows so mindless, the criminals so monstrous, the creationists so utterly convinced they are right, the rallies so over-the-top, the believers in political correctness so unbending. But what is a deficiency in other areas can be a huge advantage in cinema.”
The best way of getting a spectator to share
their concern and love for their protagonist
is precisely to spare them nothing.
On the protagonist: “…a good playwright or scriptwriter must know how to be cruel. Like judges, surgeons or referees, writers of drama are natural born persecutors. Some writers refuse to be cruel to their protagonists. It is simply beyond them. They identify so much with their characters that they suffer if they have to make them suffer. They fail to realise that the best way of getting a spectator to share their concern and love for their protagonist is precisely to spare them nothing, to laugh at them (in comedies) and to hit them when they are down.”
I began underlying Lavandier’s pearls of wisdom and quickly found entire pages covered with underlining. (Actually, I hate defacing books so I photocopied “Writing Drama” and underlined the photocopied pages.
It is more like an encyclopaedia of the craft of screenwriting
than a Hollywood style “how to” book.
Try photocopying a 595 page book in Officeworks under the eagle eye of a junior assistant who is just dying to read the Copyright (and Riot) Act to you). There is so much information, so many different points of view presented, and so many ideas forcefully argued that Lavandier’s opus can be quite exhausting. It is more like an encyclopaedia of the craft of screenwriting than a Hollywood style “how to” book. It covers so much ground and presents so many examples – from “Antigone” to “Zulu” – that it must be one of the most comprehensive works on the subject.
For all serious screenwriters, this book is highly recommended.
– Jack Brislee
Jack Brislee is a business broker and property developer by day and a screenwriter by night.
He has written 12 scripts, one in pre-production in the UK and one in pre-production in South Africa.
He collects and dissects books on screenwriting.