Understanding Screenwriting

Understanding Screenwriting: Learning from Good, Not-Quite-So-Good, and Bad Screenplays
by Tom Stempel.

Continuum New York, N.Y. 2008.

230pp. ISBN-13: 978-0-8264-2939-1 Amazon Price: US $17.05


Tom Stempel has been teaching screenwriting at Los Angeles City College since 1972. He is a film historian and a writer, with four other books to his credit. “I am a teacher, not a guru,” he tells us in the introduction to “Understanding Screenwriting”. This is refreshing to hear in an industry that suffers from a surfeit of gurus.

Stempel’s approach is simple. He takes 55 screenplays, classifies them as good, not-quite-so-good, and bad, then analyses them generally from a screenwriting point of view. I say generally, because when he deals with the bad and the indifferent he tends to lose the screenwriting perspective and look at other aspects of the movie.


He is strongest when he analyses the films he likes. Here he follows the tried and true screenwriting principal of “show, don’t tell”. Instead of bashing us over the head with a cast iron screenwriting rule, then finding an example to fit the hypothesis, Stempel guides us through the screenplays, pointing out the good and the not so good bits, and providing his version of why they worked and why they didn’t work.

Instead of merely stating “once you establish something (a character, a process etc) in your script, you do not have to re-establish it each time”, he shows us how we learn that Prince Feisal in “Lawrence of Arabia” is a good judge of a person’s character and motivations. Feisal takes his time coming to grips with Lawrence’s character, but is very quick to sum up Jackson Bentley, the American reporter. Because we have seen this aspect of Feisal’s character once, we can accept it a second time immediately.


Stempel’s in depth study of “Lawrence of Arabia” makes Chapter 10, “Some Lawrence Wannabes” lively reading. He raises a number of script problems with “Troy”. Why is Helen so immediately welcomed by Troy and Paris’ father, King Priam? Why does Achilles say to Briseis, “you gave me peace in time of war” when all she really gave him was a quick romp in the hay? And why is Paris such a wimp?

Stempel reminds us that we are not really interested in the fact that “King Arthur” might have been a Sarmatian. This was interesting to David Franzoni, who apparently thoroughly researched late Roman Britain, but so what?

The elder Ptolemy tells us Alexander was a great man.
And he tells us again. And again.

He contrasts the opening of “Lawrence” – “he was the most extraordinary man I ever knew” – with the opening of “Alexander”. “The elder Ptolemy tells us Alexander was a great man. And he tells us again. And again. This is a terrible set up for a character, and even worse for the actor: who can live up to that introduction? Colin Farrell can’t.”

“Kingdom of Heaven” sees Balian, our blacksmith protagonist, become a farmer when things get tough. “Where did that come from?” Stempel asks. “He was not a farmer in France. He has expressed no desire to become a farmer, but there he is.”

Don’t bore us with long winded prologues.

In a more prescriptive book these examples would be preceded by rules. In “Troy” the broken rules are: “give the characters a reason for their reaction to each other” and “don’t cast Orlando Bloom as a man of action”. In “Arthur” it would be “don’t introduce an interesting historical hypothesis if it is irrelevant to the story”. In “Alexander” it would be “don’t bore us with long winded prologues”. And in “Kingdom of Heaven” it would be “don’t make your protagonist swap careers midstream unless you have foreshadowed this”.

Instead of laying out these rules, Stempel allows us to discover them for ourselves, through an analysis of good and bad scripts.


He also shows how rules can be broken. In Fargo, the Coen Brothers broke the first rule of the protagonist – he or she must be presented at the opening of the screenplay, or at least by page 5. Marge Gunderson (Frances McDormand) first appears 32 minutes into the 96 minute film. How do the Coen’s get away with it?

If your protagonist appears late in the screenplay,
provide as much texture as possible.

The answer is simple. The Marge Gunderson character is so well written and so well acted that we think we know her. Her pregnancy, her relationship with her husband Norm (who paints ducks), her work ethic, her “niceness”, and her intelligence are so quickly established that we feel that the character has been with us all the way through the movie. The rule that Stempel leads us to is this – “if your protagonist appears late in the screenplay, provide as much texture as possible to the protagonist’s character so the audience really knows that character”. Generally it is hard to get actors to play leading roles that do not show them on the screen in the first five minutes. It’s easier if you are Joel Coen and you are married to the lead actress.


“Star Wars” fans will be upset at the glaring errors that Stempel finds in the “Star Wars” scripts, but unless you find riveting the premise that “the taxation of trade to outlying star systems is in dispute”, and believe that “Naboo” is not a silly name for a planet, you will have to agree. Here Stempel shows how easy it would have been to fix these errors, but perhaps giving George Lucas advice is a bit daunting.

His demolition of “Titanic” is fun, but it has been done so many times that there is nothing new in this chapter. He does, however, acknowledge that for all its flaws it was an incredibly successful film, and disproved the idea that children have short attention spans. “The next time somebody complains about the short attention span of kids today remind them who turned out to see all 2 hours and 74 minutes of “Titanic” many, many times.” This is a good point, but why not say “3 hours 14 minutes?”


This is an informative and entertaining book that leads us, rather than prods us, to the reasons why some scripts work and others do not. It is not a book of rules. It is a book of examples. This is why it is enjoyable to read and why, when Stempel sometimes forgets he is meant to be talking specifically about screenwriting, not just films in general, he is to be forgiven. He also gains an enormous number of Brownie points by telling us he is not a guru. In fact, reading Stempel reminded me of Geoffrey Chaucer’s Clerk from Oxford – “and gladly would he learn and gladly teach.”

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.

2 thoughts on “Understanding Screenwriting”

    • Hi W

      You don’t need to know the films. Stempel’s script analysis on its own will guide you through. However, the book will make you want to see some of the films. I am actively looking for “The Crusades” (1935) because I want to see Queen Berengaria (Loretta Young) say to King Richard, “Ya gotta save Christianity, Richard, ya gotta”.



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