When the script and story gurus speak

Most ‘gurus’ each have their own area of expertise and angle of attack, they each follow their own agenda. And with every new light shed on the craft, different people may see that light.

Don’t they ever contradict each other? And if they do, which truth do YOU choose?

Screenwriting is a dynamic craft. What Syd Field wrote back in 1979 was state-of-the-art… but things change.

Earlier theories fall short when it comes to writing successfully for today’s audiences.

And surely Aristotle’s basic ¬†beginning-middle-end will not get you far – if applied only to the story spine.

Screenwriting principles and techniques keep getting ever more sophisticated as successful movies bend or refine the old molds and screenwriters share their secrets.

The mere fact that the gurus keep being reprinted (Field for thirty years now, Aristotle for 2,000) exposes them to obsolescence. Yet there doesn’t seem to be any flagrant contradictions between what most recognised story teachers and screenwriting authors have said.

Here is a choice of statements and claims that you may not fully agree with. Let us know what you think:

– McKee says “The finest writing not only reveals true character, but arcs”. This sweeping statement has been successfully contested by Mystery Man in a fine piece of research and clear and unbiased thinking.

– John Truby and James Bonnett denounce the 3-act structure. As I yet have to find a discrepancy between Truby’s teaching and the 3-act structure, I assume it’s just a matter of marketing.

–¬†Michael Hauge once said that Inner and Outer journeys are completely separate. In an interview on this blog he tells us how he has changed his view on this, which will be included in the revision of WRITING SCREENPLAYS THAT SELL.

– In Save The Cat, Blake Snyder called the Mid Point either a “false peak” or a “false collapse”. No mention of an Inner Journey, which is essential to e.g. Michael Hauge’s approach to that crucial story point.

–¬†Defining what we call the Inciting Incident, Billy Stoneking asks “What INITIAL PROBLEM or OPPORTUNITY confronts or is created by the main character […]” This includes the assumption that the Inciting Incident can be created by the Hero.

Kal Bashir in his detailed and insightful Monomyth eBook says: in Star Wars (1977), music when Luke appears signals that there is a quality about him.” But what use is it to the screenwriter?


What theory do you follow? Ever changed your mind along the way?

A very small minority of successful screenwriters denounces all theory. They follow “their gut”. But most working writers know there’s a hell of a lot you can learn from studying films and screenplays as well as reading up on modern story theory.

In my work with screenwriters, I’m learning every day and I constantly refine my own views. In the first screenwriting lesson I ever taught, I stated that the Inciting Incident should be a ‘deus ex machina’ (oh dear oh dear…). I knew darn well what a deus ex machina was but clearly hadn’t nailed the essence of the Inciting Incident yet.

I also once disagreed with Linda Aronson when she stated that Ridley Scott’s THE INSIDER was a failure. I vehemently argued against this. Boxoffice Mojo reports for THE INSIDER a worldwide Box Office of $60,289,912 and a budget of about $90,000,000.

Epic fail, Segers.

14 thoughts on “When the script and story gurus speak”

  1. For a theory to be of any value then it must be able to make predictions about the reality it addresses.

    I have looked at a number of theories of story but have found only one of them to be comprehensive enough to be satisfying. But then I am a bear of little brain.

    Dramatica is not prescriptive in telling you how or what to write. However, it ensures that the underlying structure of your story is complete. It certainly does not reduce a story to a set of mechanistic algorithms.

    Not only does it work for narrative/dramatic fiction but I have also found it extremely helpful with documentary projects. In fact, when a friend of mine was in a bit of a corporate battle we put the essence of it into Dramatica which gave surprisingly accurate insights into what was going on.

    Dramatica Theory describes what it calls a grand argument story. And that means a story that is structurally coherent, obeys the rules of its context and makes an argument that is both logically and emotionally convincing.

    It describes a grand argument story as being a mind’s solution to a problem. It is therefore rich with cognitive psychology, for that is how stories work in our heads.

    Accompanying the theory is a software package that has saved me from all sorts of stupid mistakes to which my lack of competence makes me prone.

    It is not an easy thing to get into but I have found it very much worth the effort invested. There is so much free teaching material on the site that there is no real excuse for not giving it a try. Read the comic book first.

    Following my (not inconsiderable) gut? Yes, but I check it with Dramatica to ensure that it’s a complete story and not just a slew of events followed by a conclusion – because that’s a fairy tale; just like the news.

    For such an ancient human activity it’s surprising that there is still no generally accepted definition of story. It appears to be a generic term that we all understand – or do we?

    • Hey Simon,

      I know this comment of yours was from 4 years ago,

      BUT… :)

      2 things in it strike me as pure bright shining gold, here (ie – that you said): namely – your opening and closing remarks in that Comment…

      1) “For a theory to be of any value then it must be able to make predictions about the reality it addresses.”

      – This was actually the exact reason I undertook my doctoral research on screenwriting… which of course Karel (and the gang here at The Story Dept) have kindly invited me to guest-post…
      (Backstory: For 20 years, I kept looking for a film Story Theory that would actually predict something (other than: `this should work…maybe…?’), actually using: The Scientific Method. And – I never found one. And thus: my research.)

      2) “For such an ancient human activity it’s surprising that there is still no generally accepted definition of Story. It appears to be a generic term that we all understand – or do we?”

      This actually cracks me up, as it’s so true. Ask 3 random screenwriters what `Story’ is and you will most likely get 3 answers.
      Exactly the same with: “Define Creativity.”
      …Fascinating, non?

      I actually have a definition of `Story’ that I (tentatively) propose in my thesis. (Of course: whether it ever becomes `generally accepted’ or not – is another matter.)
      It’s not actually my own definition. (I didn’t invent it.)
      But – it is the best one I have ever found so far. (In searching through: literally hundreds of books in the literature on screenwriting, story, narrative – etc)

      I also once published a free Literature Survey (a summary of over 100 books on Story/Screenwriting).
      It’s here, if it’s of interest: http://uws.academia.edu/JTVelikovsky/

      (ie – The Feature Screenwriter’s Workbook)
      It’s used on a lot of universities as a `subject introduction’ (to Screenwriting).

      And by the way – even so (even with a summary of over 100 texts) it doesn’t actually contain the definition of `Story’ that I’m now referring to :)

      Which – also makes me wonder, philosophically: How can we `centralize’ the knowledge on Screenwriting?
      – How does any (other) Creative Domain actually do it? (eg – Physics, Maths, Music, etc?)
      There are of course: industry – and academic – conferences, journals, popular texts, etc (for all creative domains) –

      But: discoveries in Academia – generally – take *around 7 years* on average to `filter out’ into the Field (ie – Industry/general practise) and – by then – they’ve (academia) already moved on, and: are still `7 years ahead’…)
      To quote Wile E. Coyote – `Yikes’.

      A Burning Q: How to close that 7-year gap???


      (Hmm – well; actually: a blog like The Story Dept is a great start…)



      PS – I mean, hey, it only took me 4 years to respond to your and Karel’s Comments on this (fascinating) topic. On the bright side, maybe that’s exactly 4/7ths better than: 7 years..? :)

  2. Thanks for your comment Simon. Any theory that is not a bland ‘beginning – middle – end’ is worthy of consideration.

    But I would vehemently disagree that fairy tales are ‘just a slew of events followed by a conclusion’.

    You might be interested in looking at The Hero’s Journey. If you can handle Dramatica, you can handle Campbell! ;)

  3. Perhaps I was too dismissive of fairy tales. But at best they do tend to make an argument that is limited to a specific case, like ‘bad things happen if you go wandering off in the woods’. Whereas a grand argument operates at a generic level such as ‘survival in an alien environment requires preparation’.

    Perhaps it’s simply the limitations of a short story. And perhaps I am just too hung up on argument – but it works for my voice of the audience so-what-who-cares test.

    Certainly news output exhibits the ‘slew’ thing. And we still call them stories.

    I’ll take a look at Campbell on your recommendation.

    If you’ve not already come across it I commend this page on Native American storytelling if just for the eight categories: http://www.pbs.org/circleofstories/voices/index.html

  4. I’ve taken classes by Robert McKee, John Truby, Bill Martell, David Freeman et al and I’ve got maybe 50 different screenwriting books on my shelf that tell me about 3-act structure, Aristotle, Sequence methods, Character, Plot, Jungian archetypes and the software……I could go on.

    While I don’t fully subscribe to William Goldman’s famous quote the one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that no-one knows everything but some people know something. By that I mean that while none of these classes, books or methods is a magic bullet, while you’re sitting writing they will coalesce into a cohesive set of mental reminders, jogs and notes that will prompt you; “that’s too obvious”, “twist it this way”, “that needs foreshadowing”, “too obvious” etc. and together they will improve your writing.

    From my, albeit limited, experience, if you’ve never taken a screenwriting class or read a book or joined a group then your work will, without doubt, suck a big, fat, hairy pair of ’em but at least if you know some of the ‘rules’ then you have a fighting chance of writing something half-decent and maybe even successfully break them.

  5. You say that kal bashir says in his insightful 510 stage hero’s journey “music indicates that there is a quality about the hero” ; but what use is that? well as a screenwriter, that is pretty darn useful – I know that when I introduce the hero I have to indicate a quality. I think part of the problem is that we undervalue or misinterpret these very insightful people.

    • Be wary of Kal Bashir’s Hero’s Journey – foolishly buying his product caused a lot of wasted energy and grief. It is not what he advertises it as on his site and i had to report him to Amex and PayPal to get my money back as he refused to do so. On his site he uses examples of films and alludes that to get the detailed film breakdowns you need to buy his product but when you receive his ebook – there are absolutely none included. Not even one film showing the full journey.

    • Goldmith – you need to distinguish with diegetic and non-diegetic. As screenwriters it is not our business what a director does. We need to make the story work without non-diegetic elements. Period.


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