Monday, July 7, 2008

A Practical Manual of Screen Playwriting by Lewis Herman

Lewis Herman. A Practical Manual of Screen Playwriting. Cleveland: The World Publishing, 1963.

This book, originally published in 1952, is considered perhaps the earliest of screenwriting “text books”. The author Lewis Herman was upset over screenplays of that day with their violent jump cuts with characters suddenly leaving and returning in a confusing manner. He also saw television emerging as a new medium and writers familiar with movie length scripts were having trouble writing shorter scripts. Lewis Herman decided a book providing for advice on “screen playwriting” was needed.

Screenwriting is presented in this book as mostly a collaborative effort. A finished writer’s script then was often changed by a director, actor, or just about anyone in the room during shooting. Ironically, screenwriters were almost never present during shootings to join in final word dialogue discussions.

A screenplay is for an audience to view and not to be read, Herman advises. Many great writers have written great readable screenplays, yet the intriguing dialogue often fails when presented on the screen. This is why many great novelists failed as screenwriters.

Back then, there were 1,500 Screen Writer’s Guild members. Only about a quarter wrote screenplays. Many wrote only ideas and situations or only polished scripts with new scenes and additional dialogue. Some writers only came up with jokes to insert into films. This reflected the strong studio system of that time when many movie personnel worked full time directly with a particular studio.

The author recommends a screenwriter use creativity in developing a good story. The writer should imagine how the characters relate to the story and how the story should progress to a good conclusion.

A writer should observe people and events and consider how these observations may improve a screenplay. A writer should bring inner emotions into the open in stories yet do so in a believable manner.

A story must progress at its correct speed. This must be accomplished with continuous dialogue.

In the early years of movies, one person usually wrote, directed, filmed, and edited the entire movie. Formal screenplays were hardly ever written as shooting a story was done extemporaneously.

As movies became more complex, writers were hired. Vaudeville actors and comedians were often hired to write funny scenes. Separate writers often wrote the words on the title cards in the silent films.

As movies became even more complex, writers with various specialties constructed movie scripts. Idea writers created plots. Situation writers wrote title cards. A general writer coordinated all the writings into a finished script.

Many playwrights failed as movie writers. Plays often take advantage of lengthy dialogues and speeches that can work on the stage. Movie audiences tend to desire faster paced action on the screen.

Screenwriting was a process that often involved first selling an idea or an original work that often was designed as a vehicle that could best feature a particular star. Then a script would be written. As the costs of purchasing rights to ideas increased, more studios turned directly to screenwriters for ideas. Movie scripts involved story conferences with producers and writers and sometimes directors. The screenwriter would create a script that met the production requirements of costs, talent, etc. A treatment be approved by a supervising producer and then by the studio hierarchy. Treatments would be revised and resent through this process. Different writers were called in to replace previous writers. Back then some studio executives thought that scripts improved each time an additional writer became involved.

The author makes a strong point that a screenplay must have motion. It must have a story that moves.

The author also mentions the “radical departure” of the “Amos and Andy” television show using recorded applause. He “shudders” to think others may also use this technique.

Lewis Herman advises screenwriters to make observations in notebooks, select the best ideas, and develop them into stories. He advises considering twists on stories. Some idea may require further research.

Herman recommends the screenwriter to write a basic situational first act, use the second act to gradually develop the action to a climax, clarify and resolve the story situation, and then conclude the story in the third act.

The screenwriter needs to create characters that are neither perfectly good nor perfectly evil. Characters should have complexities that create conflicts. Herman argues while all stories are contrived, a screenwriter needs to create the least contrived story possible.

Characters should have opposing situations or be involved in problems that create conflicts. The problems should be credible while also posing a universality with which the audience identifies. The audience should feel empathy towards the character and the character’s problems.

Herman believes then that American films emphasized action and plot whereas European films emphasized character. Herman states the plot is the main component of a film over character.

Herman states there are nine general plot patterns. They are love, success, “Cinderella”, love triangle, return, vengeance, conversion, sacrifice, and family. Paying attention to plot pattern, character, and action can produce a good script.

Minor characters are also important. They have to be human with natural motivations.

Subplots are important. They should be integrated into the main plot.

Minor characters can be used as foils to the main plot or for comic relief or in a number of ways. A screenwriter should pay close attention to the use of minor characters.

Emotions shown in films have to be related to and motivated by action. They should have a shock value that creates a reaction from the audiences. There should be dramatic values caught in a dilemma. At all times, these factors need to occur in a coherent fashion. Herman warns against telegraphing upcoming events such that their dramatic values are diminished.

Herman explains that scripts creating suspense must show uncertainties that make an audience curious and anxious, yet empathetic, to learn the outcome. To achieve this, the audience needs a hero with whom they sympathize. Herman warns against withholding too many clues or else the audience will feel uninvolved and cheated. Herman recommends some tricks to cause suspense, such as having an unexpected character enter, a messenger in danger by a casual delay, ignoring an important item that otherwise would help, a vehicle’s tire blowing out, etc. Suspense can be created when a hero has to achieve a goal within a time frame and when the hero is being chased.

Herman states that plot gimmicks that change plots can be used in surprising an audience. He warns they are overused and can ruin a film if it doesn’t fit into the storyline.

Information useful later to a plot can be planted into early scenes. This information should not draw undue attention, must appear a normal part of the story without telegraphing its more significant means, should not be so obscure the audience will not later recognize its importance, and needs to reach its payoff without gimmickry.

Running gags can be used. Comic relief aids some scripts. Comic relief should be done by minor characters and be part of the natural flow of the script.

For humor, the wisecracking character often works best. Humor should seem a real part of any story.

Flashbacks can be effective but pose serious problems. They disrupt the natural flow that an audience is following and disrupt the audience’s desire to learn what will happen next by going in the wrong direction.

Avant-garde expressionist films can make good use of flashbacks if use properly and infrequently.

Herman recommends properly repeating character traits and important facts to keep an audience’s attention. He advises against quick conversation. Dialogue must be realistic.

Herman warns that many American semi-documentary movies contact too many facts and don’t pay proper attention to the story.

Screenwriters should watch out for holes in their stories.

Herman warns that a problem facing most films is they end happily and the audience expects such an ending. They are not surprised by the happy ending nor are they deluded by attempts to convince them that the hero might not achieve an objective. The star system of that day often foretold to audiences that the good guy star would achieve his reward.

Herman discussed shot directions. These are not standardized. One director would consider a medium shot from the hips up while another would consider a medium shot from the knees up.

A full shot, also called an “establishing shot” indicates a frame of reference, such as a location, where action will occur.

Film axiom is to use a full shot, a series of medium shots, close shots, close up shots, and then a full shot.

A medium close shot tightly shows the heads of two people.

Extreme close-ups can be effective but need to be used infrequently.

A moving shot should be used only when necessary. A panoramic, or pan, shot should follow the action. Pan shots should not be overused. A reverse pan shot that goes back and forth destroy continuity and should be used sparingly.

A dolly shot moves in or out onto the scene.

Camera angles or image sizes should be altered between shots.

Reverse angle shots can show emotions.

Close-up shots show the main action. Cut away shots show the related secondary action.

Continuity must be preserved when using time lapses and transitions.

American montages are a one sequence of multiple flash shots, usually to quickly demonstrate the passage of time.

A screenwriter should consider the tempo and rhythm of the script. The overuse of verbal clich├ęs should be avoided. A screenwriter needs to remember to write verbal dialogue and consider if characters have dialects. Monologues should be used rarly and only in reply to a character still onscreen.

Herman warns that cigarettes are overused as props by actors who don’t know what to otherwise do with their hands.

Background composition is an important part of movies. It helps creates moods. Music and background sounds are important components in setting moods.

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