"Dan O'Bannon's Guide to Screenplay Structure" Book Review
Written by Dan O’Bannon with Matt R. Lohr
2013, 272 pages, Reference
Book released on January 1st, 2013
There is not a secret recipe, silver bullet or magic potion for creating a script that will be instantly turned into a Hollywood blockbuster, or make the writer rich and famous. Those eager to enter the business will have no trouble finding “How-to” books on the subject, but unlike most selections, Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure takes a fresh approach to the challenge of writing a screenplay with a formula he calls “the Dynamic Structure,” which guarantees success — at least in terms of creating something audiences find satisfying.
Author Dan O’Bannon’s most famous screenplays include Alien and Total Recall. He wrote Dead & Buried and Lifeforce, directed Return of the Living Dead, made Dark Star with director John Carpenter (The Fog), contributed special effects sequences for Star Wars and kept writing until his death in 2009. He worked in the industry for decades and was never satisfied with how the system works and the determination to retain his artistic integrity resulted in him gaining a reputation as difficult. O’Bannon developed a structure for writing that started with the cardinal rule, “Don’t bore the audience”, and he continued making notes for decades on what eventually became this book, completed posthumously by Matt Lohr with assistance from O’Bannon’s widow, Diane.
Different teachers offer conflicting information on the prioritizing of key story elements, usually character over plot or vice versa. Many books offer a history lesson through the likes of Aristotle and the numerous Greek tragedies, following the idea that there are only a small number of original stories and that it is up to the writer to keep the material fresh. Dan O’Bannon begins this guide in a similar way, revisiting the teachings of Aristotle, and then shifts his focus to the approach of additional masters in the craft of screenwriting including Lajos Egri, Howard & Mabley, Syd Field and Robert McKee. O’Bannon offers his thoughts on each viewpoint, openly agreeing or disagreeing before ultimately setting out to present his own belief, that a script is best driven by conflict.
He makes his case by taking his concept through the standard three-act story pattern wherein Act One defines the conflict, Act Two elaborates that conflict to a “Point of No Return”, and Act Three resolves the conflict for good or ill. O’Bannon points to the sequence in Alien where the characters discover the titular creature aboard their ship as the moment when they have no choice but to deal with it as the “Point of No Return”. Character development is best presented in the reactions to conflict. He goes on to discuss the importance of pacing and the trick of filtering in exposition without bogging things down with unnecessary twists.
He provides examples from his works to reinforce certain points before putting his Dynamic Structure to task by applying it to a collection of films he did not write, including Casablanca, Citizen Kane, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, A Doll’s House, Dracula, Dumb & Dumber, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, King Lear, Psycho and Some Like it Hot. In one instance, while applying the formula to Lawrence of Arabia, his method fails and O’Bannon acknowledges this hiccup and turns his attention back to the works of the men whose screenwriting books he previously dismissed in search for a better solution.
O’Bannon is quick to point out that there is no such thing as an approach that works every time, but states that if a story is motivated by conflict, then the audience will remain invested until the end. He gleefully challenges the rigidity of the rules that can smother a screenplay and urges writers to maintain their perspective of the story, especially when dealing with producers. At the close of each chapter, the guide offers a series of interactive exercises urging readers to put the lessons into practice. This is a helpful and welcome addition that is brilliant in its simplicity. It is a shame that his advice is so concise and his views presented so effortlessly, as I would have easily read several more chapters filled with his observations and wisdom.