A final round-up of Alexander Mackendrick’s fantastic rules for writing. For more of his wisdom, buy his book “On Film-Making”.
32. A SHOOTING SCRIPT IS NOT A SCREENPLAY. The beginning screenwriter should be discouraged from trying to invent stories in screenplay format.
- This one is, for the most part, no longer true. Most screenwriters compose their screenplay in a format that is close to a shooting script. Unlike most screenwriters, I usually develop my stories first as an outline, then as a prose treatment, and only then as a screenplay. The prose treatment step is crucial because it forces me to turn it into a continuous narrative. It’s easier to turn it into one big story if you don’t have all those “CUT TO:”s to fall back on.
33. A FOIL CHARACTER is a figure invented to ask the questions to which the audience want answers (asking the question may be more important than having the answer).
- As I point out here, it can be very powerful to let an unanswered question hang over the story. Sometimes it can be a foil character who actually states the hero’s false statement of philosophy.
- Unhappy endings only work if we see the possibility of a happy ending yanked out of their hands at the last possible moment. I’ve been getting caught up with Showtime’s “Homeland”, which is utterly fantastic, and they do this very well. If you consider the show’s premise, and take a step back, it should be very obvious that the general arc of the show will keep going from bad to worse, but astoundingly, week after week, they keep tricking us into thinking that things will go well for our heroes, only to yank the possibility of a happy ending away at the last moment. The penultimate episode’s ending last week was emotionally devastating to watch, despite the fact that we really should have seen it coming. I’ll have more to say about this show soon.
35. TWO ELEMENTS OF SUSPENSE ARE HALF AS SUSPENSEFUL AS ONE. Aristotle's principle of unity means that one dramatic tension should dominate. All others are subordinate to it.
- Most movies are about one person’s problem. A book is a friend, with which we can discuss a lot of different topics, but a movie is a stranger with a problem, and we expect it to stick to the point.
36. CONFRONTATION SCENE is the obligatory scene that the audience feel they have been promised and the absence of which may reasonably be disappointing.
- With very few exceptions, movies must climax.
37. What you leave out is as important as what you leave in.
38. Screenplays are STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE, STRUCTURE.
- This is Hollywood gospel but I feel that it isn’t universally true. If you’re naturally gifted at character creation, but you have to learn structure, then it can seem that way, but I have the opposite problem. I’ve always had a strong inherent understanding of structure, but bad instincts on character creation, so for me, screenplays are CHARACTER, CHARACTER, CHARACTER. As I put it elsewhere, we teach what we most need to learn.
- So true! I’ve done this while directing and always regretted it. In my review of Caught, I talked about the need to cast according to how the character feels, rather than how they would actually look.
40. ACTION speaks louder than words.
- Just as in real life, characters can tell us what’s going on, but they can’t tell us about the content of their character. Character must be demonstrated.
- This is one reason to polarize your protagonists: Every member of the team must represent a different point of view, or you should get rid of them. In Mackendrick’s Man in the White Suit, the characters are not merely defined according to rich and poor, each new person Guinness meets reacts in a unique way when they find out about his discovery.In the underrated heist thriller Hard Rain, we quickly establish expectations about the behavior of fourteen deftly-sketched characters, allowing the writer to upset those expectations when push comes to shove. Rather than have your plot lead your characters around by the nose, allow your characters to jerk your story in new directions.