Book Review: Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure

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Publisher: Michael Wiese Productions

Release Date: January 1, 2013

Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure is exactly what one might expect from the title. However, it isn’t quite like any of the other manuals on the market. Its focus is on structure, and it does not digress from this subject (until the last few chapters of the book). The first part of the book is devoted to summarizing a variety of other structure manuals, including Aristotle’s Poetics, Syd Field’s Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting, and Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. O’Bannon gives thorough summaries of these systems, complete with sometimes sarcastic commentary (and criticism) from O’Bannon. However, O’Bannon’s system is simply a more flexible version of the three act paradigm. There are differences in his understanding of the major turning points, and his view of the nature of conflict, and these differences are addressed in the text.

A large percentage of the book focuses on the structural analysis of various films. These actually contribute as much to the reader’s understanding of screenplay structure as anything else in the book. It also becomes evident that O’Bannon (like so many other manual writers)  judges the merits of a script on whether or not the script conforms to classical structure. This can become slightly irritating. One such example is his take on Lawrence of Arabia.

“It’s clear, though, that by any yardstick, you can’t accuse Lawrence of Arabia of being a typical film. The story is strewn with conflicts, all of them basically incidental. The film really exists, or so it seems, to provide a framework for one maddeningly elusive question: Who was this guy? And it doesn’t even answer it. It just asks it – over and over again, which may be why people have come back to this film for fifty years now. Maybe they’re hoping that this time, the sands will shift in their favor, and the mysteries will finally be solved.” – Dan O’Bannon (Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure)

Perhaps, but it seems much more likely that people come back to this classic film because they find it engaging despite it’s untypical structure. Why do scriptwriting manuals find it necessary to look upon successful films that diverge from their normal 3-act structure as flawed freaks of nature? Why not accept that while the 3-act structure is a useful tool, it is by no means the only method. Many films are loved because of their unusual approach. This fact does not make the 3-act structure any less useful. It is rather unfortunate that these manual writers find it necessary to strip them of their merit based on the mere fact that they not fit snugly into their pre-made box. This is only a small complaint, and O’Bannon is certainly more open-minded than a lot of other manual writers.

This certainly isn’t the most comprehensive screenwriting book, but writers will find O’Bannon’s text helpful as an accessory to the more rigid screenwriting manuals.

Review by: Devon Powell

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