Dan O’Bannon’s Guide To Screenplay Structure by Dan O’Bannon with Matt R. Lohr (book review).

It’s been three years since scriptwriter Dan O’Bannon died in 2010. Before then, he wrote this book, ‘Dan O’Bannon’s Guide To Screenplay Structure’, with media student Matt R. Lohr helping him get his research and such put together. I should point out that O’Bannon was also a filmmaker-in-residence at Chapman University and was teaching scriptwriting. The book really was a means to translate this into a text for everyone.


Throughout the book, O’Bannon points out other scriptwriting books so you can seek them out for any potential benefits. He also points out that he started by looking for a formula which would make things easier for his own writing without much success. His dynamic structure technique is based on three acts: the build-up where everything is established, why the characters don’t walk away or the point of no return combined with the conflict and the resolution. With tests at the end of most chapters, you can see how much you’ve absorbed and learnt, so is likely to be the kind of book you would come across at film school.

The book is littered with examples, including some of his own screenplays, although I wish he’d explained how much a pair of scriptwriters share on a single script, especially as he co-wrote so many films. In the later part of the book, O’Bannon does point out that scripts get re-written by many writers as the director tries to hide the original writers and the Writers Guide in the USA ensures the right credits are given. You would think by now that directors would know better. After all, it is the original script that brought them in to film it in the first place.

Don’t think that this kind of book is just for scriptwriters. As a prose writer, I find I can learn from other mediums as well and, as I was reading, worked out a problem in one the stories I’m currently working on from one word O’Bannon used: Conflict! If there is anything sagging in part of your story, look for the conflict and inflict some more of it between your characters. I’m also glad to say that O’Bannon supports mapping the plot out rather just write and hope for the best and stumble a few chapters in. Even if you don’t keep to your plot, it is the frame for growth and re-plotting will always check where you’re going.

Something I didn’t know was that the 1942 film ‘Casablanca’s script wasn’t complete while they were filming it, mostly because they weren’t sure how to end it. Would Ilsa Lazlo stay with Rick Blaine or leave with her husband, Victor Lazlo? Love over loyalty with Blaine in the end taking the decision out of her hands. Quite why they couldn’t see that at the writing stage does tend to suggest that they weren’t sure which way the plot should fall. Maybe they didn’t know which would work better with Bogart’s wishes?

The analysis of twelve films, nine of which I’d seen, for their structure, both good and bad, illustrates one important thing which we, as reviewers, take for granted. Nothing should be beyond scrutiny! I find I will often watch a film once for pleasure, define that as you will, and once for analysis. If you’re a writer, both ways have their uses.

It’s interesting to note that the original 1956 ‘Invasion Of The Body Snatchers’ was O’Bannon’s favourite SF film.

The reason why the original 1960 film ‘Psycho’ works so well is because director Alfred Hitchcock wanted to throw the cliché plot of expectation out the window because no one had done it before.

The analysis of ‘Some Like It Hot’ (1959) where the villains are only in the beginning and end of the film reminded me that the same thing happened with ‘Witness’ (1985) and ‘Sister Act’ (1992).

The examination of the four story types made me think more about melodrama. If anything, it’s like the romance genre. It gives what it says on the box without any unexpected twists for the viewer or reader who wants some stability in their indulgence. It’s only over-use of a plot type that people get too used to it.

One thing a film script can do that a prose novel rarely does is jump in late into a story because the viewer can quickly catch up on what is going on. Try this with an unfamiliar film on digital TV sometime by not starting at the beginning sometime and see how much you grasp without seeing the beginning. O’Bannon also points out something that I suspect many of my generation did when young of getting to the cinema half-way through a film and stay there until you caught up by watching the second showing until you reached the point you got in. That’s less likely to happen these days with such precise scheduling and evicting people between performances. It does show something of our capacity to absorb films compared to books.

I liked how O’Bannon covers expectation and that scripts don’t always make a page a minute and that neither producers or directors don’t understand pace can change this at any stage of filming. He even uses ‘Alien’ as an example because Ridley Scott spent time in the opening showing around the Nostromo, adding to the screen time. Considering so many people go through film schools, it’s amazing that this attitude hasn’t changed over the years. I mean, if you have an action sequence with little dialogue, the script pages for this is going to rely far more on storyboarding that script and no one tells the artist how many pages he needs to display this or how much screen time it takes..

Keeping a few scenes in the script in case they are needed for more time or exercised if not needed is something akin to what I do in article writing where the odd paragraph is seen as a ‘dead’ one if need be and can be removed if an editor is squeezed for space or wants to put another illustration in is always a good policy.

A final thing noted and something I’ve always drummed into people is to take a break from what you are writing for a few days, especially when you have problems, and you’ll come back with a fresh eye. It makes it easier to spot where you’re going wrong. This break doesn’t mean you can’t be writing something else, so juggling various projects is always a sensible approach as they can keep your perspective fresh and might make things easier for those writing novels.

As you can tell by my reaction, there is plenty of information in this book for writers of all sort here. A lot of the above covers things I do and mentor others in. If you’re writing in any format and want to improve your storycraft this book will certain make you think. Understanding structure and making it work for you is always important. Although I don’t necessarily believe O’Bannon ever found a true formula he could fall back on, he does at least show a basic structure that you can apply and test your stories with if you’re getting a touch of writer’s block or not know what to do next. Certainly worth a read.

GF Willmetts

(pub: Michael Wiese Productions. 241 page enlarged paperback. Price: $26.95 (US), £26.95 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-61593-130-9)
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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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