BBC TV Drama Writers’ Festival. Part 3


John Yorke
on the relationship between theory and practice in TV drama script development.

“First learn to be a craftsman; it won’t keep you from being a genius.” – Delacroix

Genre and following rigid screenwriting rules can make the story predictable, formulaic. A lot of people have turned against screenwriting theory. Charlie Kaufman has said that structure is useless. Guillermo del Toro gets very angry when people who throw Campbell and McKee at him.

Gurus demand blind faith to sell rigid rules. They refuse to take questions. It’s like a religious cult. They don’t want to explain anything, or ask why? (things should this or that way). It’s all demagogy.

Rules like ‘you have to have an inciting incident on page 11 and not on any other page!’ are ridiculous but there is a grain of truth in all the theories. Stories do have elements in common. We need to think why the rules are there.

What’s the Story

Archetypal stories:

  • monster threatens the community, one takes it on himself to kill the monster and restore happiness (Jaws, Alien, The Wire, etc, etc)
  • hero in a brave new world, first transformed, impressed, slowly things start becoming more sinister… (Alice in Wonderland, The Firm, Tootsie, etc, etc)
  • community in peril, an elixir is far away, one has to go and get it, journey into the unknown, etc. (Apocalypse Now, etc.)

Most stories can be put in one of those categories. Or they can be a mix of one and the other or all three.

They all share the same fundamental structure, engine.

In all archetypal stories there are: protagonist, antagonist, inciting incident, crisis, climax, resolution – that’s structure. Set-up, confrontation, resolution.

Book: Marc Norman What Happens Next: A History of American Screenwriting

Why are stories told this way?

How do we perceive the world?

Through challenge, adversaries. Truth will emerge through conflict.

Perception – you see something new, analyse it, assimilate it. We order the world, process it. Thesis, antithesis, synthesis.

Act I – character flaw, something is missing
Act II – confront them with their opposite, assimilate change
Act III – resolution

5 act structure
(3 act structure is just a simplified 5 act structure)

Eugene Scribe “The Well-Made Play” (on Scribe and the “well-made play” read here)

Thomas Baldwin Shakespeare’s Five-Act Structure (1945) (available online here )

All plays have the same underlying structure:

1)      impending struggle
2)      acts (in the struggle), counteracts preceding the main battle
3)      chief assault, seems to have victory
4)      Preparation for counter attack
5)      Result of action, resolution

The structure of Mcbeth forms a triangle with rising action until mid-point, and falling action.

Things that affect a story:
1)      Order: symmetry, order, balance (The Godfather split in half – the two parts mirror each other)
2)      Technology and biology: the size of the human bladder, duration of a candle
3)      Duration: Aristotle – turning points, peripeteia (to keep things interesting)

5 act structure forces you to use the archetypal story shape.

5 acts, midpoint, 4 turning points.

Syd Field ‘pinch points’ (SF advocates 5-act structure). Vogler, Campbell – the monomyth. Thomas Baldwin, Vogler, Field – they all talk about the same story shape (they just give elements a different name). All script structure theories are about the same story shape – because it’s about the way we perceive the world.

Gurus have given the term ‘dramatic structure’ a bad name. It’s become a dirty word. Tony Jordan hides his screenwriting books like porn. David Hare writes perfect archetypal structures without being aware of it.
Structure is nothing to be ashamed of. Structure is a projection of inner psychological conflict.

Yorke on reading scripts:
Most common mistakes: protagonist is passive, not doing anything; and exposition (it’s like reading radio dialogue)

Audience comment: can’t make a story with just the structure or a good idea without structure – it will fall apart.

Audience comment: similarities with ‘subject, naming, verb’. Bruce Chapman of the 3-act structure of the world.


See also:

BBC Drama Writers’ Festival. Part 1 (Writers to change the world?; Bio-Pic)

BBC TV Drama Writers’ Festival, Part 2 (Controversy; Jimmy McGovern)

BBC TV Drama Writers’ Festival, Part 4 (Launching a series; Thrillers; Adaptation)

Hanna Billingham’s notes from day 2 of the festival here



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