Essays and Screening Room

Screenwriting 101: What Fiction Writers Learn from Star Wars

By posted at 6:00 am on July 28, 2016 5

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For the last twelve years I have taught fiction writing at Delta College in Michigan. For six of those years I have also taught Introduction to Screenwriting as part of Delta’s Film Production program. Arguably, screenwriters and fiction writers are going about the same thing, even if in different forms: they are trying to tell a good story. I certainly can’t say that the ways I teach screenwriting and fiction writing are universal, but I have noticed that, while the two courses essentially focus on storytelling, my pedagogical approaches for each are very different.

When I teach fiction, I usually focus on the “craft” of fiction. I use words and phrases like “conflict,” “character development,” “backstory,” “interior landscape,” and “dialogue.” When it comes to plot, though, I find myself saying something cryptic like, “Plot comes out of character. Whatever your protagonist does must be true to his or her character.” It’s good advice, I suppose, but it doesn’t really help students understand what makes for a solid plot. When I talk about fiction writing, the vibe is mystical: “You don’t need to know where you’re going. Just sit down and write. Discover what you have to say sentence by sentence. Let the journey surprise you.” Sometimes I’ll even quote E.L. Doctorow who said, “Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” I love that simile, but the more realistic side of me notes that it’s also a perfect situation for crashing and going nowhere.

Screenwriting often seems so much more practical and story-oriented. Right out of the gate, I am talking with students about the importance of movie-mapping. Much more time is spent on the plotting of the story to make certain that “something happens” and that the movie is always escalating tension and conflict as it moves toward the climax. For such a modern form of storytelling – barely 125 years old – screenwriting seems to draw much more of its understanding of plot from Plato’s dissection of narrative structure.

Before my students begin to learn screenplay format, I first ask them to consider their film’s major dramatic question, or MDQ. In screenwriting, the major dramatic question is a yes-or-no question that is answered by the climax. For instance, in the 1977 classic Star Wars: A New Hope, the MDQ would be, “Will Luke blow up the Death Star?” Before ever writing, my students are encouraged to know their MDQ and to know the answer. They have to know what they are writing towards in order to make every scene lead the audience there naturally and believably. To understand how movie structure works, we talk about a movie’s Inciting Incident, Plot Point 1, Mid-Point, Plot Point 2, and Climax. Screenwriters are encouraged to know their ending before anything else, which seems very different from all of that driving blind in the fog business.

Star Wars: A New Hope provides a good example of the rest of the plot points. The inciting incident of a movie is the event that is necessary to get the movie going. Usually the first ten minutes of a film focus on character and situation introduction, but right about ten minutes in, something happens that calls the protagonist to his or her quest. In Star Wars, the inciting incident occurs when the droids escape Princess Leia’s ship with the plans to the Death Star inside R2-D2. (Notice how the inciting incident already alludes to the MDQ.) If the droids don’t escape Leia’s ship, then we don’t have Star Wars…or at least not the Star Wars that we know.

Right around 25 to 30 pages into the script, the screenwriter must begin to think about Plot Point 1. This is a moment in the movie that makes action on the part of the protagonist necessary. In Star Wars, Luke isn’t really sure what he’s doing with the droids. He’s chasing R2-D2 rather than making his own choices. Even when Ben asks Luke to join him, Luke says that he can’t leave his uncle’s farm. It’s only when Luke races back to the farm to find his uncle and aunt dead at the hands of the Empire that he can commit to his quest. Nothing is holding Luke back, and his hatred toward the Empire has been fueled.

About halfway through the script, screenwriters need to give thought to the Mid-Point. The Mid-Point often shows us a strength in the character that we have not seen up until this moment. In the first half of Star Wars, Luke takes a backseat to the much more interesting Ben Kenobi and Han Solo. It’s only when Luke is free of them that he can truly shine. Rescuing Princess Leia, Luke faces a daunting chasm. Storm troopers are slowly opening the door behind him. Across the chasm, stormtroopers fire upon him and Leia. Oh, and as you’ll remember, the bridge across the chasm is no longer functional. Probably unknowingly using the Force, Luke flawlessly tosses a grappling hook up to an overhead pipe and swings himself and Leia to safety. He does this on his own. That’s the movie’s midpoint, which helps the audience believe what happens in the climax because it reveals that strength of character that the audience had yet to see.

Finally, to escalate conflict and to make success that much more difficult, a screenwriter has to think about Plot Point 2, which is a major setback to the protagonist. In Star Wars, the setback happens when Ben is killed by Darth Vader. It’s a major blow to Luke, and it makes their entire mission against the Death Star seem that much more hopeless. Watch nearly any movie, and right around three-quarters into it, something really bad will happen to the main character. That event serves to escalate tension and keep the audience uncertain.

The rest of the movie now plays out toward answering the MDQ. If the movie has been plotted well, the climax is not only satisfying but believable.

It’s my belief that no novelist would be hurt by taking a screenwriting course or by studying a screenwriting text, not for jumping ship and becoming a screenwriter, but to understand storytelling from a new vantage-point. At Delta College, the students who take creative writing courses represent a small but passionate pool. They often take every creative writing course available. In Screenwriting, I will sometimes get students who want to adapt a novel that they are working on into a screenplay. More often than not, they actually end up learning what they have to do to make their novel work as a novel. It is the strict attention to plot involved with screenwriting that helps them see how they can make their story work better in prose form. At the end of the class they’ll tell me, “This class helped me understand my novel so much better, and now I’m going to rewrite the entire thing.”





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5 Responses to “Screenwriting 101: What Fiction Writers Learn from Star Wars”

  1. steven augustine
    at 2:26 pm on July 31, 2016

    Ah, so THIS is why almost all the new novels I read (for 20-50 pages, then toss out the window), read like paper televisions!

    I think the article-writer’s formulae work best with Space Operas, Bodice Rippers and Dan Brown Books (which combine the former and the latter, sort of) but, well, let’s try this stuff out on a few of my favorite novels:

    1) Roth’s SABBATH’S THEATER. What’s the “MDQ”? Erm… will Mickey Sabbath live or die? Answer: YES. Inciting Incident: shit hits fan! Plot Point 1: more shit hits fan! Mickey Sabbath’s Mid Point Strength: huh? Plot point 2: shit/ fan. Climax: idem
    2) DeLillo’s UNDERWORLD. What’s the “MDQ”? Erm… erm. Inciting Incident: erm… erm. Plot Point 1: a baseball…? Sputnik… ? H-bomb…? erm…?
    3) Sebald’s AUSTERLITZ (shrugs)
    4) Nabokov’s LOLITA. What’s LOLITA’S “MDQ?” Will Humbert… erm… will he…?
    5) Miller’s TROPIC OF CANCER… yup. Climax? Yup.
    6) Vonnegut’s SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. What’s the “MDQ”? Will Billy PIlgrim… … will he… have stuff happen to him? Answer: YES! Inciting Incident: WW2. Plot Point 1: … he’s kidnapped by… Tralfammadorians… ?

    But so what? The character might just as well have fallen into a giant vat of butterscotch pudding and floated for a week while recalling high-points of his adolescence. Because, UNLIKE in a one-dimensional hardware-epic like Star Wars, in which ACTION is the essence of the attraction, what counts in Slaughterhouse Five (and all the above-cited books) is not so much what the character does or must do as what the writer says about what the character does or must do, and how the writer says it, and all the collateral details and quirks and jokes and clues with which the writer repays the reader’s attention.

    In a movie, the plot is an excuse for fireworks (explosions and/or boobs); in a book… a good book… the plot is just an excuse for good writing. It is the least-important aspect of the text’s mechanics and is often little more than a sop to conventional expectations; a pacifier for the literal-minded. A good book, like Life, is a jumble of colliding sub-plots fleshed out with enlivening particularities. What’s the “Plot” of *your* Life?

    Just as photography took over the chore of visual reproduction, freeing painting to do what photography *can’t* (no photograph gets closer to the core of its subject, or of the viewer’s subjectivity, than a Lucian Freud painting did or would have), TV is very good at bringing basic narrative to the narrative-hungry. Which should free The Novel to do what even cinematography (armed with CGI) cannot: read back to you the organized contents of a literary genius’ mind in your own inner voice. Miraculous.

    I can remember reading the “hooks” on the dust-jackets of the books in my grandmother’s library: “The shocking story of…!” “The inspiring story of…!” “The True Life story of…” Back during the last gasp of the novel’s high responsibility to Plot, before Character and Style (aka, how the Novel runs rings around Film) took over.

    Sure, an occasionally not-badly-written book comes along with a plot-driven Story to tell… but aren’t these usually examples of an amusing reversal of the old dictum that the Book is always better than the Film? In these cases, I actually wait for the film. In fact, ironically (speaking of Roth), Barry Levinson’s film of “The Humbling” took Roth’s uncharacteristically-thin book and rewired its Plot into something better. But that’s only, mind you, because the Novel wasn’t at its best there.

    Please, good Ladies and Fellows: stop diminishing the Novel by teaching it as “Plot”! Reducing it to “Story”! Very much like reducing any given painting by Modigliani to a matter of colors. The color is as much the point as plot is.

    Oh, and writing can’t be *taught*, anyway. It can only be *learned*.

    It’s about reading. Lots of reading. “Creative Writing Teachers” would do lots less damage if they pointed their students to 100 good books and then politely kept out of it. The Genuine Talents will take it from there and the rest will (thankfully) find something else to do.

  2. il'ja
    at 8:02 am on August 1, 2016

    @steven augustine

    ‘“Creative Writing Teachers” would do lots less damage if they pointed their students to 100 good books and then politely kept out of it. The Genuine Talents will take it from there and the rest will (thankfully) find something else to do.’

    Do you seriously think you’re gonna get away with this? I may not know anything about curmudgeonly comments section submissions, but I know it when I see it.

    In fact, in one writing seminar I’m thinking of applying to, one exercise requires spending a week in fetal position in a vat of butterscotch pudding. When I requested “chocolate”, they told me, without apology, “chocolate is not in the spirit of our seminar.” And like second sun of the planet Tatooine, it was suddenly double clear to me that writing is about not compromising your values. Capote was just damn wrong: writing is almost always typing. And Star Wars vs Austerlitz? Am I *really* the only person who can never keep them straight?

  3. steven augustine
    at 9:44 am on August 1, 2016

    @il’ja

    “In fact, in one writing seminar I’m thinking of applying to, one exercise requires spending a week in fetal position in a vat of butterscotch pudding.”

    Okay, I admit that THAT particular writing seminar is pretty damn good (obviously)… but learning to write at what cost, Il’ja? A yeast infection…?

    (scratches)

  4. iľja
    at 10:42 am on August 1, 2016

    A yeast infection or watching a bunch of damn movies, apparently.

    THE CHOCOLATIER – MDQ? Is aspiring student/author sufficiently committed to hurdle every obstacle for the sake of his craft? Answer: YES! inciting incident: pudding immersion added to prerequisites for graduation. Plot point 1: Butterscotch ONLY! Plot Point 2: Author-student confronts anti-chocolate pudding prejudice, placing certain fame in jeopardy. Key Scene: Moving soliloquy before student disciplinary panel exposes institutional hypocrisy. Epilogue: future students create powerful internet meme involving being filmed while standing on head in bucket of chocolate pudding.resulting in a wave of pudding-themed literary fiction issuing from mid-tier MFA programs.

  5. steven augustine
    at 11:04 am on August 1, 2016

    Hot DAMN!

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