Table of contents | Preface | Pages from the book


"To teach drama is to learn to understand man, to know the meaning of life."
(Shohei Imamura [100])

Decisive encounters

A series of encounters, all very different from each other, went into the making of this book which would not otherwise have been written. In the beginning was Frantisek Daniel, my screenwriting tutor in the years 1983-85. At that time he was co-chairman, with Milos Forman, of the Columbia University film school in New York where I was studying screenwriting and directing. Frantisek was considered in the United States and in some European countries as one of the masters with regard to the teaching of screenwriting. He was of Czech origin and had taught at the Prague film school (FAMU) before emigrating to the United States.

In 1983, Frantisek Daniel strongly recommended that we read a book by Edward Mabley entitled Dramatic Construction [124] that had been published in the early 1970s. By now the book was out of print and difficult to obtain. What's more it still is. I was however able to track down a copy in the Columbia University library. What I discovered was a very remarkable book.

In his turn, Mabley directs the reader to several other books, including a brilliant essay entitled Tragedy and Comedy [110] by Walter Kerr, a well-known theatre critic who is also the author of The Silent Clowns [109], devoted to silent movies and itself a wholly remarkable book. The other books that I must mention as being crucial in helping me to understand the art of drama are Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales [20] and the published interviews of Alfred Hitchcock with François Truffaut [92].

Bruno Bettelheim, Frantisek Daniel, Alfred Hitchcock, Walter Kerr and Edward Mabley have thus provided me the basic material for my reflections on dramatic technique. I have been able to explore and develop my thoughts on drama further in the course of practising my profession, firstly, and logically enough, as a full-time screenwriter and director, and secondly as a teacher, since between 1987 and 1997 I set up and ran numerous writing workshops. These led in turn to two other areas of activity: script-doctoring and holding seminars on dramaturgy. I am endebted in this regard to Françoise Villaume of the Centre National des Écritures du Spectacle at Villeneuve-lez-Avignon and to Jacqueline Pierreux of Radio Télévision Belge Francophone in Brussels who gave me my first opportunities as a teacher, and to the students who passed through my workshops and thus also contributed to the writing of this book.

My debt extends to my wife Catherine and my children Baptiste, Aurélien, Valentin and Clémentine who have taught me much about life and thus about drama. For I believe, like Shohei Imam ura, that to understand one is to understand the other. To all of these, many thanks.

My first feature film as writer-director

Between the second edition of this book (in 1997) and the third, of which this is the English-language translation, an important event took place in my life: I wrote and directed my first feature-length film, entitled Yes, But…. This did not significantly change the way I regard screenwriting as, contrary to what some may have believed, I did not suddenly step down from some sort of university chair to enter the artistic arena. I had already been a screenwriter and director (of short films) before writing the first edition of this book and going on to make Yes, But…. I describe the fascinating process of making the film in an annotated edition of the screenplay that the French-speaking reader may turn to if he wishes (http://www.clown-enfant.com/leclown/scenaroui.htm).There I relate, among other things, how making the transition from page to screen, and in particular having my characters embodied by actors, required me to continue amending my screenplay well into post-production.

Rules and uniformity

When I wrote the first edition of this book in 1994, the question of the existence of rules (see footnote) and of how screenwriting could be taught was still under debate in France and I therefore included in the introduction a section on learning the rules. These issues are no longer considered contentious, but I have chosen nevertheless to retain this section on the principle that it can do no harm to have things spelt out. Readers who need no persuading may skip pages 12 to 17.

Having said that, the rejection of rules of narration has been replaced by another form of resistance, namely a fear of uniformity. The argument runs as follows: there are indeed rules—since you insist—but they are harmful as they are bound to lead to a conveyor-belt production process of works that all look the same. It has to be admitted that a certain uniformity can be detected, particularly in movies made in Hollywood, but I am by no means convinced that this is due to the greater importance attributed to the screenplay over the past 25 years. If a degree of uniformity has indeed arisen, this is more probably due to the lack of daring displayed by certain decision-makers and the lack of creativity and personality among certain screenwriters. Giving the screenplay its proper due can also lead to works such as Festen, No Man's Land and Life is Beautiful. How can we speak of uniformity faced with films such as these?

Footnote. Some theorists prefer to call them principles. Rules, they say, are to be obeyed whereas principles refer to what works. Rules compel, principles motivate. I'm not afraid of the word "rule" and I prefer to call a spade a spade. As we shall see in the introduction (page 12), the word "rule" has several meanings.

Freshness of vision

I have often been asked, as if it were a matter of great concern, whether a spectator can continue to enjoy plays, films or comic books with freshness of vision once he knows all the tricks and techniques of drama. The answer is a very categorical yes, he can. When I first saw Life is Beautiful I laughed and was moved to tears, and only afterwards, after I had fully experienced it, did I realise that it had marvellous payoffs. When I see the ending of City Lights again even for the 15th time I never fail to be moved. However much my head tells me that such and such a scene is the resolution of a dramatic irony, my heart is wrung and I cry. It is not the understanding of the rules that impairs the viewing of a piece of drama, it is having to write about it afterwards. For drama is not designed to be appraised by the rational mind, or at least not solely for that purpose. But neither the writer nor the reader of this book is concerned by this issue. On the other hand, it is highly likely that an understanding of narrative techniques makes the spectator more demanding, harder to please. When a piece of drama "works", it affects all spectators in much the same way. When it doesn't "work", the trained eye is better able to identify and understand its weaknesses.

The contemporary stage

Earlier editions of this book have been criticised, perhaps with good reason, for paying insufficient attention to contemporary plays and to recent dramatic experimentation. I quote a number of modern plays but they are buried among a mass of examples drawn from classical drama or other art forms. My main references in contemporary theatre are to Waiting for Godot (1953), For No Good Reason (1982) and Roberto Zucco (1990). These plays are not the most daring examples of the work of their respective writers. They play around with the rules of drama but do not go so far as to break them. This has less to do with dates than with form: The Bald Soprano, dating from 1950, is more experimental than Roberto Zucco , written four decades later. Moreover the three plays I have mentioned have two things in common, two things that I consider particularly important: humanity and humour. In pouring through the breaches opened up by Samuel Beckett, Eugène Ionesco, Harold Pinter, Alfred Jarry and others, many dramatists of the late 20th century have in my view lost sight of these two key elements. Why don't we put the end at the beginning? How about mixing up the dialogue? What if we make it meaningless, these dramatists appear to be asking themselves, more or less consciously. If so, the question has to be asked: To what purpose? Is there still a link between form and content of the kind so superbly achieved by Beckett in Waiting for Godot? Are these writers really so weary of Aristoteli an drama, which after all accounts for 98 percent of drama? Is it simply that they lack the competence to use the form correctly? Is it to draw attention to themselves? Whatever the reason, the result, in my view, is theatre that takes itself too seriously, too intent on formal experimentation at the expense of human interest, and in the last resort lacking any appeal to the spectator. For, notwithstanding Michel Azama's comment in his highly instructive book De Godot à Zucco [8], Aristotle's notion of "something that has to be done" is not "ideological, factitious and alienating." It is simply related to the way human biology, sociology and psychology function. Despite (and in the age of) Sigmund Freud, AIDS, nuclear weapons, crimes against humanity, the global village, the Franco-German reconciliation, video games, the September 11 attacks and other remarkable developments, these structures have not changed since the age of Aeschylus. Some experiences have changed, true enough, so have some of the obstacles to the way we seek to achieve our goals, but the basic facts of life, the way these experiences impact on our inner selves, are no different now from what they have always been.

My book thus fully endorses the Aristotelian principles of dramatic technique. One of the main reasons for this is that in my view life itself is Aristotelian. Drama, in the broad sense, pre-exists theatre and cinema. I will have ample opportunity to expand on this, but it is as well that this should be clear from the beginning.

Yves Lavandier, May 2005