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Screenwriting Structure Series Part 3: What I Learned from Aristotle

By The Unknown Screenwriter

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I'm sure there were others BEFORE Aristotle that successfully reversed engineered stories but I would venture a guess that he is probably the best known for it. I think all the screenwriting gurus and screenwriting authors out there agree that he pretty much is the guy we need to thank for coming up with the fact that a story has a beginning, middle, and end.

And hey... I'm right there with him. Stories certaintly do contain those three basic forms of structure and without these basic forms, reverse engineering your favorite movie would be an exercise in futility (thanks QT).

But that isn't where I started my own analysis of structure in the movies... Nope. As I read more and more about Aristotle and his theories on stories and plays, I found out just how great a man he was but since this article has to do with screenwriting structure, let's funnel it on down to that.

Causality. Or to be more precise, Aristotelian Causality.

Again, that's not to say there weren't others before Aristotle who studied causality but he is perhaps, credited with a much higher and complete understanding of the four causes:

1. Material Cause: that out of which a thing comes to be.
2. Formal Cause: the definition of its essence.
3. Efficient Cause: the primary source of the change or rest.
4. Final Cause: that for the sake of which a thing is done.

Cause or causality link possible events or occurrences and can predict the consequences of an action. In other words, one event is the cause or result of another event. In this relationship, chance and spontaneity become the causes of effects.

Spontaneity and chance is the result of an unintended outcome. Let's say I want to go to the coffee shop to write for a few hours. Going to the coffee shop is my INTENDED OUTCOME or my plan but on the way there, I get hit by a car (chance or unintended outcome).

So why talk about this? Well for me, the very best way to study the structure of your favorite movies is to simply reverse engineer them and on the face of it, you'd think that statement alone would be explanation enough. Unfortunately, I keep finding a lot of "would be" screenwriters who have no idea what I'm actually saying or MEAN when I tell them to go "reverse-engineer that movie."

On top of that, when I read screenplays from the field, I almost always ask the writer what movie or movies their screenplay is most like AFTER I read it. Some will say there is no movie that it's most like EVEN when what I just read is obviously derivative. Some go right ahead and tell me what the movies are and when they do, I always ask if they sat down and reversed-engineered that movie and in almost all cases, they say, "NO."

And again, that's perfectly fine... You obviously do not have to reverse-engineer any movie to write a screenplay but what I'm saying here is that if you DO sit down and reverse-engineer a similar movie's structure, you're going to be light years ahead of your competition. Most pros know this already and whether you like it or not, this IS one of the ways to move your screenplays past all those others in the same pile.

Assuming of course your examination of a movie's structure is on the money.

The problem of course comes when would-be screenwriters have no idea HOW to reverse engineer a movie. The usual process seems to go something like this...

Okay, here's the climax or the ending. Now work backwards. For a few minutes, that would-be screenwriter considers SOME of the factors that got the protagonist to the end of the film and then...

And then

Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

They figure they've got that movie all figured out.

Nope. Not by a long shot.

Now I can't or won't sit here and try to give you detailed step by step way to reverse engineer a movie. There's not enough room here to do that and besides, what works for me, may not work for you but consider sitting down and pulling out that film that possibly inspired you to write your screenplay(s) and start making some notes.

I usually do it with my trusty digital recorder. I sit there and watch the end of the movie first and proceed to examine the climax in detail and dictate notes to myself as well as writing them down.

For me, I've found it much easier to do this in sequences i.e., watch the last sequence FIRST. Then watch the sequence before that. Continue to make detailed notes of those events that spawned new events. CAUSE and EFFECT - plain and simple.

Yes, it can be boring if you've never REALLY sat down and done this before. If you're just used to watching movies as the rest of the world does, then this probably WON'T be a piece of cake.

But you wanna be a screenwriter, right?

No... Aristotle probably didn't have the opportunity to watch things in reverse and make notes but don't even try to sit there and tell me he wouldn't have taken advantage of the modern DVD player and done the exact same thing assuming there were films on DVDs back then. Again, this is simply how you can gain an edge when it comes to screeenwriting structure.

After you've reversed-engineered the hell out of a film, wait a day or so and watch it normally but again, with your notes and your remote so you can pause and reflect.

Repeat this same process with ALL the movies that YOUR screenplay or idea for a screenplay remind you of no matter what the genre. I do this before I sit down and actually write any real screenplay pages but I have normally completed a ton of research on the idea/story.

In addition to the notes you make on the movies you're reverse-engineering, you'll very likey get some amazing ideas for your own screenplay/idea so be sure to record those for later use. For example, one of the films you watch and reverse-engineer has a scene that just stabs you through the heart or gives you a huge revelation or causes some great emotional response from you... GREAT! Be sure to make special note of those because you will want scenes in your screenplay that elicit similar emotional responses from your eventual readers and hopefully, audience members. Reverse-engineer those scenes and moments to SEE how the screenwriters arrived there and elicited that emotional response from you.

The more you do this with movies that are either within your genre or are somehow similar, the more solid and proven your own structure is going to be as long as you're NOT copying the structure beat for beat.

Take a look at the movie, 8MM with Nicolas Cage. There is absolutely no way you'll ever convince me that Andrew Kevin Walker didn't reverse engineer (in his own way) the movie, HARDCORE with George C. Scott. There's just enough new information and characters in 8MM to make that movie stand on its own. It's edgier but that's because audiences are a little more anticipatory of that edginess now as opposed to back in '79 but make no mistake, HARDCORE was just as edgy in its time.

I like to bring up the discussion of HARDCORE to illustrate reverse-engineering because Paul Schrader reverse-engineered and studied the hell out of THE SEARCHERS in order to write and direct HARDCORE and what's so fucking cool about THAT is that if you sit down and watch HARDCORE, you're never once reminded of THE SEARCHERS.

You can't really say the same of 8MM if you've seen HARDCORE.

Reverse-engineering defined at Wikipedia:

Reverse engineering (RE) is the process of discovering the technological principles of a device or object or system through an abductive analysis of its structure, function and operation. It often involves taking something (e.g. a mechanical device, an electronic component, a software program) apart and analyzing its workings in detail, usually to try to make a new device or program that does the same thing without copying anything from the original.

Give reverse-engineering a try and you'll understand so much more about screenwriting structure - it'll make your head spin.

Next Article in series.

About The Unknown Screenwriter

A working screenwriter and producer, The Unknown Screenwriter makes his home in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Northern California and somewhere in the state of New Mexico with just a little bit of Los Angeles thrown in when he feels he can breathe the air.

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