More than two decades ago, when I was banging my head against a keyboard in desperation trying to write fiction, I somehow became convinced that I should abandon prose and begin writing screenplays. I read several books, some of them concentrating on formatting (useful because I had, at that point, never considered that writing a screenplay required different textual semiotics from prose), but learned the most from those focusing on structure, such as Robert McKee’s Story and Syd Field’s Screenplay, among others. Although they never quite get me to the point of actually writing more than a few pages of half-baked ideas (though I did collaborate with one friend on a spy story made obsolete by the abrupt conclusion of the Cold War), they taught me enough about what made stories work to allow me to begin finishing prose fiction at a regular pace.
Had Dan O’Bannon’s and Matt Lohr’s Dan Obannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure: Inside Tips from the Writer of Alien, Total Recall and Return of the Living Dead been published at that time, it easily would have been one of the books I absorbed. It certainly would have been something I studied carefully. McKee’s Story offered a wealth of dos and don’ts, Syd Field’s Screenplay broke down three-act structure in a way that made sense, but this particular manual came from the same mind that produced one of the greatest science-fiction horror movies of all time, one of the best-known zombie movies (made before zombies shambled into the cultural zeitgeist), and one of science fiction’s best known indie movies. He also worked on one of the greatest movies never made, Alejandro Jodorowsky’s Dune, so what he said would have carried a great deal of weight for this budding science fiction writer. In fact, his work views drama in a manner that seems self-evident but that other writers seldom explore. It’s a work I’d recommend not only to screenwriters, but also to those who want to write fiction.
Dan O’Bannon died in 2009, before he and Matt Lohr could finish their collaboration. I got the chance to talk to Matt about the book, and about what makes his approach to writing different from others.
Derek Austin Johnson: Even though this is primarily a screenwriting book, I can see people who write prose using it as well. It’s certainly a worthwhile look at structure.
Matt Lohr: Dan wanted to have a book that anybody could use. Obviously, his primary experience, or at least the work that people know him for, is in the science fiction and horror genres, but he wanted to make sure it was a book that was for everybody. That’s why a lot of the analogies that we have in the book don’t just zero in on those genres. There are horror films, there are dramas, there are action movies, there are romantic films. And also theater as well; we did some plays, in addition to the movies we analyzed. These are not only forms that worked on screen, but also worked before screen even existed, before there were even movies. We go back as far as King Lear in the analyses that we do.
DAJ: If you’re studying structure, Lear is an outstanding play to work with.
ML: Oh, absolutely. Dan had a concept that we may discuss a little later called “the point of no return,” and I think Lear has a very definitely defined one, which is easy. Sometimes it’s a little more diffuse in particular works pinpoint that moment. Last night I was actually speaking to a friend of mine who’d read the book, who said, “The next time we talk, I’d like to pick your brain because I’m having trouble picking out the point of no return.” So sometimes it’s not as easy to find as in other films or in other stories, but I think with Lear it’s pretty straightforward.
DAJ: I’d noticed Dan’s “point of no return” conspicuously absent from a lot of recent summer blockbusters. There was a sense that the characters could back out at any time.
ML: Exactly. I think one that really stands out for me was Man of Steel, which was probably my least favorite film that I had seen all year. Superman’s always making a choice to enter into a conflict, but he’s never threatened. The big moment, I guess, is that they knock over his mom’s house. I guess that’s about it. One assumes that, if Superman can defeat these evil being from beyond the galaxy, he can probably rebuild a two-story house in Kansas fairly swiftly. I don’t think it’s anything he needed to go ballistic over. That’s honestly the least of Man of Steel’s problems, though.
DAJ: Can you talk a little bit about how this book approaches story structure?
ML: Dan started thinking about the central component he saw in every story. One of Dan’s innovations, and one of the things that I think makes his system valuable, is that, when you ask most people, “What is this story about?” they will tell you it’s about somebody who wants something, and they have to overcome various obstacles that are in their way in order to get that. So, if you want to sum it up in a very short phrase, most people will say a story is about protagonist versus obstacles.
Dan didn’t think that was enough, because Dan thought, if you’re looking at it in that way, then you’re reducing almost half of the story to your “villain character.” You’re reducing him to something getting in the hero’s way, and Dan felt that that wasn’t strong enough, not if you want people to be compelled by your conflicts and villains, because, as we know, especially in genre films, that a film is only as good as its villain, with horror obviously being the standout, because it’s one of the few genres where many times the villains end up the “heroes” of the movie, where people go back to see them time and time again and the victims are interchangeable, Freddie Krueger being the standout example. Dan reconceived his system from a striving-based system to a fight-based system, the idea being, not that it was protagonist versus obstacle, but antagonist through opposition. Basically, it gives greater weight to the villain’s side of the conflict. It’s gotten to the point that I don’t use the terms “hero” and “villain,” I don’t use “protagonist” and “antagonist,” because I think they’re limiting. Instead, I call them “positive antagonist” and “negative antagonist.”
There’s that old story about Hamlet, where an actor who’s playing the gravedigger—everybody who knows Hamlet knows the gravedigger is only in one scene—tells his family “I’ve got a great part in this play.” The family asks, “What’s it about?” And the actor says, “Oh, it’s called Hamlet, and it’s about a gravedigger who meets a prince.” Everybody is the star of their own story. If you asked the xenomorph in Alien, “What’s Alien about?” it would say, “It’s about a heroic alien who sets out to search for food, and these seven idiots on this ship keep getting in his way and stop it from happening.”
Everybody has their own spin on what their story is about. Dan figured out that you not only need to redefine what the conflict is, you need to redefine what you call the low point as well. A lot of people will tell you, when you’re structuring a story, you get to a point at the end of the second act which is considered the “low point,” or the “darkest hour,” which is things get their worst for the hero and he has to fight back from that. The way Dan redefined this was a necessity, because, when you’re defining it from both sides of the conflict, you only get to base that on one person’s perspective. So the way Dan reconceived it was as a concept he called “the point of no return.” This is an idea you find in some screenwriting systems, but the way Dan defined it was unique, in that, the way Dan defined it, it’s the moment in the script when the conflict you’ve set up throughout the story reaches an apex where neither of the parties can back away from the conflict. It’s the moment where a point has been reached where there’s only one possible solution, which is shoulders down, to the decks, battle to the finish, and devil take the high road. That’s the only way it can resolve. The character can’t call the police, he can’t just leave town.
There’s a three-word phrase that I use when I lecture and tell people about this book that is a dead giveaway for the point of no return, which is, “now it’s personal.” If something happens to a character where a loved one is hurt or killed, now it’s personal. Something has been taken that can never be taken back and has to be seen through to the end. For example, I define the point of no return in King Lear as the point where Cornwall gouges out Gloucester’s eyes. There have been a lot of insults and recriminations and hatred flying back and forth, but there’s been nothing that can’t be taken back. Once you hear the words, “Out, vile jelly!” and Gloucester is staggering around the stage with blood streaming down his face, something’s been done that can no longer be taken back. At that moment, the characters are hurtling onto a death trip.
That’s how Dan defined a point of no return, and it’s very important because, once again, you’re seeing everything from both sides. When John McClane, in Die Hard, is hanging from the edge of a skyscraper by his fingertips, and Hans Gruber has his foot on the edge of your thumbs to knock you off the building, that’s not a low point for Hans Gruber. That’s the best moment in his story. He might as well be singing, “The hills are alive with the sound of music.” He’s never felt so alive.
It doesn’t even have to be a complex motivation. The zombies in Return of the Living Dead and the xenomorph in Alien basically want the same thing: they just want food. The food just happens to be the same thing, and the characters we’re rooting for are now the obstacles in their way.
It works well in genre cinema, because you can have these person-to-person conflicts, which allow things to be very overt.
DAJ: What, for you, was the biggest challenge in putting this all together?
ML: There were a few things. The early parts of the book were especially difficult from a logistical standpoint. When I was working with Dan, he was living in Los Angeles in the Pacific Pallisades when I first met him, and then moved to the Culver City area, while I was living in Orange County and had no car. Any time we would get together to work on the book directly, it would involve me shelling out a couple of bucks for a rental car. We met in person as much as we could. There was a lot of commuting, and communicating via e-mail and phone made it so much easier. It’s something that would’ve been impossible even 10 years earlier, when we really only had phones at that time. Once he was gone and I took over, it became a question of, if there was something I wasn’t quite clear on, I couldn’t call him up and ask, so I had to look at the notes I had, any research I could do, that can clarify my question so I can get it on the page to make it clear for everybody else. That’s always difficult, when you’re “collaborating” with a cowriter that you can’t directly collaborate with.