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.
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