Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Situation

April 1st, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. In Chapter IV [The Photoplay Writer's Dictionary], here is an interesting observation [P. 19]:

Situation: A moment when the relationship of the characters to themselves and to the plot is charged with dramatic possibilities.

Even back in 1920, writers understood the importance of movie moments, situations “with dramatic possibilities.” In one way of looking at it, a screenplay is a series of moments [scenes] woven together into a narrative that creates a satisfying arc from beginning to end. We may tend to get caught up in the latter part of the writing, the weaving together of the moments, as we should as part of the story-crafting process. But we must also do due diligence when brainstorming, selecting, and constructing each moment.

Interesting to note that the above definition of “situation” indicates the two worlds of the screenplay universe:

External World: Relationship of the characters to the plot, how they participate and influence the events that occur in the story [what I call Plotline].

Internal World: Relationship of the characters to themselves, the psychological interplay of characters to each other as well as each character’s own existential and behavioral arc [what I call Themeline].

That is why I push the point to the writers with whom I work: In a scene, something must happen [Plotline]. And something else must happen [Themeline]. Much of the “dramatic possibilities” of a movie moment / scene derives from the multiple layers of what can transpire in both realms of the story universe.

On another matter, it is interesting to see how Loos & Emerson describe the role of the key players in making a movie:

Cameraman: The expert operator of a motion picture camera.

Cast: Actors taking important parts in the photoplay.

Director: The man who supervises the acting of scenes construction of scenery and all important details of production.

Producer: The man who finances and assumes full responsibility for production of the picture.

Studio: The producing plant where the scenes are enacted and photographed.

Notice the relative degrees of importance. The Director is described as someone who “supervises” the production of the movie. The Studio is merely the “producing plant.” The real power would seem to lie with the Producer who not only finances the film but also “assumes full responsibility” for the picture’s production.

The Director as “supervisor” is a long way from the auteur theory and given the chain of command, a far cry from deserving anything remotely resembling A Film By status.

Of course, the underlying assumption of Loos & Emerson’s book is that the real power in the filmmaking process is the writer. With the number of movies being produced in the 20s, someone had to create the content. That was the writer.

Next week: More screenwriting advice from the past.

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

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