Before the gurus, before the weekend seminar, there was J.H. Lawson. Mark McIlrath casts an eye over one of the greatest guides to screenwriting ever published.
John Howard Lawson’s Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting was published in 1949. Lawson was the first ‘president’ of the Writer’s Guild of America. A member of the Communist Party, he later suffered during the McCarthy era, becoming one of the Hollywood 10, and was sentenced to a year in prison. He died in 1977. His book remains one of the most perceptive and intelligent guides for the screenwriter. A copy will cost you $250. If you can’t get your hands on a copy, you might be interested in the following, a rough summary of the man’s thoughts on screenwriting.
Unity Of Climax
The unifying element in the film, as in other story-structures, is the climax, the ultimate event that brings the action to a point of maximum tension and solution. The climax is the key to the system of events.
An experienced screenwriter is likely to begin preparation of his screenplay at the climax.
The climax expresses the dramatic purpose of the writer. It is a definite objective which embodies the author’s dominant idea in a meaningful event.
The story as a whole is an action with unity as a whole.
The climax is one effect which binds together the system of causes. All actions contain cause and effect, and the point of tension is the point at which cause is transformed into effect.
The story as a whole is a chain of causes leading to one effect.
If the climax is not the supreme moment of an inevitable struggle, in which the deepest motives and feelings have been dramatised it lacks thematic clarity.
The conscious will of characters is exposed under increasing pressure – humans facing a challenge which has magnitude to their lives. The writer must make it as hard as possible for his characters, putting them under the greatest pressure, and in a position where they need to act. This is a key part of progression in drama.
Each scene must have mounting emotional power with a moment of crisis. It presents a problem to the dominant character of the scene.
The action of a film embraces the direct conflict between individuals and the conditions which oppose or limit their will. We observe this conflict through the conscious will of the characters.
Each triumph or reversal is the culmination of an act of will which produces a change of equilibrium between individuals and their environment. Change requires new adjustments, and makes new complications inevitable.
Scenes – Sequences – Acts, and the film, have the same basic structure.
The writer must consciously know where he enters the paradigm. Scenes generally have unity of time and place. Sequences and Acts, of action:
The cycle of activity commences with a decision to follow a course of action. The tension is developed in fulfilling the decision. A complication requires another decision on higher plane.
At the beginning of the film, we wish to understand as fully as possible why the conflict of will is necessary, why the backstory and current experiences of the characters make it necessary. The opening actions sum up this experience. This, in turn, creates the environment which is enlarged as the story proceeds. But it is the same environment.
The forces which determine the original act are the forces which determine its conclusion.
At the beginning an important decision is made. This concentrates the conscious will on a conflict with a defined aim. The conflict is forced on the protagonist(s) by circumstances. The decision made is itself a climax of magnitude and cannot be covered by explanation. Since this situation is the key to the story, a static / underdeveloped opening will affect the movement of the whole story. The decision is so important that it covers all the possibilities of the story, and therefore must be the result of considerable changes in the status quo, whether between the individuals, or with their environment.
Since exposition covers the possibilities of drama, it must be more closely connected to the climax than any other part of the film.
The unity of the story is the unity between the exposition and the climax.
The visual impact of the opening scene is also a requirement of film structure. The sweep and drive of forces that come to a head in the climax must be visualised in the exposition. In any film, the camera must be co-author.
The exposition must introduce the world of the story, literally the time and place, and lay down the genre expectations by which the spectator will understand and inhabit the story. It must pose the problem: it must show the scope and intensity of the struggle that will culminate and be solved at the end. There is also the need to individualise the problem, to define its effect on a personal level. The writer must get an emotional attachment from the start.
THE OBLIGATORY SCENE
The obligatory scene represents the point of foreseen and expected crisis, toward which the progression is moving. It is the physical culmination of the conflict. The climax goes beyond the physical drive, and exposes the thematic meaning of the action.
Screenwriters tend to confuse the obligatory scene with the climax. They often jumble the two together, or develop a climax which is only a repetition and elaboration of the obligatory scene. This happens in films which have no core of meaning that could flower in an effective climax. There is no problem of character or human relationships to be solved. Having exhausted his invention with the obligatory scene, the screenwriter finds he cannot escape the structural law that demands unity in terms of climax.
Conversely, there are films which are powerfully conceived in terms of theme, but where the treatment is abstract, without full development of its meaning in human lives and relationships. In these films, the obligatory scene is likely to be weak, and the whole force of the concept is concentrated in the climax.
It is natural to speak of the climax as a point of action. This gives the correct impression that it is closely knit and sharply defined. But it is not necessarily a point of time. It may be a complex event; it may combine several threads of action; it may be divided into several scenes; it may take a very abrupt or extended form.
The climax furnishes us with a test by which we can analyse the action backward; the obligatory scene offers us an additional check on the forward movement of the action.
The audience don’t know what the climax will be, but they do test the action against their expectation, which is concentrated on what they believe to be the necessary outcome of the action – the obligatory scene. A story must provide a point of concentration toward which the maximum expectation is aroused. The writer must analyse this expectation. As the obligatory scene is not the final outcome of events, s/he must convince the audience that the break between cause and effect, between the action as intensified by the plot and the thematic conclusion of the climax, is inevitable.
The obligatory scene is a break between expectation and fulfilment, and an effective bridge to the climax. What happens needs to be inevitable, and an integral part of the protagonist’s experience.
The obligatory scene asks a question; it remains for the climax to provide the answer
The climax is the controlling point in the unification of the dramatic movement. It is not the noisiest moment; it is the most meaningful moment, and therefore the moment of most intense strain, and is the result of an intensification of decision.
In principle, the climax is the root and culmination of the action. In practice, the screenwriter is all too frequently faced with the necessity of inventing a final situation that is only formally related to the previous development of the story.
In films where the obligatory scene is logically the end of the action, Act 3 is like starting a new plot, with new exposition leading to a new series of situations. This in turn sets up a renewed effort and goal for the will and destroys unity of action.
The climax must be rooted in the emotional experience of the characters in order to communicate the experience to the audience
At first glance it may appear that the obligatory scene and the climax are the same thing; but there is a very important difference between the expected clash and the final clash.
The obligatory scene may, in certain instances, be almost identical with the climax in time and place; but there is a great difference in function between the thing we do and the result of the thing we do, a sharp break between cause as it seemed and the effect as it turns out.
The same contradiction exists in all the subordinate cycles of action, and creates the progression.
The more important moments at which such a recognition occurs are the obligatory scenes of the various cycles of action. The break between cause and effect leads to the actual effect, the culmination of the action. For this reason, the climax invariably contains the element of surprise; it is beyond our expectation, and is the result of a break in the expected development of the action.
Surprise is the essence of drama, and is present in every movement of the action. But recognition of the break between cause and effect is very different from ignoring or evading the logic of events. We must know the cause.
Many films have a rising action that does not rise, a progression that fails to progress. The circumstances and problems that determine the action are not sufficiently important to keep it moving. The climax established in the exposition and culminating in the climax is not vital enough to occupy our time – or the time of the characters.
If the progression has explored all the potentialities of the situation at the obligatory scene, it will be exceedingly difficult to carry it forward to a climax. The result is an excuse for further action, rather than it being a condition of action.
The problem that the screenwriter faces stems from his failure to establish conditions in the exposition which rationally explain and motivate the ensuing action, a thematic purpose that will guide and inspire the protagonist through the plot to a meaningful conclusion.
There must be structural preparation for the development of the problem, which has psychological consistency, the build up of a sense of inevitability in which the protagonists will come face to face with the fate that has been closing in on them – a visual and dramatic portrayal of the forces that constitute the framework of social causation, shown through the conscious will and decisions of the characters under increasing pressure.
The only way in which we can understand character is through the actions to which it is subsidiary. Actions must not be limited and chaotic, they must exhibit a sustained purpose.
Drama is when circumstances trap the character and s/he cannot avoid committing an act, and this is both dramatically and psychologically the key to progression – and therefore the key to character.
Emotional participation unites the audience with the action.
Identification is more than sympathy. Identification means sharing the character’s purpose, not his virtues.
The main problem of characterisation is progression – the character maintaining the same attitude throughout means that it is not a human being at all, but a mere embodiment of two or three characteristics which are fully displayed in the first 10 minutes and then repeat themselves. Characters can have neither depth nor progression except insofar as they make and carry out decisions which have a definite place in the system of events which drive toward the climax.
To increase the emotional load, characters need to change. For emotional engagement, tensions need to be built. If there is no tension, there is also no solution, and no final moment of breaking tension. A character must react to the necessities of his environment, his conscious will must be exposed.
We are moved by what moves the characters. Film poses an absolute necessity (which determines what the protagonist does) against a conflict in which the conscious will, exerted for the accomplishment of specific and understandable aims, is sufficiently strong to bring the conflict to a point of crisis. Conflict reveals character.
Progression is a matter of structure, and meaning is a matter of theme. Neither problem can be solved until we find the unifying principle which gives the screenplay its wholeness, binding a series of actions into an action which is organic an indivisible.
Paul Schrader’s injunction to put ‘the theme in every scene’ restates Lawson’s unity of climax. The basic ideas seem dry. They are dry, especially compared to the Syd Field school of screenplay-by-numbers. But isn’t the idea of the obligatory scene clearer in its function, and more helpful towards the overall construction, than Plot Point 2, or even Crisis?
Checking each scene against the climax is a useful tool, even for experienced screenwriters.
John Howard Lawson was an early theorist who took cinema seriously. Current Hollywood ideas about sequential structure have taken up the paradigm Lawson described to divide the screenplay further into manageable units, groups of scenes with common purpose and goal, tested against the overall climax. It’s just surprising that Lawson’s book is invisible when assorted smart-arses and smug, over-paid, jargon-mongering script consultants get so much acclaim.
This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 95 in 2003.