Screenplay principles


I mentioned some time ago that I’d signed up to a short course on Screenwriting, part of an ongoing series of Creative Writing classes. This was not necessarily because I wanted to complete a screenplay but because writing for film is part of that tradition of composing narratives that includes drama, oral tales and, of course, novels.

Here I only want to briefly outline a few definitions when it comes to the ideas from which a screenplay is born. In class we were introduced to Robert McKee’s 1999 text Story: Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting (Methuen Film), in particular the part in which he outlines the three basics which every good screenplay needs. These basics are Premise (what the story is about, in other words a general description of the story); Hook (what grabs the attention of the viewer, rather like a riff or chorus in a popular song); and finally Controlling Idea (in other words, the main themes of the movie).

To try and get under the skin of these basics we were asked to identify them in a mainstream film; I chose The Bourne Ultimatum. This thriller from 2007 (which seems to be showing on one digital channel or another most nights of the week) was directed by British filmmaker Paul Greengrass and starred Matt Damon. See what you think.

“Jason Bourne, trained assassin, has lost both his memory and the one he loved [as previously recounted in The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy]. Highly trained killers and their controllers track Bourne from country to country, city to city — Turin, London, Madrid, Tangiers and New York — attempting to prevent him learning his true identity. Featuring car chases, gun battles, hand-to-hand combat in anonymous buildings and city streets.” (You can see that some of this phraseology came straight off the DVD cover, a good source for locating a film’s premise.)

This being a thriller, and therefore full of suspense, naturally there are lots of “what-ifs”. Can Bourne escape his killers? Will valued friends be hurt or will honest spooks triumph? Will dishonest agents be brought to justice? And will Bourne discover the truth about his identity? The what-ifs consist of a succession of jeopardies: what if Bourne gets shot / arrives too late / misses a vital clue?

Controlling Idea
Jason — the name I’m sure refers to the classical hero’s quest for the golden fleece — is a trained killer, but does he have any scruples about killing for the sake of it? This is a major key to the audience having some sympathy, even empathy, for someone who on the face of it is merely a mercenary or assassin, one step away from an unlicensed terrorist. The paradox to be solved is this: the audience gets a vicarious thrill from seeing villains hurt and thwarted, and seeing not only justice done but also revenge, but is this really a morally correct stance to take? For me the controlling idea is one that occurs in so many blockbuster action films: is Might also Right? In other words, do the ends justify the means?

* * * * *

You can see that some of these considerations also apply to novels. The Premise usually appears on the back cover of a paperback or the flap of a hardback cover wrap. The Hook (and there may be more than one) often revolves around a moral stance that the protagonist has to take, or an action that they’re called upon to make. The Controlling Idea may be the matrix the protagonist is placed in, be it a future scenario or an evolving political situation or an inimical environment.

A couple of areas of discussion that I hope to cover in future posts are characterisation and structure — again, you can see the links with text-based fiction.

6 thoughts on “Screenplay principles

  1. I can see that those three premises can even appear in Flash Fiction – although different labels are applied meaning very much the same thing.
    Might might be right? I must admit that I am particularly fond of stories where the (perhaps superhero) protagonist adds might to a weak right with insufficient might of their own. I seem to remember that The Avengers 1960s show was a bit like that.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I rather suspect that rather a lot of Hollywood action blockbusters are based on the premise you outline, Col, and as with fairytales we’re rather conditioned to expect that right overcomes its adversaries despite the odds stacked against it.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. The radio and TV and papers are so full of baddies winning around the world (terrorists, rabid corporations, greedy bankers and the like) I’m surprised that so many people want their fiction to mirror depressing reality.

          The ain’t-life-awful brigade must head straight for the bookshop shelves labelled True Life Tragedies and the equivalents in novels; I prefer fiction that ultimately gives me grounds for guarded optimism.


          1. Optimism, indeed. In fact, I wonder if this jaundiced view and being prepared to accept it isn’t behind some of the ills? The more one stops having the ideal of the good guy always winning, the less the good guy is likely to.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. I think, being a bit political, that countries like the UK and especially the US see themselves as the ‘good guys’, the policemen of the world as it were, and will resort to dirty tricks in order to uphold their version of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’ (such weasel, Humpty Dumpty words, these).


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