- Classical Storytelling and Contemporary Screenwriting: Aristotle and the Modern Scriptwriter by Brian Price
Brian Price. New York: Routledge, 2018, 255 pp.
In his preface, the author tells us that he originally pitched a book on screenwriting several years ago, but the publisher told him her company was “swamped” with screenwriting books and wondered if there was anything left to be written about the topic. Brian set off trying to invent a new way to talk about the screenwriting process only to discover many other writers developing their own new systems to explain story structure. During his search, Brian re-discovered the classic lessons of Aristotle’s Poetics and realized that these are the guiding principles that have lasted and will continue to apply long after the newest trends have been forgotten. This book revisits the Poetics, breaking them down and explaining their relevance to screenwriting and film storytelling structure by placing screenwriting in the broader context of storytelling tradition.
Brian Price is a screenwriter who has taught screenwriting at such prestigious institutions as Yale, Johns Hopkins, and the Brooks Institute. He has a clear understanding of classic film storytelling structure, the practice of screenwriting, Aristotle’s Poetics, and the DNA of stories. He thoroughly breaks down key elements of the Poetics, which he refers to as “Aristotle’s guiding precepts” (4). The book is well organized. Each chapter addresses an “Aristotelian concept, its contemporary significance to screen-writing, and finally its practical application for the reader’s own work” (4). Most chapters start with a quote from Aristotle’s Poetics and end with practical assignments that guide the reader through the screenwriting process by applying Aristotle’s principles. Brian Price provides a clear and thorough guide to screenwriting rooted in the classic tradition.
Unfortunately, the author falls into the familiar trap of drawing heavily from a film canon with few minority or female screenwriters, directors, or protagonists. He relies heavily [End Page 102] on standards like Star Wars, Some Like It Hot, Annie Hall, The Graduate, Tootsie, and Fargo. Out of more than eighty films referenced or recommended throughout the book, the only films made after the year 2000 that he uses to illustrate Aristotle’s concepts are Spiderman (2002), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), The Social Network (2010), and Return of the King (2003). The lack of recent films and lack of representation dilute the argument that Aristotle’s principles are still relevant for the next generation of screenwriters.
In the chapter “The Three Acts: Let’s Break It Down,” the author argues for traditional structure. He mentions the students who resist being forced into adhering to rules and patterns. He admits that a few contemporary writers have broken the rules with positive results. “But Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Christopher Nolan’s Memento, and Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight, just to name a few, are the rare exception” (70). Moonlight (2016) is one of the most recent films mentioned in the whole book. It is also the only film mentioned with an African American writer, director, and protagonist, and it is used only as an example of a film that resists Aristotle’s rules.
As a screenwriter and screenwriting instructor, I have a mixed personal relationship with Aristotle. The Poetics sets forth a reliable set of principles for creating classic story structure. It is a valuable tool for screenwriters to understand well. I have, however, seen the tool weaponized as a rubric to measure the quality and value of a story. I have seen it especially used to dismiss stories of women and minorities. The use of Aristotelian structure as the standard can contribute to a sexist and Western bias. Many female and minority screenwriters and filmmakers do not see themselves represented in the canon. Thus, many screenwriting students feel resistant to this traditional structure, because of their estrangement from the greatest examples of it.
To truly revisit Aristotle and help a new generation of screenwriters embrace the structure, the author should include some fresher and more diverse film examples. Pointing to the most contemporary film referenced, Moonlight, as an exception to classic structure signals...