Falmouth University College perpetuates a Screenwriting Trainwreck.
I have Three beliefs about Knowledge. The first is that Knowledge should be Shared. The second, more importantly is that Knowledge has no value unless it is Shared for others to build upon. Thirdly, I also believe that All Knowledge has intrinsic Value; that even if you disagree or the knowledge you are engaging is ill-informed, you are none the less better for the encounter with that knowledge.
I have recently watched, listened and read an open online course in Screenwriting from the University College Falmouth in the UK that challenged these long held beliefs of mine. A course of such verbose ignorance and unthinking perspective that I can only conclude it to be an exception to the ideals above - ie. that it shouldn’t have been shared, has no increased value because of its sharing and which I am not the better for encountering it…
Does that sound harsh…?
Let me say that I am in wild applause for Falmouth taking the decision to open their programs up. Other institutions such as MIT in the US have taken the same approach which would seem in league with my aforementioned beliefs on Knowledge. What these institutions understand is that, aside form the idea that knowledge should be shared, there is no loss to the institution by giving away their courses. The idea that a potential student would choose not to enrol just because they can listen to the lectures and read the notes online is deeply flawed. Instead the opening up of such materials achieves two ends - it firstly allows those who otherwise would not have enrolled to engage with knowledge and secondly, that it builds broad public profile for the institution which in the end attracts more students to actually enrol and attend. It grows the pie rather than cuts off a slice.
However, this being my stated position on open-courses free to the world, I collide with the dilemma that this particular course from Falmouth is decidedly Bad. Certainly its heart is in the right place but heart is not enough when the course itself represents a case study in the worst possible approach to education for creative arts (and of education in general).
The 10-part screenwriting course is predicated on that most problematic and limiting of pedagogical approaches; Dictation - the dictating of rules, formulas, the dictating of what is right and what is wrong, what is good and what is bad. It is a course designed to produce a pre-ordained and subjective end product rather than lead students on a journey. It’s a course intent on giving simple answers rather than prompting rich questions. It aims to give students a map rather than a compass and so leaves them illiterate and lost.
Now before I go further into the specifics of why I am so frustrated with this course (and in particular why I am appalled that so many emerging and aspiring screenwriters across the internet are rushing to view it) I should make apparent my own perspective on screenwriting, story and structure to ensure that it is clear what it is that I am objecting to.
I love structure. I think 3 Act Structure for dramatic narrative on screen is not just very useful but also the most common story-telling pattern in modern cinema and thus is ignored only by a fool. I find enormous worth in the works of Joseph Campell and Chris Vogler on the fabled Hero’s Journey and particularly the power of underlying mythologies. I openly love Hollywood cinema and TV just as much as I love European, Asian, Australian and, so called, art-house cinema. And I certainly believe passionately in examining the long history and bones of story-telling practice in order to inform our own stories. I also teach classical story-telling just as I have worked over fifteen years in production, scriptwriting as well as script development for film, tv and online, documentary and fiction. So I don’t believe I can be accused of being a radical revolutionary who wants to burn down the establishment. Patterns and Structures of storytelling have been around a long time, they are intrinsic to our culture, and they work for a reason. So I am not making an argument form the fringes of video art but rather from an informed centre of audience-focused, mainstream story engagement.
I also believe story-telling is a broad-church, that there is more than one way to skin a cat, that whilst 3 Act Structure might dominate it is one of many effective structures and patterns of telling a story, that Aristotle had some good ideas about drama as well as some totally irreverent ones. Most importantly I believe the role of teaching and teachers of screenwriting is not to dictate answers but to lead questions, that good education (and subsequently good writers) are critical and questioning. The role of a Screenwriting course should be to arm students with a toolkit of navigational options not a map to a given destination.
Thus I arrive at the Screenwriting course offered online by University College Falmouth.
Oh dear o’ deary me…
From the outset of the course, presented by Jane Pugh, we are subjected to a perspective on screenwriting that seems to be little more than the perpetuated remix of the same old cliches and mis-understood myths of screen narrative. In truth I am unsure where to begin my critique, there seemed so many verbose declarations in the first two lectures devoid of any critical thought or understanding, that I’m not sure which to start with..?
How about this… Ms Pugh declares that the course shall look at storytelling “As Ancient as the Greeks and as Modern as Kung Fu Panda”…
Kung Fu Panda? Is Ms Pugh, our teacher, really suggesting that the scope of Modern film storytelling can be boiled down to Kung Fu Panda? Now, don’t get me wrong, I like Jack Black as much as the next guy, but surely we’re not suggesting Kung Fu Panda is representative of ‘modern’ cinema with all that the word ‘modern’ implies?
Inception? Momento? Crash? Black Swan? Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind? Fight Club? Magnolia? Full Metal Jacket? Just to name few films that jump off the top of my head - popular story-based films - that could viably wear a title ‘modern’ in structure and form. But, Kung Fu Panda is modern?
My major concern with such a statement is I have no idea what Ms Pugh means..? She has linked an idea of MODERN with KUNG FU PANDA and subsequently i am left with nothing, no insight, no informed perspective on where we are going? Now, if she had instead said…
“Storytelling As Ancient as the Greeks, as popular as Kung Fu Panda and as Modern as David Lynch’s Mullholland Drive” Then I would have a very interesting context. This would imply that what we are about to learn is the underlying dramatic elements and principles that allow for stories to be so diverse and unified as to encompass ancient Greek tragedy, animated family entertainment and edgy art cinema. (and certainly I could make an argument as to the very compelling commonality between Greek tragedy, Kung Fu Panda and the altered mind-state of a David Lynch Film) But, instead we have statement from Ms Pugh that is decidedly vacuous and meaningless; a statement that tells us nothing, to the point of being comic in its silliness.
But this is just a warm up. It’s when the course teacher gets to use her Dictation Voice that the show becomes really interesting…
She saids, the Ancient Greeks are “the inventors of dramatic form and structure we follow today… They wrote the rule book and we must follow it… This may sound dogmatic but by learning the rules you are free to interpret them”
Hang on… did she just contradict herself? In the first breath she declares acutely that there is apparently a rule book and we MUST - in no uncertain terms - follow it; only to then in the second breath insist that we are free to INTERPRET the rules. Now, I’m no sporty-type but the last time I played soccer there were rules and when I grabbed the ball with my hands and threw it into the goal I’m pretty sure I didn’t have the option to ‘interpret’ the rules…
Befuddling contradictions aside what I find more fascinating is the question of what our teacher is really implying by this statement? (not to mention questioning her understanding of history and our good friends the Ancient Greeks - which I assume she is collectively grouping together Aristotle and the dramatists such as Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. )
The implication worn on the sleeve of this statement is that todays screen drama is the same mode, pattern, form, structure (as dictated by those mythical ‘Rules’) as ancient Greek tragedy…? Really? Have you read Sophocles lately? This perception is given more focus by Ms Pugh when she pulls out another dose of verbose absolutes; ”All films follow a basic 3 act structure. Of course there are exceptions to the rules… but my response is simple, they’re not very good”
Wow…. That’s an awful LOT of films and a lot of stories that she has just put in the category of ‘not very good’…. But rather than setting about compiling that list of these ‘no good’ films (which would simply to be to point out the enormous subjectivity of the statement and an unhelpful position of personal taste that good teachers steer well clear of) let’s instead reflect back on Greek drama itself, in particular this perception that Greek drama and 3 Act Structure are synonymous.
To begin with Greek dramatists had no concept of a dramatic ‘Act’ and Greek drama had no such structure or divisions. Greek plays ran in continuous movements over day long festivals and were not in any way written to what we (or Aristotle) would recognise as a 3 Act Structure. Read plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes and Euripides and you will see no true correlation to the strict 3 Act Structure such teachers as Ms Pugh expound (not without a lot of imagination and shoe-horning). Yes they have inciting incidents which leads to climaxes and cathartic outcomes, but this is neither particular to the Ancient Greeks (certainly such structures were that basis of campfire tales of hunting the mammoth by cavemen) nor particularly useful to screenwriters because of its banal simplicity.
Indeed you can read Aristotle’s poetics cover to cover and never see any reference to acts, structure or the magic number 3. What Aristotle saids is simply stories have a Beginning, a Middle and an End, but as eminent film scholar Howard Suber has rightly pointed out “your last bowel movement has a beginning middle and an end”; it is a statement so painfully self-evident as to be virtually not worth mentioning. The real problem however is in making synonymous Aristotle’s blatantly obvious statement with some sort of sacred like 3 Act pattern.
Our contemporary understandings of dramatic Acts and the structure of divisions they represent - in particular, 3 Acts - is a much more modern rather than ancient phenomenon. Arguably Shakespearian plays were constructed in Acts, and its with restoration dramatic theatre in Europe that we see this rise of the partitioning of storytelling around dramatic climaxes and 5 Act Structures. But even here we assume this because the published versions of the plays are written in Acts. But the published versions we have were printed decades and even centuries after the fact and there is much to suggest that these 5 Act Structures were imposed in publishing and not inherent to the writing and staging of the drama. It wasn’t until the 19th century and the rise of realist dramatic playwrights such as Ibsen, that we introduce the notion of clear dramatic Acts and Act-breaks as part of story development and execution. But here the intention is simply to provide a way for playwrights like Ibsen to prevent their audience from fidgeting in their seats and give them some fresh air to sell them drinks in the foyer. Later still with early cinema we get the rhythmic structure of screen stories broken into acts based on the length of reels of film; a way of ensuring there is a climax just before the picture needs to stop to change reel.
With these simple examples alone we debunk the perceived and incorrect assumption of a synonymous connection between 3 Act Structure and Aristotelian drama; the idea that the Greeks somehow invented a Rule of 3 Acts, indeed the suggestion that the Greeks invented any rules at all in regard to storytelling, is a exertion of high ignorance. I often wonder if those who make such assertions have ever actually read Aristotle’s Poetics or if they are just rehashing a previous second-hand rehashing of Aristotle appropriations?
Now, this is not at all to suggest that 3 Act Structure is not extremely useful as a story structure tool - it certainly is and indeed i would argue strongly that it is a structure all screenwriters should be familiar with. But, to insist on its infallibility or intrinsic connection to the long history of storytelling and performed drama is simply bogus and does not hold up to even mild scrutiny. If we are to understand and use 3 Act Structure effectively we need to recognise it for what it is - Description NOT Prescription.
3 Act Structure is first and foremost a description based on observation - a result of pattern-recognition derived from surveying a large body of stories that seemed to work well and looking for what was consistent between them. This is done in the hope of then employing that knowledge to make a new story that also works well. Nobody invented 3 Act Structure, it’s simply a modern label we give to a common pattern we can recognise across a lot films that are popular. Since Hollywood was the first to mainstream and focus on using this recognised pattern of 3-Acts it stands to reason that it becomes self-perpetuating in Hollywood films and we subsequently see the pattern everywhere. But with just a little bit of critical thought we can move beyond hard-nosed, verbose, ignorant and decidedly flawed ideas of RULES that MUST BE FOLLOWED - as expressed by Ms Pugh - and instead see such Structures for what they are - Tools NOT Rules.
I might have been content to leave Ms Pugh and the Falmouth Screenwriting department alone at that point but listening on further introduced new levels of pain. The teacher shifted perspective from feature-film to serial and series TV drama with the introductory statement that: “Serial drama is a bit like a feature film and structured in a similar way only it lasts longer and uses hooks at the end of each episode”
Again, I am left stunned and open-jawed, unsure of how to respond…? Let me start by saying this; if I want to build bridges then I need to study bridge-building - mathematics, physics, materials, engineering, geology, mechanics. To build a great bridge is to invoke a highly complex, enormously sophisticated, art and science. No one would suggest that you could just start building the Sydney Harbour Bridge because you had some inspiration from a coat hanger and body of water that needed to be spanned…!
So, having accepted that, every screenwriter then needs to ask themselves if they really think writing a narrative screenplay is any less sophisticated than building the Sydney Harbour Bridge? If they answer yes, then they are in the wrong art and need to put their screenwriting pen away now or else they’ll be in for a shock…! Narrative screenwriting is enormously complex and, episodic long-form dramatic writing is arguably exponentially more complex, sophisticated and intricate than feature film writing. Witness shows such as The Wire, Deadwood, Breaking Bad, Battlestar Galactica, East West 101, MadMen - all long-form episodic stories that eclipse most feature films for sheer complexity and density. Thus I hope you will now empathise with my shock and appalled state upon hearing Ms Pugh’s distillation of the complexity of TV writing down to being little more than feature films but ‘Longer and with Hooks’.
There’s a number of angles by which we may challenge the assumptions embodied in this glib statement. The primary one seems to be not length but the idea of a ‘hook’ itself. The much better, more useful and informative description for what Ms Pugh calls an episodic Hook is a ‘Returnable Element’. This is a term used widely in episodic TV to describe what it is that brings the viewer back for the next episode? What is it that the viewer feels compelled to come back to find out or experience? Ms Pugh implies in her lecture that episodic, long-form, drama works by cliff-hangers, up-in-the air dramatic questions left open at the end of an episode that compels the audience to come back for an answer. Certainly this can be a very effective Returnable Element but it is highly ignorant (and, dare i say, not a little arrogant) to suggest that this is the Only way to bring viewers back.
There are indeed a broad range of returnable element possibilities above and beyond the notion of a hook or cliff-hanger. (and indeed I have written about some of these patterns in a post called Episodic Appeal) A highly dramatic series such as the X-Files, for example, has no such hook as Ms Pugh implies as each episode is self contained, its story told out in full within the space of a discreet episode. So why do we come back to see more X-Files..? We come back for the way the stories make us feel. Whilst the plots, circumstances and characters change with each episode the feeling-state of emotions elicited by the stories is consistent. We come back to feel a certain way; to be engaged by a certain kind of story. The primary returnable element of the X-Files is simply a way of feeling - scared, thrilled, spooked.
By way of a different example we can take a series such as Deadwood. The structure of Deadwood has much more in common with Soap Opera than it does with patterns such as that exhibited by shows such as Spooks or Dr Who. In Deadwood there are no cliff-hangers, no end of episode hooks. Stories from a multitude of characters spill and cascade from one episode to the next. Some story lines are resolved, others continue, some begin or end in the middle of an episode. (The Wire is much the same structurally as Deadwood lacking any sense of being episodically self-contained.) The returnable element for Deadwood therefore is not really “What happens next?”, nor is it, as with X-Files, a particular feeling-state. Instead for Deadwood, it is arguably the world and its characters that compel us to come back - we return episode after episode to simply spend more time in that extraordinary world with those extraordinary characters. In just these examples, and dozens of others, it is clear that the structure of long-form drama is not only enormously varied but also that it bares little or no tangible connection to feature film structure. To assert that such episodic writing is ‘a bit like a feature only longer’ is not just absurd it is decidedly misleading and disingenuous when it is expressed by a teacher to a student.
The bottom line is that if you approach the writing of a long-form drama series following Ms Pughs direction of “Serial drama is a bit like a feature film and structured in a similar way only it lasts longer and uses hooks at the end of each episode” then you will no doubt fall flat on your face with the effort. Such a statement of direction does nothing to help a student of screenwriting approach long-form drama in a functional or holistic way; it just dumps them in the middle of the woods with no compass or map.
I could go on, digging further into the tragedy of the Falmouth Open Online Screenwriting Course - the more I listened to the lectures the more entranced I became with the train-wreck; terrified but unable to avert my gaze. But I shall refrain from further spanking and instead attempt to invoke some final clarity….
The Greeks had some good stuff going on, Aristotle had some interesting things to say, 3 Act Structure is a useful tool that every writer should be familiar with… But, when we unthinkingly and uncritical perpetuate these ideas as Rules that must be followed, decrees that must be obeyed, we dig ourselves a deep hole - one so deep it becomes a creative vacuum, subsuming and quashing questions only to supplant them with easy answers. Stories just aren’t so simple, singular or unified that they can be executed with rules. Stories are diverse, complex and varied.
There are no concrete rules of any value and any teacher who suggests there are is either lying or selling you something.
BUT… emerging screenwriters should not be scared by this revelation; there may not be any Rules but there are Tools to use, Observations to make, Principles to exploit, Patterns to recognise and, most importantly, Questions to ask.
And that’s my key gripe with Jane Pugh and the Falmouth Screenwriting Course; it is an education program predicated on bad teaching because it is primarily concerned with providing answers. Good learning never came from handing out answers and rule books. I cannot learn to be a great soccer player by reading the rule book. But I could become a great soccer player if I watch a lot of soccer, read a lot about soccer and play a lot of soccer.
A colleague of mine, eminent Australian writer and director of film and TV Catherine Millar (current head of Screen Content at the Australian Film TV and Radio School) once told me a superb analogy that sums up the perspective of many screenwriting teachers and courses - and which is entirely fitting in the case of Falmouth and Jane Pugh. She told a story of barbarian invaders sacking one of the Tsar’s estates in Russia. The barbarians saw that the bathrooms of the huge house had hot and cold running water. They were amazed and wanted such luxury for themselves. So, they stole all the taps, took them home, stuck them in the walls of their own bathrooms and were subsequently very upset when no hot and cold water was forth-coming.
The approach to screenwriting expounded by this course from Falmouth and its teacher is the equivalent of Stealing The Taps - the decorative outside, the simplistic fittings, the surface level observations that belie and reveal nothing about the complexity, detail and truth of the plumbing and infrastructure beneath.