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Character over concept: Writing dialogue in search of story

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Screenwriting manuals such as McKee’s Story (1999) or Snyder’s Save the Cat! (2005) uniformly instruct the writer to begin their work by defining a concept; from this, they will develop a structure and build the rest of the story. These manuals and their methods dominate in higher education and in the film industry. However, their methods’ overreliance on structuring the writing process may be at the detriment of considering more creative approaches to building a story. One such approach, criticized by McKee in Story, is writing dialogue in search of a story. Using interviews from Noah Baumbach, his collaborators, and other mainstream screenwriters, alongside my observations from my own writing and from teaching screenwriting, this article argues for the importance of allowing a screenplay to develop through writing dialogue in search of scenes, characters and story. It proposes that this method can enhance the quality of the individual character voice, form a stronger basis to structure a plot based on the development of characters, and enhance the reflective and creative skills required to complete a screenplay.
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Keywords: Noah Baumbach; character; concept; dialogue; screenwriting manuals; writing method

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Brighton

Publication date: 01 March 2017

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  • The Journal of Screenwriting aims to explore the nature of writing for the moving image in the broadest sense, highlighting current academic thinking around scriptwriting whilst also reflecting on this with a truly international perspective and outlook. The journal will encourage the investigation of a broad range of possible methodologies and approaches to studying the scriptwriting form, in particular: the history of the form, contextual analysis, the process of writing for the moving image, the relationship of scriptwriting to the production process and how the form can be considered in terms of culture and society. The journal also aims to encourage research in the field of screenwriting, the linking of scriptwriting practice to academic theory, and to support and promote conferences and networking events on this subject.
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