Posts Tagged ‘Lajos Egri’

“The antagonist must be as strong as the protagonist. The wills of conflicting personalities must clash.”
                                                   Lajos Egri 

“The better the villain, the better the picture.”
                                                   Alfred Hitchcock    

As we dip back into Lajos Egri’s classic book The Art of Dramatic Writing we’re back to the basics. But something always worth repeating as we look at conflict between the  protagonist and the antagonist.

“After you have found your premise, you had better find out immediately–testing if necessary–whether the characters have the unity of opposites between them. If they do not have this strong, unbreakable bond between them, your conflict will never rise to a climax.”
                                           Lajos Egri
                                           The Art of Dramatic Writing
                                           page 124



Related posts: Everything I Learned in Film School (Tip 1)

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“The pivotal character knows what he wants…Without him the story flounders…in fact, there is no story.”

                                       Lajos Egri

One of the hang-ups that some people have with the classic writing book The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri is that its focus in on theater. And while some of the references are more well known plays, others are more obscure in today’s terms.

So I’ve decided to give the fifty three year old book a little contemporary injection by connecting his thought to a more recent film. Egri starts his book discussing premise (which we cover in parts 1 & 2) and follows it talking about character.

What some people call the protagonist, hero or main character, Egri also calls the pivotal character.

“A pivotal character must not merely desire something. He must want it so badly that he will destroy or be destroyed in the effort to attain his goal…A good character must have something very vital at stake.”
                               Lajos Egri
                               The Art of Dramatic Writing
                               page 108

The character Chuck Nolan comes to mind. He is the pilot played by Tom Hanks in Cast Away. Screenwriter William Broyles Jr. has given Hanks plenty at stake. First there is just the survival issue of living on a deserted island, and then there is the issue of his fiancé back home. Toward the end of the movie he is even willing to risk his life to attain his goal of returning home.

Hanks’ character also fits well another aspect that Egri writes about;

“A pivotal character is a driving force, not because he decided to be one. He becomes what he is for the simple reason that some inner or outer necessity forces him to act; there is something at stake for him, honor, health, money, protection, vengeance, or a mighty passion.”

Later in the chapter Egri carries this point over to those who have a desire to write, act, sing or paint by saying that with 99% of those people it is a caprice or a whim. Egri writes, “Ninety-nine per cent usually give up before they have a chance to achieve anything. They have no perseverance, no stamina, no physical or mental strength, the inner urge to create is not strong enough.”

So write strong, willful pivotal characters. And be one yourself.


Related screenwriting post: What’s at Stake? (Tip #9) 


Scott W. Smith

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“The premise is the motivating power behind everything we do.”
Lajos Egri
The Art of Dramatic Writing

Lajos Egri interchanges the words premise with purpose. As in what’s the purpose of your story. This is not to be confused with plot. Egri writes, “A good premise is a thumbnail synopsis of your play,” and gives some examples;

Foolish generosity leads to poverty.
Honesty defeats duplicity.
Bragging leads to humiliation.
Craftiness digs its own grave.
Egotism leads to loss of friends.
Extravagance leads to destitution.
Ruthless ambition leads to its own destruction.

That last one could be Macbeth… or more recently Bernie Madoff.

Egri writes that the premise must not be ambiguous (Love defines all) and it must be something you believe. It comes out of your convictions. And it may come later in your writing.

Egri explains, “You don’t have to start your play with a premise. You can start with a character or an incident, or even a simple thought. This thought or incident grows, and the story slowly unfolds itself. You have time to find your premise in the mass of your material later. The important this is to find it.”

Robert McKee calls this the “controlling idea.” John Truby calls it the “moral argument.” Others call it “the moral of the story.” It doesn’t matter what you call it as long as you have one – and just one.

Egri explains, “No one can build a play on two premises, or a house on two foundations.”

Now, with all that said…I do think there are plenty of produced screenwriters that not only don’t only start with a premise, but are generally unaware that they even have one. Stanley D. Williams addresses this in his book The Moral Premise:

Successful writers do not need to understand the rules of every story to be successful, anymore than a young child needs to understand the dynamic stability laws of physics when they learn to walk. Although I think a writer is better off knowing what the rules are, whereas dynamic stability only matters to engineers who want to make robots walk on two legs…But in reality, for many creative tasks, the right brain is able to do just fine all by itself.”

Scott W. Smith

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So it’s been just over six months since I had the crazy idea to go daily with this Screenwriting from Iowa blog. Like Lance Armstrong I don’t know if I’m going to return next year or if December 31, 2009 will be the finish line for the daily gig. In the meantime, I continue to hunt for helpful quotes and such. For the next couple days I’m going to go to revisit my most tattered, torn, and highlighted book on writing — The Art of Dramatic Writing by Lajos Egri. 

I’ve flipped through it so much over the years that it’s now two books because the spine is broken. There’s a rumor that you can’t get into the Writer’s Guide of America unless you’ve read this book — and memorized the first chapter. First published in 1946 the examples are from theater, but it fits all dramatic writing. (Hence, the title.) If you haven’t read this book do yourself a favor and order it right now.

“No two dramatists think or write alike. Ten thousand playwrights can take the same premise, as they have done since Shakespeare, and not one play will resemble the other except in the premise. Your knowledge, your understanding of human nature, and your imagination will take care of that.”
                                                    Lajos Egri
                                                    The Art of Dramatic Writing
                                                    page 11 

Your living in Iowa, Alaska, Ohio or Oslo is part of where your originality comes from. Write local stories with a universal appeal. Heck, if you live in Michigan or Louisiana I have to think that’s an asset now that producers are looking to make movies there due to the great tax incentives those states offer.

Egri makes a great point. Whenever you talk about learning to be a better screenwriter there is always someone ready to shout “you’re teaching a cookie-cutter approach.” I understand the thought and probably was shouting that at teachers when I was a 20-year-old in film school, but it really is a silly thought. There are simply guidelines that have worked worked for at least a couple thousands years. Things like, say, conflict are good to have in your story.

But the originality comes from what you bring to the table. Your education and family background are things that make your see the world in a particular way. There are things you’ve seen and done that will shape your writing. That’s were originality flows from.

As I’ve mentioned before, in 2006-07 there were four movies about unplanned pregnancies (Juno, Waitress, Bella, Knocked Up ). Four movies that centered around the same subject. And all four are different. Originality in filmmaking has less to do with avant-garde ideals (or shaky camera moves or the latest digital plug-ins) than it has to do with your imagination.


Scott W. Smith

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