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A Poetics for Screenwriters

A Poetics for Screenwriters

A thorough overview of all the dramatic elements of screenplays.

January 2001
This is a print-on-demand title. Expedited shipping is not available.
157 pages | 5.5 x 8.5 |

Writing successful screenplays that capture the public imagination and richly reward the screenwriter requires more than simply following the formulas prescribed by the dozens of screenwriting manuals currently in print. Learning the "how-tos" is important, but understanding the dramatic elements that make up a good screenplay is equally crucial for writing a memorable movie. In A Poetics for Screenwriters, veteran writer and teacher Lance Lee offers aspiring and professional screenwriters a thorough overview of all the dramatic elements of screenplays, unbiased toward any particular screenwriting method.

Lee explores each aspect of screenwriting in detail. He covers primary plot elements, dramatic reality, storytelling stance and plot types, character, mind in drama, spectacle and other elements, and developing and filming the story. Relevant examples from dozens of American and foreign films, including Rear Window, Blue, Witness, The Usual Suspects, Virgin Spring, Fanny and Alexander, The Godfather, and On the Waterfront, as well as from dramas ranging from the Greek tragedies to the plays of Shakespeare and Ibsen, illustrate all of his points.

This new overview of the dramatic art provides a highly useful update for all students and professionals who have tried to adapt the principles of Aristotle's Poetics to the needs of modern screenwriting. By explaining "why" good screenplays work, this book is the indispensable companion for all the "how-to" guides.

  • Introduction
  • I. Context
  • II. Primary Plot Elements
  • III. Dramatic Reality
  • IV. Storytelling Stance and Plot Types
  • V. Character
  • VI. Mind in Drama
  • VII. Spectacle and Other Elements
  • VIII. Developing and Filming the Story
  • Notes
  • Screenplay Author List

Lance Lee is the coauthor of The Understructure of Writing for Film and Television. He has taught screenwriting at California State University, Northridge, since 1981.


A Poetics for Screenwriters remedies the lack of a concise summary of all essential aspects of the screenwriter's art and its place in society, the psyche, and the history of drama. No such text exists at present despite the many manuals, textbooks, specialist writings, individual memoirs, and collections of essays on the market. Some manuals, although short, omit significant aspects of the art in order to present a particular method. A Poetics for Screenwriters presents not another method but an overview of the essential elements that both a beginner and a professional should find useful within whatever method they may prefer. Only Aristotle's Poetics, written 2,400 years ago and focused on Greek tragedy, offers such an overview of the dramatic art. Unfortunately, Aristotle's work needs constant updating as another class or professional is baffled by remarks on Greek vowels while intrigued by those on the types of discovery or the nature of a Reverse.

Screenwriting is our dominant dramatic form, the heart of film, the quintessential twentieth- and now twenty-first-century art. It is time screenwriters had their own, modern Poetics. My approach is to show and summarize all important dramatic elements of screenplays clearly and succinctly without bias, not to prove and guide, though an understanding and mastery of these elements would mark anyone as a fine writer. Examples are drawn from many national screenwriting traditions, including works by Bergman, Kurosawa, Kieslowski, Wallace and Kelly (Witness), Williams (A Streetcar Named Desire), Schulberg (On the Waterfront), and many others. Drama cuts across boundaries and binds diverse screenwriters and cultures.

Students and teachers will find A Poetics for Screenwriters useful as a supplement in beginning classes and as a fundamental text on which to expand in advanced. Professionals will find a pointed review of an endlessly fascinating and rich art.

The sections that follow are often cross-referenced, as in "I, 2," to give easy access to related or supportive material. A sentence or quote followed by a superscript numeral refers the reader to the Notes section, which has been kept to a minimum to maintain a professional focus and brevity, and appended to the text. My claim is to bring together, not to originate: all I claim for myself here beyond the wit of brevity is that "modesty is all."

A list of the films mentioned, and their screenwriters, is also appended. A number of classic plays are used, since a screenwriter is the heir to 2,400 years of dramatic undertakings; these are appended and listed also.

Finally, scenes referred to from Kramer vs. Kramer, On the Waterfront, A Streetcar Named Desire, The Graduate, The Godfather, and Fanny and Alexander are quoted in full in The Understructure of Writing for Film and Television, the textbook that I and my colleague Ben Brady take responsibility for, also from the University of Texas Press.



“This is a brilliant, all-encompassing work. I cannot recall a book on screenwriting which delves so deeply into the art and antecedents of screenwriting. Aristotle himself would, no doubt, congratulate Lance Lee. However, without waiting for the great Greek's response, put me down as 'Bravo!'”
William Froug, author of Screenwriting Tricks of the Trade and Zen and the Art of Screenwriting