The science of scriptwriting


You don’t have to delve far into the realms of scriptwriting before you’ll be pointed towards a book called Story by Robert McKee, which explains why scriptwriting is more akin to engineering than art. McKee examines story-telling like a biologist dissecting a rat. But after taking it apart, he explains how to build a story yourself using rules that wouldn’t look out of place in a computer programming text book.

McKee has become so influential that huge numbers of films, perhaps most of them, and many TV series are now written using his rules. But the real measure of his success is that there are even anti-McKee films such as Adaptation that attempt to burst McKee’s bubble.

Given that scriptwriting has become so formulaic, shouldn’t science have a role to play in analysing it? That’s exactly what Fionn Murtagh and pals at the Royal Holloway College, University of London have done in a project that analyses scripts in a repeatable, unambiguous and potentially-automatic way.

Using McKee’s rules they compare the script of the film Casablanca, a classic pre-McKee movie, with scripts of six episodes of CSI (Crime Scene Investigation), a classic post-Mckee production, and find numerous similarities.

That’s hardly surprising since McKee learnt his trade analysing films such as Casablanca, so anything written using his rules should have these similarities.

What’s interesting about the work is that Murtagh and mates want to use their technique to develop a kind of project management software for scriptwriting. That’s an ambitious goal but one that might find a handy niche market, particularly since many scripts, TV serials in particular, are now written by teams rather than individuals and so need careful project management from the start.

The challenge for Murtagh and co will be to turn this aproach into a bug-free, easy-to-use package that has the potential to become commercially viable. And for that they’ll almost certainly need some outside help and funding. Anybody got any spare cash?

Ref: The Structure of Narrative: the Case of Film Scripts

4 Responses to “The science of scriptwriting”

  1. MP Lockwood says:

    I’ve seen several movies which made me suspect such a piece of software was already in use! But wouldn’t it be much easier to create a program which simply shuffles plot devices and events from other films to create new scripts? I’m sure this would produce movies which are just as generic and marketable as the approach described here.

  2. Kent says:

    I certainly thought CSI episodes were written by a program. Humans only had to change the value of the Global string ‘BadGuy’ for each different episode.

  3. […] The Science of Scriptwriting! This one actually appeared on the arxiv, under the more formal title “The Structure of Narrative: the Case of Film Scripts.” (Via Swans on Tea and the physics arxiv blog.) […]

  4. John Kovacs says:

    That’s why I feel so empty after watching CSI. That’s why I don’t watch it anymore.