by Jeff Kitchen
Well, that's a helluva title.
I've been wrestling with this review for a while, and would be interested in seeing what other screenwriters think of the book.
The method presented here apparently originated with one of last century's foremost teachers of dramatic structure, William Thompson Price. Price taught playwriting back in the aught's, and a remarkable number of his students went on to have hits on Broadway. There's a lot of of great insight in Kitchen's modern interpretation of the Price method. Price forced you to consider the central dilemma of your story, and build up from there. Kitchen nails what a "dilemma" really is, and ties you to the meaning most likely to create conflict. This bit alone is almost worth the purchase, as easily half the spec scripts I read go right off the rails at that early planning point.
Then, when executing the story of how your protagonist deals with this dilemma, Kitchen primarily uses two tools. The first is what could only be called a reverse causality chain. By starting at the end and moving backward through immediate actions, he helps you avoid what Hitchcock called "nothing scenes." No cheating to get to your resolution here. The second tool is something I find fascinating -- for lack of a better term it's fractal plotting. He establishes, for the entire script, a series of inciting incidents, reactions, resolutions. Then her backs up one level, and applies the same method to each act. Then to each sequence. Then to each scene. So, by the end of the process, absolutely every level of the script is based around some conflict, driving you ever forward in both the immediate and the meta. Not only does he show how these tools are used in successful movies, the ambitious bastard actually creates an entirely original screenplay in the second half of the book, taking you point-by-point through his model. I mean -- damn. I love you people, but I'm not going to burn a perfectly good treatment on your edification.
And here's where we slam into the problem. Those concepts alone -- pretty damn fine screenwriting book. But it's buried in a mess of a text.
Granted, I have a very particular style I like to see in books on screenwriting. Short on the huggy-heart stuff, long on the writer's toolbox. Usually it's one or the other. Jeff Kitchen manages to startle me with some nice, effective tools for breaking down common problems in screenplays, and then he quickly manages to annoy me with a super gung-ho writing style, some pretty vague explanations, confusing terms and an overall book structure that's a mess. There's a mention in the book about how Mr. Kitchen uses these techniques in a live seminars. I bet it probably lays out like gangbusters when presented with an interactive audience. The book, however, could have used a co-author who could step back from a process and see how to present it cold.
The Introduction alone is fifteen pages of cheerleading about cutting loose and going wild. Frankly, that's not usually the problem with young writers. Complete newbie writers, yes, that's some valid advice. Based on that, I was thinking this is a book for complete neophytes, or what I call the midnight screenwriters -- those toiling away after the kids and spouse are asleep, with no formal training at film school. (Seeing as that used to be me, don't take the term as a perjorative).
Chapter 1 dives straight into Dilemma, Crisis, Decision & Action and Resolution: Dramatizing a Plot and we're off to a great start despite a chapter heading that should stand as a warning. Kitchen defines his terms, he cracks open some well-known movies to showcase how these tools work ... aces. Then we wander off into spotting dilemmas in the world around us, and how to study the human condition. Okayyyy. Then we break down a sample plot idea using these tools, and at one point:
Let's ask ourselves some questions about brining the story to a crisis. How bad can it get? What's an entertaining way for this disaster/adventure to come to a head? How risky can she get? How screwed can he get? How close is he to solving the case? What's a humorous way to blow it all up? What's a dangerous way to blow it all up? How can everything get much, much worse? How does the husband factor in? What if Zack finds out Minky's a blackmailer, throwing things into an entirely new light? What if he discovers that it's a much more dangerous game than he ever suspected? What if Minky is truly insane? What if he's being played for a sucker? What if hes now completely in love with her, right at this critical junction? What if they've finally made love and it was beyond fantastic? What if they've made love and she starts acting even crazier? What if the threats to her become extremely dangerous? What if he's losing his mind? What if he discovers she has betrayed him? What if he suspects has has sold him out? Who are the people who are trying to hurt her and what are they really up to?
That's not "some" questions, that's twenty-one questions about a non-existent story, neatly derailing us in the middle of some nice explanation about his plotting technique. This may seem like I'm being picky, but this is the tone of the text for the entire book. This is not just tonally annoying to me -- it dissipates the thrust and power of his teaching.
Not only that, we leave this chapter with an idea of where all these elements -- dilemma, crisis, etc, lay on some theoretical storyline, but without a heckuva lot of discussion on meta-structure to a script. There's an assumption here, and through most of the book, that you know damn well how a script's supposed to lay out in three-act dramatic structure. I always consider this important as those ideas, the hinge points of action, are to me the bass-line of a script. They're what keep a script from becoming an endless series of "and-thens". Now, every screenwriter has his own little theories of how these play out, but there we go -- a total neophyte would have no idea what the hell is going on with the "Acts" Kitchen is constantly referring to. So the book's not for the neophyte ... maybe.
The chapter ends with a bullet-point "summary", like many texts.
Thirty-two bullet points.
Oy. And there's so much here that's so great.
Chapter 2 is about Theme, and is perfectly fine if a little airy. Kitchen then dives into the infamous 36 Dramatic Situations. These are nice tools, granted. Good brainstorming stuff. Then he uses Enneagrams -- character-type diagrams - to show you how to develop characters with opposed and related personality traits. I always find these a little reductionist, if only because I think as soon as you're building characters with tools instead of working on the truth of who they are and why they need to be in the story, then you're off-track. But something you should have in the toolbox. Then we're into how important research and brainstorming are ...
Take a look at that. That's four chapters of the most general, can-get-it-anywhere screenwriting info you can imagine. But then Kitchen discusses The Central Proposition, which is directly related to the Price method. The chapter refers heavily to the other ideas we last saw in Chapter One. Why the four-chapter detour from the central thrust of the new method? I don't know.
This gets us to the last section before Kitchen builds up his sample screenplay -- Sequence, Proposition, Plot: Constructing and Tightening your Plot. Except, unfortunately, he's using a different definition of "sequence" here than the usual definition -- which he also utilizes. And "plot" doesn't mean what you think it means either. Actually, the first "plot" in that chapter heading doesn't even have the same meaning as the second "plot" in the same chapter heading.
This is when the head-banging really starts. I understand that Kitchen is probably trying to maintain the original terminology Price used -- his enthusiasm for Price's work borders on reverence. But in the name of God, man, it's your book! Create new terms so your explanation of this system reads clearly.
In the second half of the book, Kitchen takes us through the construction of an Elmore Leonard-like thriller. All of the construction. Including his writing notebook -- sections of which he pushes off 'til later, so they don't interrupt the flow of his work. Except they're not pushed off until, say appendices, they're just shoved back a few chapters. As, again, detours. Then the plot is built forward for a while (hey, when did we start doing that?!), then backward to check it with the causality chain. With overall script structure slighted pretty heavily here, you may wind up with even more of the "and-thens" than ever before, because there's no discussion of what different sections of the script, overall, are supposed to do in support of these ideas ...
Oh, and God help you if you want a simple reaction/resolution scene. If you have common sense and a little experience you'll know you can't apply Kitchen's conflict structure to every scene blindly, but the book doesn't seem written for anyone with a little experience.
In a word -- gahhh.
I get it. Kitchen wants to show the whole process, so he shows you tools you can use for every step of the process. I even understand the underlying teaching structure -- here's how to develop your central idea, here's how to develop the characters and background that will explore your idea, and here's how to execute that story. But somehow in the presentation, it all goes a bit pear-shaped.
Can I recommend the book? It's hard to rule against an author whose primary sin is enthusiasm. Kitchen wants to give you everything you need to write a great movie, dammit. He wants you to throw off the shackles of self-doubt, strap on some wings, and FLY! And here are some feathers. And wax. Oh, and here's a neat treatise on aerodynamics ...
Recommended, but not as a first text, and not for anything other than the Price method of plotting. But for that, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED, with the usual "don't follow it slavishly" caveat. Remember, reading's no substitute for fucking up a couple hundred pages of screenplay on your own.
A second edition of this book, focused on teaching one idea and teaching it well, would easily become an automatic recommend.