Screenwriting an Argument

Argument and counter-argument reflect the dramatic nature of academic writing. We argue with ideas and with texts and with other authors/critics much as characters interact in a play or film. The rhetorician Kenneth Burke emphasized the dramatic origins of critical thinking–and thus of the critical writing that follows–by writing: An essay is an attenuated play.

I propose that the three-act narrative structure of a traditional film can be an effective way to think about developing the narrative as well as the dramatic logic of an academic thesis. Why? Because the basis of a thesis is: the setting up of a problem (introduction); offering a surprising or unusual or unconventional way to think about that problem (thesis statement); considering complications along the way to solving the problem (supporting examples; counter-argument); the solving of the problem (conclusion as climax); larger implications—where this new way of viewing things leaves us (conclusion as resolution). I suggest that the following structure (or in rhetorical terms, heuristic) could be helpful both at the composting stage, when you are trying to develop ideas for the argument, working toward a thesis, as well as at the revision stage, after an initial draft, when you are working on refining your thesis.

One of the key lessons from film writing I want to borrow can help us with organization: everything in the film must relate to the turning point—the second act complications as well as the climax. At each stage of developing the script, the writer should be able to answer how a particular scene relates back to the turning point. It also emphasizes that strong writing not only relates to a central idea, but moves an audience through the argument, is dynamic (hence: three acts, action). Academic narratives deal with ideas, but still need action and movement to make the ideas/argument work; like a film, critical narratives need an audience engaged.

Another lesson can help us rethink the way a thesis needs to be imaginative, but not necessarily “original”—if by original we take that to mean an idea that no one else has thought or said before. In fact, a good premise or turning point in a film is not entirely new: it takes the old, the familiar, and provides a surprise, an unusual way of thinking about the old. The effect of the turning point in The Wizard of Oz is not Oz by itself, but Oz in relation to Kansas, the technicolor imagination of Oz rethinking the grey familiarity of home. This is also what we do with academic arguments: rethink conventional ways of thinking about various ideas, arguments, texts, problems.

  • Act 1: Introduction/set up
    • Given: normal or conventional view; the context of your focus; where things stand right now with the issue you are taking up
      • Frankenstein, both novel and film, has long been viewed by many in terms of the horror genre. Critics…
  • Problem: a disturbance to the conventional; some initial problems with things that perhaps have emerged more recently (other critics starting to take up); or contradiction/flaw in the conventional view that have been forgotten, neglected
    • However, as suggested by more recent films (or more recent criticism), Frankenstein for some is more in the science fiction genre and not about horror…
  • Thesis: your premise or turning point, a real but unusual or surprising way of thinking about the problem and setting out to solve it.
    • What if Frankenstein were to be viewed not in terms or horror or science but in terms of romance, something few would associate with the title? While I would agree there are important elements of both horror and science in the novel and its film adaptations, I would argue, instead, that the story is at heart a love story. Shelley’s real concern, it seems to me, is with the monstrosity of the human heart, the dangers not of science but of falling in love. In particular…
  • Act 2: Complications
  • First main example or complication directly relating to (and elaborating) the thesis/turning point
    • The danger of falling in love is perhaps first evident when…
  • Second example
    • This particular danger of love [discussed in last paragraph] becomes even more problematic when we see…
  • Second Act turning point: a further complication or even challenge for your thesis; counter-argument
    • However, there are good reasons to think of this work not as a love story; clearly there are key elements critics have rightly discussed in terms of horror and science. For example…While I don’t disagree with the sentiment (or critical point), it also seems to me that the very example she/he addresses has more to do with love than horror…
  • Act 3: Conclusion
    • Climax: how the problem of your thesis is finally solved/answered
      • The horror of science in this story is in fact made horrific by love, not the reverse. It is love that gets in the way of science and love that leads to the tragedy…
    • Resolution: where this leaves us—a reminder that a conclusion should not merely re-state what was given in the introduction; it should provide a more conclusive answer to the various complications (second act) as well as point the reader out to thinking about implications for other or related text. Thinking: what’s next?
    • Speculation on how this rethinking of Frankenstein as love story might be taken up in future film versions; or why the novel has not been traditionally viewed this way—why love has been neglected—and how it might lead to larger implications for rethinking the gothic/horror genre…

Template

Act 1: Introduction/Set UP

Given:

Problem/Disturbance:

Thesis/Turning Point:

Act 2: Complications

Complication #1:

Complication #2, #3, etc.

Second Act Turning Point: [further complication; counter-argument]

Act 3: Conclusion

Climax: answer to question/solving of problem

Resolution: new normal—where this leaves us; larger implications

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2 Comments on “Screenwriting an Argument”

  1. […] for Three-Act Thesis I use in my English 101 […]

  2. […] A starting point, I suggest, for thinking differently about this strangely familiar genre of the essay–(the essay? somehow marginal yet everywhere we look)–which is to say, rethinking what you might have learned in school, is to focus in on the dramatic elements of the genre.  Shields alludes to these in his reference to the essay as “theater of the brain.” This reflects an earlier and important insight in the thought of the rhetorician Kenneth Burke, who describes the thinking of essays, and of thinking as such, as a drama–or what he calls, “dramatistic.” As Burke puts it: the essay is an “attenuated play.” In my approach to teaching the academic essay, I build upon this idea by comparing the structure of an academic argument to the screenwriting structure of a film, something I name the three-act thesis. […]


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