Linda Aronson on Script Development for Producers

Linda Aronson Linda Aronson

Linda Aronson is a novelist, playwright, television writer, script consultant, dramaturge and expert on scriptwriting, a subject she began teaching after penning two books widely regarded internationally as the leading texts on complex and nonlinear storytelling structures, Screenwriting Updated, and its successor, The 21st Century Screenplay. Linda spoke to us about her process and her upcoming short course, Script Development for Producers.


How did you end up becoming an expert on the more complex aspects of screenwriting, like telling a non-linear story or writing for multiple heroes? 

I taught a course for AFTRS about traditional screenplay structure which was very popular, so AFTRS asked me to write a book. I started to write it, setting down a range of approaches to writing the single-hero linear chronological journey model including my own ‘Script Development Strategies’. Then I thought: ‘All of this is fine, but I should try to write something about flashback and structures like Pulp Fiction, because they’re fascinating. Why do they work brilliantly sometimes but at other times they’re catastrophic? So I sat and watched a lot of flashback and nonlinear films - again and again and again. I discovered that there were clear structural patterns in the ones that worked, and these patterns were not present in the ones that didn’t work. I then discovered that a whole heap of other films worked like this, moreover, that nonlinear and ensemble films from all over the world, and stories going back thousands of years all used the same structures.

I isolated first four then five different types of nonlinear and ensemble structure – families - each with subgroups (it’s not simple, but a lot of the solution is about how you construct and jump between your multiple storylines). I completed the book. To my astonishment it was an instant international success. It turned out that no one else had provided guidelines for creating complex nonlinear and ensemble structures and filmmakers everywhere, just like me, were desperate for answers.

I didn’t set out to write about non-linearity; I set out to write a screenwriting book for AFTRS; but I thought – as writers, we cannot avoid looking at these things.


Do you think that the film industry is as resistant to non-linear story structures now, compared to when you first started exploring the subject?

Writers, producers and directors all over the world are really interested in non-linear and really want to know how to do it, which is why I’ve ended up travelling all over the world to lecture, but there are still a lot of people out there talking about non-linearity as though it’s something odd, or unusual, when it’s actually very, very common now.

There are still people saying you should never use a flashback and that films like Pulp Fiction are just aberrations from one hero on a single chronological journey. But it’s happening less now because television is using so much nonlinear content, and the industry now is very heavily focussed on television as well as film.


Let’s talk about your upcoming course, Script Development for Producers.

I also call it ‘Dampening the Flames of Development Hell.’ Development Hell is usually thought of as being about trying to raise the money, or actors becoming unavailable, or the whole project being in limbo. But often the reason that scripts are in Development Hell is because the script itself is a problem. It’s promising but flawed - it’s just not quite good enough yet - but there’s no money or time to develop it further. In the film industry we all talk about film as a collaborative process and about the script as being the most important thing. But we’re not spending enough time, I think, in taking collaboration seriously, in addressing the actual day-to-day process of script collaboration, in isolating techniques for focussed, monitored, cost and time effective collaborative work. Script development tends to drift along - and before you know it all the money and time has gone.


How does your course handle ‘Development Hell’?

I do a lot of work with producers, all over the world, and often what will happen is that the producer is not taking on the collaborative process early enough. My approach is that certain strategies should be brought in very early. It’s so easy to waste time and effort. For example, a well-intentioned producer might say to a writer, “Don’t worry about the budget, just be as a creative as you can.” That is a terrible thing to say, really, because the writer will go away and include incredibly expensive elements, come back to the producer and the producer will say, “But I can’t afford that!” That’s like saying to a builder, “Please build me a four-bedroom house,” and then coming back when it’s done and saying, “No, knock it down and build me a two-bedroom house.” It was a good intention on the part of that producer, but it’s wasting money and time and exhausting the writer to no end.

This course is useful for everybody who is involved in script development, whether they’re a writer, or a producer, or a director, because this is a collaborative job that we have. Why I’m angling it at producers is because the producer is the boss. If you don’t yet have a producer you’re a de facto producer yourself, so it’s also for you.


What is next on the horizon for you? What’s your next project?

My next project, immediately after giving this class at AFTRS Open, is to go to Sweden to talk about the intersection between games and film, insofar that these are affected by non-linearity and complex storytelling. So I’m getting into the games and cross-media industry now, talking to writers about how to use multiple storylines in cross-media, cross-platform. So that’s what I’ll be doing. And I’m also writing a script of my own, because I’m a writer, and that’s what I do!


What one-sentence piece of advice would you give to a producer developing a script?

It’s all about spending your time and money wisely. 


If you want to hear more from Linda Aronson check out Script Development for Producers 


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