Fatal Attraction, with Glenn Close, has a classic three-act structure.All too often we think education has to be heavily structured and involve a hefty chunk of time to provide a lasting benefit.
That’s yesterday’s thinking. The boom in short courses since the 1990s underscores the popularity and relevance of the ”take-out” approach to learning – and for many it’s a change that can’t come soon enough.
Short courses allow you to get the low-down on a new career, or simply explore a topic that takes your fancy, but with you setting the parameters and the timing.
For example, I completed half of a four-day workshop on screenwriting run in conjunction with last month’s Melbourne International Film Festival.
The stand-alone day-long sessions were led by a Los Angeles-based screenwriter and lecturer, Wendall Thomas, and I cherry-picked what I wanted.
I skipped the workshops on dialogue-writing and on ”How to write a great villain”. But I thought the other sessions – on the three-act structure in feature films, and on the difficulties of writing the second act – would be well worth two days of my time.
So it proved. Thomas has written and developed projects for Disney, Warner Bros and Paramount, and is an engaging and well-researched presenter. About 40 people paid $80 to attend each workshop.
The session on the three-act structure dissected the 1987 domestic thriller Fatal Attraction, written by James Dearden.
Starring Michael Douglas and Glenn Close, the film centres on married New York lawyer Dan Callagher who has an affair with his colleague Alex. The two enjoy a weekend while Dan’s wife and child are away, but Alex will not let go of him and ratchets up the pressure.
Thomas had tips aplenty for budding screenwriters, such as don’t try and ram in too much information, or exposition, at the beginning, and ”work backwards, if you’re having trouble”. In a discussion of set-ups and pay-offs, she also warned against being too clever. A screenwriter must engage and re-engage the audience from the start to finish. You have to remember that moviegoers deserve a pay-off, too. They need to think: ”I was right about that” or ”That was a little different to what I anticipated”.
In Fatal Attraction, we quickly realise Dan’s wife, Beth, will find out about his affair with Alex. But how this is set up is unexpected and masterly: Beth and Dan return home to find their child’s pet rabbit in a pot boiling on the stove. Cut to Dan confessing.
The other workshop examined the second acts of Up in the Air, Little Miss Sunshine and A Simple Plan.
It was useful and instructive to see how the stakes were raised, how a character’s Plan B often brings more complications than Plan A, and the crucial role of secrets in telling many stories.
I see a lot of films and work as a journalist, so enrolling in these workshops was a no-brainer. It helped me streamline some of the grab-bag of ideas I have had for scripts. And there was a tight focus on technique, including tips on how to dramatise exposition and keep topping the action. Above all, the experience encouraged me to try new things.
Thomas said there was a gap in the market for a domestic thriller, not a genre that I’ve paid much attention to in my own writing. She said even though the evil nanny story had been done before, there could always be a new twist in the tale.
It started me thinking about the time when I was very young and my parents went away.
The original release of this article first appeared on the website of Hangzhou Night Net.