Raffaele Chiarulli e-mail(Login required)

Main Article Content


Raffaele Chiarulli e-mail(Login required)



The Hollywood Golden Age was a revolutionary moment in the history of cinema and is pivotal to understanding the historical passage of a peculiar new art form –screenwriting. This early film period, from the Tens to the Sixties, was determined by key interactions between the respective forms of cinema and stage. Together, these interactions form a wider screenwriting “discourse.” There are reoccurring disputes in film scholarship over the paternity of the conventions and techniques of screenwriting. One solution is that techniques of theatre playwriting persisted extensively in the production practices of classical Hollywood cinema. Whether or not its professionals were aware of this is at the heart of this dispute. It is possible to identify the contribution of screenwriting manuals from Hollywood’s Golden Age toward the standardization of screenwriting techniques. The article aims to examine in the screenwriting manuals of this period some statements by practitioners who document the normalization and codification of the narrative structures used in screenwriting over time –in particular, the three-act structure. The validity and origin of the three-act structure are constantly debated among screenwriters. While this formula was known to the early writers of the Silent Era due to its legacy throughout centuries of playwriting and literature, it reappeared in the Seventies in the guise of a new theory. This article attempts to fill in certain gaps in the history of the theorization of screenwriting practices by juxtaposing statements found in screenwriting manuals and the statements of scholars and educators of this field. Ultimately, narrative conventions belonging to the tradition of theatre, as well as technological exigencies were integral in shaping the cinema techniques in use today.


Hollywood Golden Age, screenwriting manuals, playwriting, three-act model, discourse frame, theatre


Archer, W. (1912). Playmaking. A Manual of Craftsmanship. London: Chapman and Hall.

Alonge, G. (2012). Scrivere per Hollywood. Ben Hecht e la sceneggiatura nel cinema Americano classico. Venezia: Marsilio.

Aristotle ([4th Cent. BC] 1995). Poetics. Ed. and trans. Stephen Halliwell, Cambridge. London: Harvard University Press.

Bailey, T. (2014). Normatizing the silent drama: Photoplay manuals of the 1910s and early 1920s. Journal of Screenwriting, 5(2), 209-224. http://www.doi.org/10.1386/josc.5.2.209_1

Bettetini, G. (1975). Produzione del senso e messa in scena. Milano: Bompiani.

Bordwell, D., Staiger, J. & Thompson, K. (1985). The Classical Hollywood Cinema. Film Style & Mode of Production to 1960. London: Routledge.

Bordwell, D. (2006). The Way Hollywood Tells It. Story and Style in Modern Movies. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press.

Bordwell, D. (2014, May 18). Caught in the acts. Retrieved from http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2014/05/18/caught-in-the-acts-2/

Brenes, C. S. (2014). Quoting and Misquoting Aristotle’s Poetics in Recent Screenwriting Bibliography. Comunication & Society, 27(2), 55-78. http://www.doi.org/10.15581/

Brütsch, M. (2015). The three-act structure: Myth or magical formula? Journal of Screenwriting, 6(3), 301-326. http://www.doi.org/10.1386/josc.6.3.301_1

Cardwell, D. (1983). The Well-Made Play of Eugene Scribe. The French Review, 56(6), 876-884. Retrieved from https://www.jstor.org/stable/392365

Chiarulli, R. (2013). Di scena a Hollywood. L’adattamento dal teatro nel cinema americano classico. Milano: Vita e Pensiero.

Chiarulli, R. (2014). Steven Maras e il ‘Discourse Frame’. Un approccio dinamico alla teoria della sceneggiatura. Comunicazioni sociali – Journal of Media, Performing Arts and Cultural Studies, 36(3), 452-461. http://www.doi.org/10.1400/228090

Dimick, H. T. (1922). Modern Photoplay Writing. Its Craftsmanship. A Manual Demonstrating the Structural and Dramatic Principles of the New Art as Practiced by the Modern Photoplaywright. Ohio: Franklin.

Eco, U. (1983). Postille a Il nome della rosa. Alfabeta, 5(49), 19-22.

Egri, L. (1942). How to Write a Play. The Principles of Play Construction Applied to Creative Writing and to the Understanding of Human Motives. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Egri, L. (1946). The Art of Dramatic Writing. Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Egri, L. (1965). The Art of Creative Writing. New York: Citadel Press.

Field, S. (1979). Screenplay. The Basics of Film Writing. New York: Delacorte Press.

Foucault, M. (1969). L’archéologie du savoir. Paris: Gallimard.

Fumagalli, A. (2020). L’adattamento da letteratura a cinema, 2 vols. Roma: Dino Audino.

Fumagalli, A. & Chiarulli, R. (Eds.) (2018). Aristotele. Poetica ad uso di sceneggiatori, scrittori e drammaturghi. Roma: Dino Audino.

Herman, L. (1952). A Practical Manual of Screenplaywriting for Theater and Television Film. Cleveland/New York: The World Publishing Company.

Horne, G. (2006). The Final Victim of the Blacklist. John Howard Lawson, Dean of the Hollywood Ten. Berkeley/Los Angeles/London: University of California Press.

Howard, D. & Mabley, E. (1993). The Tools of the Screenwriting. A Writer’s Guide to the Craft and Elements of a Screenplay. New York: St. Martin Press.

Koivumäki, M.-R. (2010). The aesthetic independence of the screenplay. Journal of Screenwriting, 2(1), 25-40. http://www.doi.org/10.1386/josc.2.1.25_1

Koivumäki, M.-R. (2016). Dramaturgical Approach in Cinema. Elements of Poetic Dramaturgy in A. Tarkovsky’s Films. Helsinki: Aalto.

Lane, T. (1936). The New Technique of Screen Writing. A Practical to the Writing and Marketing of Photoplays. New York: Whittlesey House.

Lanouette, J. (2012, December 24). A History of Three-Act Structure. Retrieved from https://www.screentakes.com/an-evolutionary-study-of-the-three-act-structure-model-in-drama/

Lawson, J. H. (1936). Theory and Technique of Playwriting. New York: G. P. Putnam’s Sons.

Lawson, J. H. (1949). Theory and Technique of Playwriting and Screenwriting. New York: G.mP. Putnam’s Sons.

Lawson, J. H. (1964). Film: The Creative Process. New York: Hill and Wang.

Lee, N. (1937). Money for Film Stories. London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons.

Lord Wright, W. (1922). Photoplay Writing. New York: Falk.

Loughney, P. G. (1990). In the Beginning Was the World: Six Pre-Griffith Motion Pictures Scenarios. In T. Elsaesser & A. Barker (Eds.), Early Cinema. Space Frame Narrative (pp. 211-219). London: Bfi Publishing.

Macdonald, I. W. (2013). Screenwriting Poetics and the Screen Idea. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Maras, S. (2009). Screenwriting. History, Theory and Practice. London: Wallflower Press.

Maras, S. (2011). Some attitudes and trajectories in screenwriting research. Journal of Screenwriting, 2(2), 275-286. http://www.doi.org/10.1386/josc.2.2.275_7

McKee, R. (1999). Story. Substance, Structure, Style and the Principles of Screenwriting. 2nd ed. London: Metheun.

Musser, C. (2004). Towards a history of theatrical culture: imagining an integrated history of stage and screen. In J. Fullerton (Ed.), Screen Culture: History and Textuality (pp. 3-19). Sidney: John Libbey & Co.

Nannicelli, T. (2013). A Philosophy of the Screenplay. New York/London: Routledge.

Nardis, A. (2015). Un dittatore a Hollywood: il caso Aristotele. Correnti di pensiero neoaristoteliche nella Golden Age: Brander Matthews e la Columbia University, Frank Capra, Alfred Hitchcock. Trento: Tangram.

Nash, C. & Oakey, V. (1978). The Screenwriter’s Handbook: What to Write, How to Write It, Where to Sell It. New York: Barnes & Noble.

Norman, M. (2007). What Happens Next. A History of American Screenwriting. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Patterson, F. T. (1920). Cinema Craftsmanship. New York: Harcourt, Brace & Howe.

Price, S. (2011). The first screenplays? American Mutoscope and Biograph scenarios revisited. Journal of Screenwriting, 2(2), 195-213. http://www.doi.org/10.1386/josc.2.2.195_1

Price, S. (2013). A History of the Screenplay. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Price, S. (2017). Script development and academic research. Journal of Screenwriting, 8(3), 319-333. http://www.doi.org/10.1386/josc.8.3.319_1

Riskin, R. (1936, July 23). Riskin Gives Lowdown on Film Writing. The Hartford Courant, p. 9.

Rowe, K. T. (1939). Write That Play. New York: Funk & Wagnalls.

Staiger, J. (1985). Blueprints for Feature Films: Hollywood’s Continuity Scripts. In T. Ballio (Ed.), The American Film Industry (pp. 173-192). Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.

Sternberg, C. (2014). Written to be read: A personal reflection on screenwriting research, then and now. Journal of Screenwriting, 5(2), 199-208. http://www.doi.org/10.1386/josc.5.2.199_1

Thompson, K. (1998). Narrative Structure in Early Classical Cinema. In J. Fullerton (Ed.), Celebrating 1895. The Centenary of Cinema (pp. 225-238). Sidney: John Libbey & Co.

Thompson, K. (1999). Storytelling in the New Hollywood. Understanding Classical Narrative Technique. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Tibbetts, J. C. & Welsh, J. M. (2001). The Encyclopedia of Stage Plays into Film. New York: Facts on File.

Vale, E. (1944). The Technique of Screenplay Writing. A Book about the Dramatic Structure of Motion Pictures. New York: De Vores & Co.

Vanoye, F. (1991). Scénarios modèles, modèles de scénarios. Paris: Nathan.

Velikovsky, J. T. (2012, December 17). An Overview of Screenwriting Manuals since 1911. Retrieved from https://storyality.wordpress.com/2012/12/17/storyality-28-screenwriting-manuals-since-1913/

Yorke, J. (2013). Into the Woods. A Five-Act Journey into Story. New York: Overlook Press.


Search GoogleScholar


Article Details