In screenwriting terminology, what are "bookends"?
April 5, 2007 4:04 PM   Subscribe

In screenwriting terminology, what are "bookends"?

I just watched Pirates of the Carribean with the writer's commentary; and they list the five rules of screenwriting:

1. No Bookends
2. No Bookends
3. Leave the kiss for the end
4. Don't kill the dog
5. (I forget the last one).

What are bookends?
posted by paperfingers to Media & Arts (24 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know for sure, but another famous screenwriter, whose book I am reading now, has a rule: Establish a memorable opening shot, then mirror it at the end.

(Example from the book: Sandra Bullock surrounded by FBI men and feeling like a total tomboy in the beginning of Miss Congeniality, then surrounded by beauty queens and feeling like a woman at the end.)

Perhaps they object to that practice for some reason?
posted by crickets at 4:11 PM on April 5, 2007

The name of the book, BTW, is Save the Cat, so they at least agree on item 4. :)
posted by crickets at 4:12 PM on April 5, 2007

IANASW but I always thought a bookend was when a movie starts and ends with the same scene, with maybe a flashback in the middle. Saving Private Ryan would be an example.
posted by The Deej at 4:14 PM on April 5, 2007

From Cinematic Terms:

resolution: the outcome, or the "untying" of tension in the scenes after the climax of a film; refers to how things turned out for all of the characters; some films abruptly end without a scene following the climax; aka denouement

Example: the original, non-studio version of Don Siegel's ultra-paranoid Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956) was softened with the addition of a framing device ('bookends') at the film's beginning and end), to change the film's resolution and make it less grim
posted by plaidrabbit at 4:16 PM on April 5, 2007

Bookends tend to be scenes at the front that define the setting and plot and then wrap everything up neatly at the end.

they tend to be a bit throwaway and do little to advance the plot except set the stage in the beginning (introduce characters, the setting etc.) and wrap everything up in a neat bow at the end.

Some of the better action films like this or the second die hard like to drop you right in the film and roll until the end,let you figure the rest out as you go.
posted by bitdamaged at 4:17 PM on April 5, 2007

Saving Private Ryan is a good example. "Bookends" are not inherently bad, but they do often indicate that the writer was unable to create a solid structure that would have played out and come across as cohesive without the bookends.

That said, if the structure is solid, then whether or not you use bookends is an aesthetic choice. This sounds more like a list of things that irritate them personally than a list of rules to follow to make the movie work.
posted by bingo at 4:24 PM on April 5, 2007

I'm actually thinking of the third Die hard;-)
posted by bitdamaged at 4:26 PM on April 5, 2007

# I had been told that the sort technique used in Saving Private Ryan was called a “framing device.” However, this cinematic glossary indicates that the two terms are synonymous. “Bookend” is probably less ambiguous.
posted by ijoshua at 4:35 PM on April 5, 2007

The thing about the Saving Private Ryan bookend that raises it above the norm, is that it is also a "twist ending." Some think the opening sequence cheats to accomplish this, though.
posted by The Deej at 4:37 PM on April 5, 2007

Not directly related to this specific question, but watch Adaptation for a great look into the process of screenwriting.
posted by The Deej at 4:42 PM on April 5, 2007

In this context, bookends are framing devices. They are frowned on in most genres because they distance the audience from the narrative, ie the audience experiences the movie as a story-being-told-to-them rather than immersive 'reality'.
posted by unSane at 4:53 PM on April 5, 2007

Bookends and unusual framing devices render it more difficult to create sequels or extensions to the story. Sometimes they work very well. But bookends are sometimes the anti-cliffhanger. Where do you go from here? Where can you go from here?

In a use-case like Pirates of the Caribbean, this is particularly antithetical to the serialized structure of these adventure movies. This is probably why they mentioned them in the commentary.

So, "no bookends" is not a "rule" of screenwriting so much as it is these filmmakers' rule for these films.
posted by frogan at 4:58 PM on April 5, 2007

yeah. It's a framing device.

And I agree, they tend to be completely gratuitous. It completely pulls the user out of the reality of the story for no gain whatsoever.

Example: "a league of their own" - if I'm into the story, which happens in the 1940s, why do I need to see them as old ladies in the end? To remind me the story i was watching happened a long time ago and the characters i spent all that time identifying with are dead or really old by now? And "titanic" is even worse: "it was the most erotic moment of my life????" Awful.

It's kind of like voice-overs- there are times when it works, but in general it's a cheap gimmick to be avoided.
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:28 PM on April 5, 2007

they also result in young actors doing awful "old person" voices.

cf. Winona Ryder in "edward Scissorhands," Emilio Estevez in "Young Guns II"

(The most famous bookend, of course, is Citizen Kane, which probably accounts for the continued imitation even today.)
posted by drjimmy11 at 5:30 PM on April 5, 2007

Bookends tend to be scenes at the front that define the setting and plot and then wrap everything up neatly at the end.

they...set the stage in the beginning (introduce characters, the setting etc.) and wrap everything up in a neat bow at the end.

Well then Pirates of the Caribbean does have a bookend, at the beginning, when Elizabeth is a child at sea with her father the govenor, and young Will Turner is rescued. I saw the first 30 minutes the other day. Can't remember the end, though.
posted by cocoagirl at 5:47 PM on April 5, 2007

That's not a bookend, that's just a flashback. Bookends come in sets, cutely matched sets. PotC has LOTS of flashbacks; just no bookends.
posted by headspace at 6:40 PM on April 5, 2007

Just FYI, those screenwriters (Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot) have a website.
posted by dobbs at 6:53 PM on April 5, 2007

The name of the book, BTW, is Save the Cat, so they at least agree on item 4. :)

unbelievable. i'm reading save the cat as we speak!
posted by phaedon at 7:14 PM on April 5, 2007

re: Save the Cat... I haven't read it but I gotta wonder about any book that uses Miss Congeniality as an example. WTF?

My fave screenwriting book is James Ryan's horribly titled "Screenwriting from the Heart".

I thought unSane's mentioned King book was bad but not the worst, though I read it almost 20 years ago.

Any other MeFites entering Nicholl this year?
posted by dobbs at 7:32 PM on April 5, 2007

According to Syd Field's Four Screenplays: 'A "book end" is where the first and last scenes are continuations of each other -- for example, opening with a scene, then going into a flashback to tell the story, finally ending with the conclusion of the first scene.'

The term wasn't in the indices of a half dozen other screenwriting books I checked, though.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 10:20 PM on April 5, 2007

This is an interesting question in the particular context of The Pirates of the Caribbean which is, of course, based on a fairground ride. If you go to TPOTC at Disneyland your experience is one of gradually wondering into a world within a world where the story is set before embarking on the ride itself. From a narrative point of view the ride takes you though a series of vignettes where you have time to catch only a little of what is going on before being whisked onwards. The designer's aim, I guess, is to produce a delighted audience that emerges from the end and wants to re-join the line to see it all again and catch what they missed the first time.

To the screenwriters who adapted the ride to become movies the idea of a bookend is anathema - but that may be particularly the case because they are adopting the same technique as the Imagineers who built the ride.
posted by rongorongo at 3:51 AM on April 6, 2007

So would When Harry Met Sally be a good example of having bookends? I'm referring to the various shots of old people talking about their marriages, of course.
posted by artifarce at 7:13 AM on April 6, 2007

re: Save the Cat

It's an extremely pragmatic book. It tries to teach techniques for writing a salable script, rather than focusing on artistic merit.
posted by crickets at 1:54 PM on April 6, 2007

Response by poster: wow - thanks for all the rich and insightful responses.

btw, the writer mentioned his 'five rules of screen-writing' more as a joke than a die-hard rule. i recommend the commentary to anyone. it's excellent.

also, there's a great discussion of the best commentary tracks on DVDs - meaning those that serve as master classes - over here.

Thanks and enjoy!
posted by paperfingers at 2:01 PM on April 6, 2007

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