There’s one piece of paper that keeps floating around my workspace, ending up in various folders and temporary resting places, but never disappearing. If you’re a screenwriter – one with any sense of history – you’ve probably seen this before, but if you’re like me, you can always look at it again: Billy Wilder’s “11 Tips on Screenwriting.”
There’s enough witty wisdom packed in here to take the place of any number of textbooks, so forgive me the indulgence of a little commentary, but I couldn’t resist, since I miss having Mr. Wilder in our midst, and to interpolate my thoughts within his edicts gives me the sweet illusion of being in conversation with a Movie God… even if my share of the dialogue amounts to little more than some fervent genuflections and “amen”s.
#1. The audience is fickle.
You think? Just look at what’s passed for this summer’s entertainment – but I think Mr. Wilder is speaking here less about the vagaries of popular taste and more about how quickly you can lose the audience’s attention and/or belief with one simple misstep, which he amplifies in #2:
2. Grab 'em by the throat and never let 'em go.
The tried and true way to accomplish this technically is expressed in an auxiliary writing maxim: “come in late and leave early” (i.e. hit your beats as succinctly as possible, without throat-clearing before, or dawdling after). The larger issue, equivalent to Mamet’s realtor’s motto (“Always be closing”) is the idea of creating suspense in a story by establishing new conflict as soon as – better yet, even before – a prior conflict has been resolved. Dickens and his ilk were masters at this, as was Wilder himself, and those who do it well also know that it works best when you:
3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
What’s the first question any actor asks of his role in a given scene? “What’s my motivation?” All too often, pre-pro screenwriters get caught up in the detail work and neglect this all-important principle. What a protagonist is after in a story has got to be the rock-solid spine of his arc, because this is what the audience consciously or unconsciously hangs onto. Over-complicate the primary “action line” of your lead or bury it, and you lose audience involvement. In fact one test of a given scene in a script is to ask: is my protagonist’s need to achieve his/her primary goal addressed here? If it isn’t… find a way to relate the scene to the protagonist’s arc, now, or head for delete.
4. Know where you're going.
First drafts are for exploration and finding out what your story is about. But once you know your ending and you find it sound, you know a lot about what to do next -- within the arc of the entire plot, and within each scene. Often the simplest way to go after articulating a beat is to know its immediate result; in other words, once you’ve drafted a scene and know how it ends, you work backwards from there. Simple principle, seemingly not profound, but an essential one.
5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
This speaks to my favorite harangue – and I’ll rein it in and be brief here – but to my mind, the most sure-fire way to “hide” a plot point is to go to character. If a protagonist is being herself in a given scene, you have all the possibilities to play with, that her character allows.
Your leading man Bob is applying for a job. Confront Bob with the slowest, most inept, most infuriatingly obnoxious interviewer in the universe, who’s overly concerned with why Bob is over-qualified for this gig (i.e. threatened by him) and the audience will meld with your protagonist in exasperation, and perhaps not pay much attention to an all-important detail about the job requirement. Trigger Bob’s awful temper while you’re at it, and they may even forget that the simple beat is “hero gets job with a tricky downside” and get more caught up in “will Bob pull out his gun and blow his cover?” Etc.
6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
This is gold. You have to know this. Time after time, I’ve gone back to rethink a set-up when the pay-off won’t pay, and every writer I know treats this principle as gospel.
7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They'll love you forever.
Also brilliant, and more screenwriters ought to pay attention to the subtext: why will the audience love you? Because they will feel smart. Audiences love to feel like they “know something” (don’t you?) and audiences love to be right (don’t you?). When you have a beat to deal with that’s obvious, the obvious way to go is at an angle.
When everyone can surmise what will happen once the door to a room is closed, why go into the room? There’s something or someone outside the room that can be used to make a wry or poignant comment on what’s going on inside – this is Lubitsch-ian wisdom – and the audience will be very, very happy when you assume, for once, that they get it… and if you give them something extra to chew on that lets them know you know how smart they are.
8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing.
This is so self-evident as to seemingly require no comment. But you’d be surprised by how many voice-overs I see in professional, agented screenplays that fumble this rule. If you want to see this principle applied beautifully, watch Kevin Spacey’s opening scene in American Beauty sometime with the sound off... then turn it on and watch again. And while you’re at it, note that the basic idea of this whole sequence was stolen (consciously or un) from the opening of Mr. Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.
9. The event that occurs at the end of the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
Again, you already know this. But for once and for all, let’s put this infamous “point of no return” term to rest. I’ve heard it applied to midpoints, to climaxes, to tweaks, to bad casting… hogwash. The point of no return is the second act turning point, and Mr. Wilder is expressing what the phrase really means: whatever happens at the end of the second act determines how the rest of the movie will play out.
10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then
11. That's it. Don't hang around.
When I considered why Mr. Wilder felt the need to divide this last point into two parts (while observing his usual wry perversity in deciding that since we were expecting ten tips, there must be eleven), I reflected that one sees too many third acts in too many movies that flub this basic rule. By the third act, the audience is impatient to get to the climax and resolution, and if you break the pace en route, you’re taking a fatal risk.
But just as important is that last tip. Even POTC: Dead Man’s Chest betrays it, in its need to set up Part 3. (The headlong race to the Kraken’s final revenge? Superb. The clunky aftermath back in the swamps? Literally anti-climactic.) Even the greats have stumbled with this one: does anybody really enjoy sitting through the boring shrink’s rap at the end of Psycho? But let’s leave it to the consummate master to have the final word, since years after Some Like It Hot made it immortal, he found a way to top one of the greatest fast exit lines in all of cinema, at his gravesite: