I’m not much for the cottage industry of books by would-be screenwriting “experts” or “gurus” who claim they’ve cracked the code to Hollywood success. 99% of them have never seen a movie produced from a screenplay they wrote, and I’m more inclined to take advice from people who are, you know, successful.
People like the great Billy Wilder. You may not know the name but you must know his work.
Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, Sabrina, Sunset Boulevard, Double Indemnity, The Lost Weekend, The Seven Year Itch, Ace In The Hole (my personal favorite), Irma la Douce, Stalag 17, Ninotchka, Love In The Afternoon
That’s just a sample. Billy knew what he was talking about, and in an interview with Cameron Crowe, boiled down his rules for screenwriting. They’re clear, and concise (like any good screenplay should be), and pretty much apply to any writing – just sub “audience” with “reader”.
I have a copy of this pegged to my corkboard so I’m always reminded what I should be aiming for every time I sit at my desk and make things happen.
Here they are:
- The audience is fickle. Grab ’em by the throat and don’t let ‘em go.
- Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
- Know where you’re going.*
- The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
- If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
- Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you for it.
- In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees; add to what they are seeing.
- The event that occurs at the second-act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
- The third act must build, build, build in tempo until the last event, and then …
- … that’s it. Don’t hang around.
Does your book/comic/screenplay/pilot follow those rules? If not, they probably should. With so much out there to demand your intended audience’s ocular real estate, you really need to grab them by the throat and not let go.
Will following these rules make your book/script/whatever a hit? Probably not. Will it make you a better writer? Absolutely.
So make a copy, print it, post it, and get back to work will ya?
*Emphasis mine. Know. Where. You’re. Going. Probably the biggest failing a writer can make. The path to your ending may change and probably should, but you should always know where you want to land.