Thursday, April 5, 2012

Wilder Writing

This is another entry inspired by someone else's entry. They didn't do much with it, though, so I feel a little more justified in stealing it.* I promise original thoughts, soon.

 Billy Wilder, and if you don't know who he is, look him up, and then if you've never seen one of his films, go rent one (I would recommend Sunset Boulevard, but I have a fondness for noir), once put together a list of tips for screenwriting. Given the number of awards he was nominated for, and won, I suspect he's a valid authority on the subject.

I, however, do not write screenplays. Yet I couldn't help noticing that more than a few items on the list applied to writing, in general, and genre writing in particular. For example, the first two items:

1. The audience is fickle.
2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go. 

Now, rule #1 might simply be an admonition that, just because vampires and werewolves are in at the moment, they may not be tomorrow (and I doubt that particular iteration ever crossed Wilder's mind), but I think when read with rule #2 it can also be read as saying you've got to put your best writing forward, every time. The only way to overcome fickle is by being good.

Likewise, I think #4 and #6 go together:

4. Know where you’re going.
6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.

I don't outline, but I don't ever sit down to write without knowing what story I want to tell. I may not know all the details, or how precisely I'm going to get there, but I do know where I am going, story-wise. Most of the time. And because the end story has to all fit together, if by the time I get to the end it's not working, it's usually because something has to be fixed earlier on. Not always, as like with most set of rules, I think Wilder's are the kind that usually hold true but still have exceptions. Sometimes a bad ending is just a bad ending.

Which leads to #9:

9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.

You know what else makes a bad ending? When it comes out of left field. When it feels tacked on, unconvincing, there for shock value and nothing more. An ending to a story should be organic to the story. It needs to belong, and not just belong but tie together as best as possible the threads that led there. More than that, a really good ending should build, so that by the time that final act is reached, the reader is on the edge of their seat. It should roll forward with a momentum of its own, creating that "can't put it down" need to finish.

There are 10 rules in all on Wilder's list, and to some degree I think they can all be applied to writing of all kinds. Even number eight, which is about voice-overs, but could just as easily apply to the first person narration of any good hard-boiled fiction detective or urban fantasy. (As a movie buff, I could probably speak directly on voice-overs, too. Specifically with an eye on my favorite science fiction film of all time and why I think cutting all the narration from Bladerunner in favor of that stupid unicorn dream lessens the film. But that's another entry.)

And then, of course, there is #10, which is about knowing when to leave:

10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then -- that’s it. Don’t hang around.

* Someone else happens to be a famous someone else this time. So I'm providing full documentation and disclosure. The list came to my attention from: and the list is taken from Cameron Crowe's book on Billy Wilder, Conversations With Wilder. Which I have not yet read, though it sounds like something that I would enjoy reading. The cynic in me suspects that the "didn't do much with it" part may have been an incentive to get people to buy the book, but it is just as likely an acknowledgement that there isn't much to improve on with the list itself. It is Billy Wilder, after all. Regardless, I happen to be a fan of Mr Crowe and his movies,** so if by some miracle you, Mr Crowe, happen to read this, please don't sue me.

** Yes, all of them. Even the one with Bloom and Dunst. May have helped that I watched it on an international flight, but even so.

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