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To paraphrase Carlyle, ‘A writer who could only sit in a chair and write stories would never write any stories worth the reading.’ Your story material naturally will be influenced in quality and quantity by the richness of your own life experience; by your own loving, fearing, suffering, struggling, and achieving. Therefore, as a writer, you are justified in seeking as rich and varied a life as possible. In any event, you need sufficient experience of your own so that you have some basis for understanding the feelings of persons undergoing experiences that suggest dramatic situations. If you have limited range of interests in life, you will be able to comprehend and will be susceptible to only limited lines of experience. By widening the range of your own interests, you will be enabled at least to comprehend additional varieties of experience.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
page 167

Poor plot construction is the bane of many a beginner. When a story lacks continuity, that is, breaks into parts that have no close relation, the plot needs additional building up. While I have known those who built up complications and plot tangles so knotted that neither they nor anyone else could unravel them reasonably, a more usual defect is a too weak conflict which, of course, results in a weak climax. The struggles recounted are not important enough, the difficulties are not impressive, and to overcome them requires no interesting activity on the part of the plot actors. It seems almost as if some writers are afraid to hurt their characters, are afraid to make them suffer, or to get them into distressing situations from which they must fight their way out. Yet one of the very first things any fiction writer must learn is that where there is no struggle there is no drama.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)

P.S. If you want a mental image of a character in a distressing situation…

Related post:

Conflict-Conflict-Conflict 

Scott W. Smith

Every once in a while I’ll hear on a podcast or read someone saying about movie endings “the end should be implied in the beginning.” It’s sound advice, but it’s advice that’s been kicking around the movie industry for over 80 years. Oscar winning screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ) bridged the gap between the silent film era and the Hollywood heyday of the ’30s and ’40s, and was once the highest paid screenwriter.

And that exact quote—”the end should be implied in the beginning”—is in her screenwriting book first published in 1937.

It is possible to start a novel without having a specific ending in mind, but both purpose and ending of the film story should be clearly in the mind of the writer before it is written because the story naturally ends when its theme is proved. The ending should not suggest that the story has stopped at a certain scene merely because someone cut the film at that point.

Theoretically the end of a story cannot be altered without changing the story because the end should be implied in the beginning; but in one sense all endings are artificial. Life presents few moments, if any, when all a person’s hopes and aims are achieved and the ends of his and others’ affairs neatly tied up as a story ending demands. The ending, then, is merely a cutting off and a tidying up at the most satisfactory point. Finish the story as soon as possible after the ‘big’ scene, as soon as the main problem is solved, the difficulty overcome.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
page 85

To reinforce knowing your ending before starting your screenplay, both Paul Schrader (First Reformed) and Alfonso Cuarón (Gravity) said recently that they can’t start writing their screenplay ideas unless they know their ending.

And if you’ve never seen it before, check out Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt’s video Endings: The Good, the Bad, and the Insanely Great.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

When you have a clear idea of a plot, write out the entire story as interestingly as you can. Keep in mind that the audience is not interested in seeing actions which people do generally, but in seeing what specific actions specific persons do in specific circumstances.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion 
How to Write and See Film Stories (1937)

Moneyball is a movie I adore and return to often. Here are two scenes from that movie that show something specific about the game of professional baseball. But they are also  scenes that are universal. Since people throughout time have had to do some kind of work to survive and be productive in this world —getting fired or firing people is a part of life.

And Office Space is another work related movie that comes to mind as unpacking specifically what Peter (Ron Livingston) does in a given day to avoid being fired. It’s a great scene because of the twist at the end.

And another scene that comes to mind dealing with specificity is from Breaking Bad.

You don’t have to be a fan of baseball, work in a cubical, or have an interest in chemistry/meth to enjoy the stories of Moneyball, Office Space, and Breaking Bad because the writers drilled deep into the specific aspects of the characters.

P.S. Speaking of work . . . over the weekend I made significant progress on lining up details for the release of my book this month.

Scott W. Smith

”My own experience leads me to believe that an original plot is never as essential or, in fact, salable as is fresh and original treatment of a plot that has proved popular.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion

Here is a list of plots pulled from Frances Marion’s book How to Write and Sell Stories—published way back in 1937. As you’ll see, plots over 80 years ago weren’t that much different than today. This list is Marion’s (and the films in parentheses are ones she mentions). The clips I added to so show some examples (more or less) from the past 25 years.

The Prodigal Son Plot

The Sacrifice Plot (Mrs. Wiggs of the Cabbage Patch)

The Love Plot (Stella Dallas, Min and Bill, Beau Geste, Sorrel and Son)

The Dramatic Triangle (Wife vs. Secretary, These Three, Dark Angel)

The Plot that is Didactic 

Plot Based on Likeness of Identity (As You Desire Me)

Reformation of Character (Magnificent Obsession, Fury, Green Light)

Revelation of Character

Domestic Relations (Dodsworth)

Topical or Timely Plots

The Relation to Society

The Adventure Plot (Tiger Rose)

The Plot Involving the Detection of a Criminal (Charlie Chan)

The Horror Story (Dracula, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, King Kong)

Stories of Fantasy (Peter Pan)

Musical Plot

The Comedy Form 

Plot Involving Race Conflict (The Birth of a Nation, The Lives of the Bengal Lancer)

“We don’t wade through our existence with any sort of originality. We all live and die and eat three meals a day, and fall in and out of love, and the rest of it.”
Charlie Chaplin

Embrace your limitations and consider following Marion’s wisdom to pick a “fresh and original treatment of a plot that has proved popular.”

Scott W. Smith

 

 

Certain plot patterns long since have won public favor and with fresh treatment doubtless will continue to do so. Among these is the rise to success plot centering on man’s search for the satisfaction of accomplishment. It is found in one version in the story of Jack and the Beanstalk and probably appeared long before that. In modern times, the giant may be a rival business man, a falling market, a soulless corporation, or it may be poverty; but in any version of this plot an appealing underdog comes out on top. Its feminine version is the Cinderella plot centered on the poor girl who, after many heart-breaking situations, wins her prince; but whereas the success plot requires the male protagonist to fight strenuously to achieve his success, Cinderella usually rouses the desire of her prince through her beauty and goodness. This plot has brought more motion pictures actresses to fame than any other. The audience knows it so well that its sympathy is with Cinderella  from beginning to end. Her success, in spite of lowly origin, or pitiful circumstances, or other handicap, always suggests gratifying possibilities to almost every woman who watches her. If done with an appealing heroine, fresh and modern treatment, and a fair degree of reality, it never fails. It can be done with great dignity and charm.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
page 54-55

If you’re hunting for a story to write, kick some evergreen ideas centered on the rise to success of such and such a character. What are some of you favorite “success” stories? Here are some successful success stories over the decades:

P.S. One thing I noticed about contemporary rise to success stories is there is a tinge of defeat in many of them. True of A Star is Born, Moneyball, Wolf of Wall St., The Social Network, The Founder. So storytelling has evolved, yet remains rooted in timeless traditions. Roots that go back to Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861), Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe (1719), and the Biblical story of Joseph.

Scott W. Smith

Note: I’ve spent the past two weeks visiting my mother in the hospital. The first ten days she was in ICU, but she was moved to a regular room over the weekend.  She’s in the later stages of COPD and, at the moment, kind of in that gray zone of not getting better and not getting worse. My sister and I are meeting with hospice today.

It has been a while since I’ve seen The Hospital (1971), but I’m looking forward to revisiting the satire that  Paddy Chayefsky won an Oscar for writing. After 13 days of dealing with a non-communicative hospital staff and a rotating door of case workers it is amazing how little information (and conflicting information) I’ve been given about my mother’s condition. No need to get into details, but I’ve talked to enough people about their hospital experiences in the past week to know my experience is not unique.

Of course, that didn’t help me hit my deadline of getting my book released in March as I had hoped. But sitting in a hospital ICU room for hours at a time actually did prove some fruitful time to keep working on fine-tuning book details. It was a healthy distraction. And I hope to release the book in April.

In the meantime, I’ll continue to post excerpts from screenwriter Frances Marion’s 1937 book How to Write and Sell Film Stories. Following chapters I’ve already hit on from her book (characterization, theme, and emotions), this week we’ll start with her thoughts on  plot.

Plot is the design, pattern or outline of the story action; it is a statement of the problem or obstacles that confront certain specific characters, their reaction to those problems or obstacles, and the result. It is a series of events or situations affected by the characters involved and affecting them, with the situations building up to a climax. It is a string of relevant and dramatic situations, preferably rising out of character and affecting it, and woven together in such sequence and ascending strength as to make an interesting story. 

A plot must have a definite beginning and ending. Plot structure, says Walter Pater, ‘is that architectural conception of work, which foresees the end in the beginning and never loses sight of it, and in every part is conscious of all the rest, till the last sentence does, but, with undiminished vigor, unfold and justify the first.’”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Frances Marion 
How to Write and Sell Film Stories 
Page 51

P.S. I love that line “which foresees the end in the beginning.” Perhaps it’s my current state of mind, but if you haven’t seen Kurosawa’s  Ikiru (1952) seek it out as a great example of where the end is perfectly matched to the beginning. It’s the story of a man caught up in the bureaucracy of a post-World War II Japan. As the endless paperwork piles up at his job he finds out that he has cancer and seeks meaning in his life. It’s a beautiful films and one of my favorites.

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Scott W. Smith

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