Archive for March, 2019

Even when characters are based upon living persons, it is best to consider such persons as the artist does the model: as a basis, a suggestion to carry an idea, rather than something to be copied exactly. In the finished picture, the character must appear with the selected traits and idiosyncrasies more sharply outlined, more highly colored, than those of ordinary living person; and because of this it is essential to select as a character model not an ‘average’ person, but one with special traits strongly exhibited. He may be very simple, but he must be definite. Will Rogers was very successful in portraying what, to the casual observer, were very simple, ordinary, ‘true-to-life’ characters, yet, as a matter of truth, not one was commonplace or usual. The more extraordinary the character, the more interesting he is, provided that he is humanly recognizable and understandable. He must not be so remote from ordinary human experience that the members of the audience cannot see themselves in his place. If he is too unusual, they lose all sympathy for him.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
page 39

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“Plot action should arise from and be determined by character.”
Frances Marion

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Walter Pitkin has said, ‘Melodrama gets somewhere, but means nothing, while undramatic character writing gets nowhere, but means something.‘ The film story in demand is the one that both gets somewhere and means something, because of its action based on character. The easiest way to destroy whatever illusion of reality it may have is to sacrifice character to plot. 

Events, episodes, situations are interesting to us almost solely because of the human beings involved.  It is what some person does in a given situation that is interesting, not the situation itself. Lincoln is more interesting than the Thirteenth Amendment; Joan of Arc is more interesting than the trial at Rouen. Let a barrel roll over Niagara Falls, and you have merely an incident; put a man in the barrel and you have added the necessary factor to interest mankind. As George Pierce Baker pointedly says, ‘There can be no dramatic situation without human beings. Even in fantasy everything has to be personified and in the photoplays with animal actors, such as Sequoia (1934), it is the human characteristics shown by the animals that make drama.”
Oscar winning screenwriter Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937) 
page 32

Found this Sequoia movie trailer on YouTube:

P.S. George Pierce Baker was a professor of history and technique of
the drama in Yale University and published a book on playwriting in 1919 called Dramatic Technique that you can read on Project Gutenberg. 

Scott W. Smith

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Very frequently someone tells me, ‘I have a wonderful plot for a movie!’ I always am impelled to respond, ‘But have you interesting characters?’

Characterization is the most important factor in the film story, and no ingenuity or originality of the plot will save a photoplay which has inadequate characterization; which does not convey the illusion that the events are happening to real and living persons. I do not believe that it is possible to make a touching or impressive story with a set of shallow uninteresting characters; an audience will not care what happens to such persons. But it will be emotionally concerned over an appealing character and it will remember him long after it has forgotten the plot in which he moved. . . . [but] character portrayal alone has no dramatic quality. On the other hand, the purely action story with no character portrayal has so little significance that it fails to hold the interest of any except those of the lowest intelligence, and it has little claim to reality; character is needed to male the action logical. It is character in action that the film story must have.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937) 
Page 31

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“In speaking of the necessity for writing in emotional terms, I do not mean that the characters must at all times be either in a rage, or in fear, or in horror, or passionately in love, or under some strong stress. The lighter shades of emotion often are preferable. Emotion is susceptible of many gradations and colors, and very infrequently needs to be expressed by violent gestures and wild outbursts of speech. As a matter of fact, unless the characterization demands such action, far better effects are secured by a more subtle, a more retrained expression. Restraint may give power to a story or to acting. In A Star is Born (1936) the rise of one motion-picture star and the fall of another was presented with such admirable restraint that it became a poignant picturization of human life such as never achieved by the usual story of stage or studio life tinseled and sensational scenes.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion (Stella Dallas)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
Page 156

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“I made mistakes in drama. I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.”
Director Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life)

“Everyone wants to find a way out of pain.”
Alex Blumberg, CEO of Gimlet Media (@abexlumberg)

In writing the film story, keep in mind that the object is to make the reader or spectator feel. The object of all drama is to move an audience to some definite feeling; to make an impression not on the intellect, but on the senses. There will be no emotional response from a spectator or reader until there first is developed some degree of concord between him and the characters. It is this concord that makes an audience share a character’s desire to see things happen, and to wait tensely in the hope that they will. Keep an audience sympathetic and you are sure of its emotional response, for the audience comes to the theater very largely for the purpose of having it sympathies aroused. Theoretically, at least, the photoplay is a record of emotion that arouses emotion in those who see it. Give it characters with whose sufferings and happiness they can sympathize and you have pleased them. Let them see plainly all that your characters plan, all they endure, and they lose and gain.

The more the writer understands about emotions, the more he will be able to impress those whose read or see his story.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
Pages 152-153

P.S. Here’s the trailer for the 1931 film The Champ, for which Frances Marion won an Oscar for writing. And the trailer for the 1979 movie it inspired.

Related post: Emotion-Emotion-Emotion

Scott W. Smith

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“He is indeed the enchanter whose spell operates not upon the senses, but upon the emotions and the heart.”
Author Washington Irving (Rip Van Winkle, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow)

Book update: I’m still pushing for a release of my book this month and think all is on track. In the meantime, I’ll continue to post insights from Oscar-winning screenwriter Frances Marion‘s 1937 book, How to Write and Sell Film Stories. Since I’ve written a lot of posts over the years on emotions, I was glad to see that Frances dedicated a whole chapter on emotions.

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Love & Hate in “The Night of the Hunter” (1955)

The emotions are the most powerful of all agencies that affect human character, and the writer who would make his fictional characters convincing portrayals of life requires a broad understanding of the range and the causes and effects of emotions. 

The emotions of greatest effect are love, the positive force, with the powers of attraction and creation; and fear, the negative force, with the powers of repulsion and destruction. All emotions that induce the more beneficent activities, such as the religious feelings of faith, the moral feeling of self-respect, and the esthete’s feelings for beauty,—may be justly regarded as aspects of love. From love arise courage, joy, happiness, gaiety, satisfaction, beauty and harmony; but the brood of fear includes greed, hate, anger jealousy, revenge, and all the degenerating forces that produce human misery, pain, crime and cruelty. The recognition of the regenerating or destructive effect of powerful emotions has produced the great literature of the world.”
Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories

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Love & Hate in “Do the Right Thing” (1989)\

Related Link: 40 Days of Emotions

Scott W. Smith

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“[W]henever a plot demonstrates some angle of truth it will be very likely to have wide appeal. These sayings are adaptable to expression in the terms of modern life. They never would have become proverbs if they had not been of general and lasting interest. 

. . . The theme ought to be broad enough to allow the building up of sufficient situations and an interesting climax, and, as one object of the story is to prove the theme, it should be discernible before the story reaches the climax. Let the principle characters exemplify it.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
page 110

Here are a list of themes that Marion included in her book. Themes that for the most part don’t need updating despite the book being published over 80 years ago. As Marion said, they are adaptable to modern life (including reality TV).


“He who makes himself a sheep will be devoured by the wolves.”

“Marry in haste and repent at leisure.”

“No fine clothes can hide a clown.”

“Put a beggar on horseback and he will ride with the devil.”

“When the cat’s away the mice will play.”

“Honey catches more flies than vinegar.”

“A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.”


“The mills of the gods grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly fine.”

“He who is a fool at Christmas will not be wise by the first of May.”

“Better poor with honor than rich with shame.”

“A gem is not polished without rubbing, nor man perfected without trials.”

“The laughter, the tears and song of a woman may be equally deceptive.”

“The best friend often becomes the worst enemy.”

“Pride sought flight in heaven but fell to hell.”


“Fortune smiles upon the brave.”

“Perseverance brings success.”

“Content lodges oftener in cottage than in palace.”

“God sends thread to those who begin to weave.”

Note: There are many disagreements among writers, directors, and producers about the use of theme in filmmaking. Some that write from theme say that the theme should never be stated verbally, and others say it can be but it’s best if it’s not spoken by the main character/hero of the story. But it wouldn’t be hard to come up with examples of fine films that show every different aspect of how theme is handled (or not handled).

One example of a main character stating the theme of the film is Cast Away when the Chuck Nolan (Tom Hanks) says, “Time. We live by it, ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t live by us.” What’s great about that line is it’s spoken near the beginning of the story and it’s buried in a FedEx training situation. It’s like a seed planted.

The filmmakers do use the motif of time throughout the film, but I believe that short exchange written by screenwriter William Broyles Jr. states the theme.  It’s not important that that line is not as memorable as “W-I-L-S-O-N-!”—and you could argue that they could have edited that line and the movie still works—and that  would still be the theme of the movie.

Where it would have seemed a heavy-handed use of that theme is if the director  (Robert Zemeckis) and his team decided that that line needed to be at the end of the movie. Imagine Nolan standing at the crossroads of Texas (and his life) and we hear his voice-over,  “Time. We live by it, ladies and gentlemen, it doesn’t live by us.”

And there were other thematic questions at play in Cast Away (“Perseverance brings success” and “A gem is not polished without rubbing, nor man perfected without trials” come to mind)), but in Broyles’ words he kept the themes “beneath the surface [because] they weren’t the story, and that’s what a movie has to be.”

Frances Marion on Theme (Part 1) 
Frances Marion on Theme (Part 2) 
Frances Marion on Theme (Part 3) 

Related post:
Theme vs. Story 

Scott W. Smith

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