Archive for March, 2019

“Who is it that can tell me who I am?”
King Lear by William Shakespeare

“I’ve never known a better seaman, but as a man, he’s a snake. He doesn’t punish for discipline. He likes to see men crawl. Sometimes, I’d like to push his poison down his own throat.”
Lt. Fletcher Christian regarding Captain Bligh
Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)

One of the things that made Captain Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty an unforgettable character was the way in which his chief qualities—cruelty and hardness—were stressed even to the point of having him order the continued flogging of a man who died under the lash.

The character who has no dominating trait or traits offers nothing of dramatic value. ‘One virtue, vice or passion ought to be shown in every man as predominating over all the rest.’ It is quite possible in real life that we do not always recognize people by their dominant characteristics, but it seems to be essential for the film writer to make his characters recognizable in this way. A novelist who has won great popular success is said, when writing the first draft of a novel, to give each character the name of an emotion he is expected to depict, such as Greed, Love, Jealousy, Peace. I think that the drama of many a film story would be strengthened if its author would keep in mind, while building it, the dominant emotion that is responsible for each plot actor’s reaction to events. Of course, you never tell your audience what emotion clutches your character. Let it see him in the throes of that emotion. It will not do to say that John Brown is obstinate. He must do something obstinately. If some explanation of a character must be given, let some other character do it.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Frances Marion (The Champ)
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)

Writing default madman would not be a bad way to write characters—especially if you can get Anthony Hopkins to bring your writing to life.

P.S. And just to show there are always exceptions to the concept of not actually calling out a character’s emotions, here’s a scene from Inside Out. (Any day you can mix Pixar and Shakespeare is a good day for me.)

Scott W. Smith


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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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Frances Marion on Emotion (Part 1)

“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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“They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind.”
Hosea 8:7

Proverbs, adages, maxims, parables, and legends supply an amazing proportion of story themes. This, of course, is because they are full of profound meaning relating to human life.  A proverb is a saying certified by the voices of generations, and the origin of many of those are in use today is lost in mists of antiquity. Thousands of years ago, men said significantly, ‘A fool and his money are soon parted’; ‘He who chases two hares catches neither’; ‘The sins of the fathers are visited upon the children’; ‘Beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing.’

. . . Proverbs record the thoughts of generations, the voice of the multitude, and they are found in all nations. . . . The wisdom of the great religions of all races is expressed in maxims that have touched all phases of life, business, health, and matrimony, and have in them the germs of many a story with the stamp of authority. Themes based on these sayings have the advantage that the audience is in sympathy with theme. ‘As ye sow so shall ye reap,’ has been a story theme from time immemorial.”
Screenwriter Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories (1937)
Pages 107-108

What do you want to bet that Saturday Night Live this weekend opens with a skit on the recent college admission scandal? Low hanging fruit for the writers. Ripped from today’s headlines and perhaps sprinkled with ancient wisdom from the prophet Hosea.

Scott W. Smith 

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“I was astounded at how really useful ‘thematic thinking’ turned out to be.”
Stephen King
On Writing, page 207

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A Quiet Place

While I have found many quotes from talented writers and directors talking about their disdain for the topic of theme, I will say I have found more from equality talked writers and directors who embrace theme in their work, and in the work of others.

When Oscar-winning Francis Marion wrote the following words in her 1937 book keep in mind that talking pictures were not even a decade old. And feature films had only been made for about two decades.

“Throughout most of the Depression, Americans went assiduously, devotedly, almost compulsively, to the movies.”
Carlos Stevens

I don’t know how many other filmmakers in the 1930s agreed with her, but there were some fine films made during that time. In fact, many consider 1939 as the single best year in the Golden Age of Hollywood. Some would say the best year for films ever.

Gone with the Wind
The Wizard of Oz
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Wuthering Heights
Stage Coach
Of Mice and Men
Dark Victory
Goodbye Mr. Chips
Gunga Din
Young Mr. Lincoln
Beau Geste
Union Pacific
Golden Boy
Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs

This was at the tale end of The Great Depression when millions of Americans went to movies weekly. World War II and television were a few years away from changing movie going habits forever.

Marion embraced theme and spent seven pages covering the topic from her point of view. Here’s another excerpt from her book:

Examine any good plot and you will find a theme imbedded in it; it is the theme that gives the plot objective and purpose. A plot that does not prove anything is diffused and uninteresting. It ‘doesn’t get anywhere.’ As a matter of fact, a plot is merely the more or less mechanical invention that gives opportunity to the characters to portray a theme; and the theme keeps the story from being just a series of episodes concerning the same characters. 

The theme rarely is mentioned in the story; it is never rubbed in. The audience may not put it in words at all, but will recognize the theme and the fact that the story keeps in line with it. Suppose that you have taken for your theme the slogan, ‘It pays to advertise.’ These words may never be mentioned in the story, but the story itself will demonstrate the truth of that statement.

. . . The theme which Sinclair Lewis definitely proved, and which certainly gave purpose to his Main Street, might be stated simply as, ‘the ugliness of life in middlewestern town.’ The theme of Sorrel and Son by Warwick Deeping might be, ‘No sacrifice is to great for a father to make for a beloved son’; of The Four Horseman of by Ibanez, as ‘Want, disease, famine, and death forever follow war’; and that The Miracle Man*, ‘Spiritual regeneration is possible even in the worst of men.’”
Screenwriter Frances Marion
How to Write and Sell Film Stories  (1937)
pages 106-107

*Since Marion does not give the author for The Miracle Man I am not sure if she is referencing the movie versions—there were two; The Miracle Man (1919) starring Lon Chaney,  The Miracle Man (1932)—or the 1914 Broadway play version , or the original source material—The Miracle Man novel by Canadian Frank L. Packard.

P.S. You could paraphrase Marion’s quote about Sorrel and Son to be “No sacrifice is to great for a father to make for his beloved family” and I think that theme that transcending A Quiet Place (2018) beyond just a monster movie. And a big reason for its box office success. And the father’s sacrifice in that movie, according to screenwriters Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, was an idea that they hit on early.

Scott W. Smith

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