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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

 

 

 

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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

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”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

 

 

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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

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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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“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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“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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