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Posts Tagged ‘Frances Marion’

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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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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“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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“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
Ninotchka
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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