Movies can teach all of us a lot about story. Billy Wilder, legendary film director, won three Oscars for his screenplays in a storied career. (Two more for direction; like many great screenwriters, he took command of his stories once he got behind the camera.) The Wikipedia entry on him says he was so successful because
Wilder’s directoral choices reflected his belief in the primacy of writing. He avoided the exuberant cinematography of Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles because, in Wilder’s opinion, shots that called attention to themselves would distract the audience from the story. Wilder’s pictures have tight plotting and memorable dialogue.
Wilder’s best storytelling is all over the map in subject matter, from the wordplay screwball comedy in Ball of Fire to the film noir groundbreaker Double Indemnity to the grit of Hollywood in Sunset Boulevard. Most serious? Alcoholism, in The Lost Weekend, which earned him two of those Oscars. And then there’s Some Like it Hot, where he introduced the world of 1959 to the humor of cross-dressing. A hidden gem is Ace in the Hole, where Kirk Douglas growls his way through a media circus of his own creation: he’s a reporter — like Wilder once was — trying to get back into a $1,000 a week job.
You can see a succinct 90 seconds of his story theory in a film clip on the NPR Web site (Real Player is required). Wilder died in 2002, but before he moved on to the next level of storytelling he left behind his 10 rules of story; nearly all of them can be applied to genre, literature or movies.
1. The audience is fickle.
2. Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.
3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
4. Know where you’re going.
5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.