Billy Wilder, who died in 2002, won six Oscars and was one of the most admired of screenwriters. The following ten tips were aimed at writing screenplays for movies, but if you are familiar with the three-act structure in fiction, you will see how they apply to fiction as well as they do to screenplays.
- Develop a clean line of action for your leading character. The key issue Wilder addresses here is “character arc,” which simply means the trajectory of development your character undergoes. All the actions of your leading character should clearly contribute to his or her line of development, and that line of development should be coherent and seem inevitable.
- The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer. Your plot points in fiction, those major incidents that are turning points in a story, may look quite different in various genres. The plot points in a literary novel might indeed be quite subtle, but in most genre novels, they are more prominent and fall in predictable places.
- If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act. “Setup” is a key idea here. Everything that happens in the third act should be predicated on what happened in the first. Getting this thread of causality right is usually a matter of revision, going back in the later drafts and making sure you have what you need in Act One and then refining how it plays out to the end.
- The event that occurs at the second-act curtain triggers the end of the movie. The plot point at the end of Act Two is the catalyst that leads to the big climax in Act Three. You might say it’s the point of no return. After it, the leading character is committed to a course of action that makes the climax inevitable.
- The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then –that’s it. Don’t hang around. Once your catalyst kicks in at the end of Act Two, it’s a dead run to the climax. Again, this is more prominent in genre fiction than in literary fiction. In writing a thriller, romance, or mystery, this final section has to sustain the intensity, and when the climax happens, Wilder says, wind it down and get out.
- The audience is fickle. We’ve all heard the advice “Know your audience! Know who you’re writing for.” Well, Wilder seems to be saying you can’t always count on that audience. I would add that the only audience you can really count on is yourself, so write for an audience of one.
- Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go. Wilder seems to say writing that grabs the reader’s mind and emotions (the throat) won’t be sabotaged by a fickle audience. Intensity, drama, is important.
- Know where you’re going! I frequently advise writers who struggle with plot to write a draft of their final chapter, then come back to where they felt lost and write toward that chapter. It helps them know where they’re going.
- Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever. The more readers can add to a work, the more they will invest in it, the more they will remember it. Wilder is telling us not to explain away the subtleties of our work. Good writers find the sweet spot between obscurity, on the one hand, and explaining, on the other.
- In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing. As applied to screenwriting, this tip has a quite different meaning than it does in fiction. I’d say “voice-over” in fiction refers to the author’s use of narrative voice, and it’s an extension of Tip #4. Though the narrator is positioned at differing distances in different points of view (1st-person, 3rd subjective, omniscient, dramatic), Wilder’s concept applies to them all (perhaps least so to the dramatic p.o.v.). The setting and the action, including dialogue and thought—i.e., “what the audience already sees”—should carry most of what the reader needs to know. An insecure author may be tempted to use the narrator to explain what the author fears the reader won’t understand.
Billy Wilder was a highly successful writer. And though he tosses writing tips out like peanuts at the zoo, I’m pretty sure he’d agree experience—hard work in The Forge—is the only way to make them stick.
Here’s a final thought from Wilder that’s worth keeping in mind in all of this: Trust your own instinct. Your mistakes might as well be your own, instead of someone else’s.