“You Can Write a Movie” by Pamela Wallace
Writers Digest Books, Cincinnati, Ohio. 2000.
118 pages. ISBN 0-89879-974-0 Amazon Price: US $4.35
In 1986 “Witness” won the Academy Award for the best Original Screenplay. It also won awards from the Mystery Writers of America and the Writers Guild of America and was named in the Guild’s Top 101 Greatest Scripts. It was the first screenplay written by Pamela Wallace and was rejected many times until purchased by the producer Edward Feldman when Harrison Ford agreed to star in it.
Wallace had published a number of novels, but says she “was a novice screenwriter who happened to capture ‘lightning in a bottle’.” While her co-writers, husband Earl Wallace and his writing partner William Kelly, were experienced television writers, Wallace was not, so she decided after “Witness” to learn the nuts and bolts of the craft of screenwriting. “You Can Write a Movie” is the result of a ten year education.
THE IDEA IS KING
She begins with a memo from Jeffrey Katzenberg, one of the three owners of Dream Works, that he wrote when he worked at Disney. He told studio executives what they should look for in a screenplay. In essence he said, “The idea is king”. Stars, directors, writers and special effects can influence the success of a film, but these elements only work if they serve a good idea. The screenplay must be based on an entertaining, emotionally compelling original idea. This idea must then be translated into a riveting story by showing a central character who goes through a transforming experience with which the audience can relate.
Films that generate a strong return on costs are generally low budget productions with a basic concept that appeals to a wide audience. She gives the example of “The Full Monty”, which cost $3.5 million and was the top revenue-to-cost movie of 1997.
A BAD IDEA
The reverse of a good idea is a bad idea, and one of the worst ideas in the film industry is low stakes. Wallace goes right to the source to find why screenplays are rejected. “I’ve asked several people in the film industry […] what they feel is the single most common reason why a screenplay is rejected. They all agreed that it was simple: what was at stake in the story simply wasn’t compelling enough.”
Not only must the stakes be high, but the theme must resonate with the audience. “The biggest difference between a great film and a mediocre one is the depth of the theme.”
Wallace develops this idea in her discussion of subplots. “The plot,” she says, “carries the action of the movie; the subplot carries the theme.” She even invents a word to emphasise this point. “A subplot dimensionalizes a screenplay, making it more than just a linear progression of the plot.” In “Witness” the subplot is the romance between the two main characters. This makes the hero, John Book (Harrison Ford) vulnerable, sensitive and open to change.
The biggest difference between a great film and a mediocre one is the depth of the theme.
Romance has universal appeal, and Wallace points out that most commercially and/or critically successful movies have themes with universal appeal. “There’s something deeper than the plot that touches an audience’s heart and mind. The audience identifies with the characters or situations, usually because most people have had that same experience or wish they could have it.”
While this is not a screenwriting-by-numbers book, there are a number of excellent suggestions. Wallace identifies:
- 4 fatal flaws in a premise.
- 6 strong elements in a premise.
- 9 fatal flaws that will kill the movie.
- 6 questions to ask when you have written your treatment.
- 18 things you must know about your character.
- 4 aspects of character.
- 11 questions to ask about the main character.
- 6 steps to create a character.
- 7 questions to ask about structure.
- 5 types of conflict.
- 8 questions to ask when blocking a scene.
- 4 components of scene design.
- 3 major mistakes in writing dialogue.
- 6 keys to good dialogue
- 4 signs of bad dialogue.
Her discussion of a character’s defining moment is very interesting. “One of the most insightful lessons I ever learned about characterisation is this: There is a defining moment in everyone’s life, usually when we are young, and often involving our family, that defines us for the rest of our lives.”
There is a defining moment in everyone’s life.
Her chapter on structure is a concise summary of “The Hero’s Journey”, the template she used for “Witness”, and provides an excellent breakdown of the various plot points.
ACTORS SPEAK: DIALOGUE
Wallace sought advice from actors when discussing dialogue and their observations make interesting reading for screenwriter.
Says Stanley Tucci: “I was encountering a lot of scripts where the dialogue seemed imposed upon the characters. It didn’t come from the characters – it was the writer stuffing these words into their mouths and they were forced to spit them back out again. Trying to act them was tortuous.”
I write for it to sound good when it’s said.
And from Billy Bob Thornton: “Sometimes words look really good on paper. They’re flowery, intense and just look great and when you read them, it’s like, ‘Wow, that’s beautiful’. But then as an actor you try to say those words, and they don’t sound right. So when I write I don’t try to make it look good on paper. I write for it to sound good when it’s said.”
“You Can Write a Screenplay” is a concise, very readable book about the art of screenwriting that provides a wealth of tips and advice. Wallace has had an interesting career. She won an Academy Award with her first screenplay, spent ten years studying the craft she had already mastered, and has now produced a book for other screenwriters to share. The result is an excellent guide to the art of screenwriting from an industry insider who has a shiny gold statue on her mantelpiece.
– Jack Brislee
He collects and dissects books on screenwriting.