Billy Wilder’s Rules of Writing
From time to time, it’s good to remind myself that pretty much everything I know about writing I stole from better writers. As a journalist – and now, as a speechwriter – I stole motto from The New Yorker’s famous A.J. Liebling: I can write faster than anyone who’s better than me, but I can write better than anyone who’s faster than me.
As a novelist, and also as a fledgling screenwriter, I turn to guys like Billy Wilder, writer, director and producer of such genius work as “Double Indemnity,” “Sunset Blvd.,” “Some Like It Hot” and “Sabrina.”
The following – copiously copied by hacks like me for years now – are Wilder’s 10 rules of good filmmaking. But for “filmmaking,” I think you can substitute “thriller writing.” The rules work, more or less, for the kinds of books I write.
1: The audience is fickle – Not sure what I think about this one. I’m an audience, and I’m fickle, which is to say, some days I want a certain something from a story, and the next day I don’t.
2: Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go – When I teach writing, I often tell people, “Today, my job is not to write 400 pages of good story. My job is to write five good pages. Then five more, then five more…” It’s how I try to break the “muddle in the middle” problem. Breaking down a novel into bite-sized chunks can, I think, grab audiences by the throat and never let them go.
3: Develop a clean line of action for your leading character – I have to be cautious not to throw in action for action’s sake. “It’s a little dull here … how about a homicide!” That’s usually the weakest form of plotting. An action bit had better serve the storyline or character development, or it’s out on its keister.
4: Know where you’re going – I disobey this one because I’m not an outliner. When I start a story, I know Act I and I know the pivotal plot point of Act II, but that’s generally all of it. In mysteries, I often don’t know who the bad guy is until part way through the first draft.
5: The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer – Your “plot point” is a bit of action that causes a substantial reaction, either from the good guys or the bad guys. It’s the big rock in the river that redirects the stream. And I gotta admit: I’m not good at the whole “subtle and elegant” thing. My plot points tend to be pretty obvious (planes falling out of the sky, for instance).
6: If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act – OK, this one’s definitely true. If I can’t get the action on page 300 to go where I want it to, I generally have to go back to page 30 and figure out what I didn’t set up. We, as thriller writers, sometimes quip that the protagonists won’t do what the writer wants them to do. More often than not, when that happens, it’s because the protagonists are telling us we blew something early on. “My heroine won’t do what I want her to do!” likely means, “I didn’t give my heroine all the tools she’d need in Act I to fix the plot-engine in Act III.”
7: A tip that Wilder swiped from German filmmaker Ernst Lubitsch (“Ninotchka,” “Heaven Can Wait”): Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever – I try not to be too “on the nose” with my clues.
8: In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing – For “voice-over,” think “dialog.” It’d be a bad idea to spend a paragraph describing a rhino, then have the heroine say, “Look! A rhino!”
9: The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie – Yup. For sure. I still write in terms of Act I, Act II and Act III, and I encourage others to, as well. And everything at the end of the story needs to feed the plot element that brought the plot to a boil at the end of Act II. In “Crashers,” I ended Act II by having a jetliner land in a horrible storm on Interstate 5. And then, realizing they had no choice, taking off again from I-5. Every page and every scene that follows pivots off that moment.
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.