Trust Your Instinct

Here are five tips for writers from screenwriter Billy Wilder, who died in 2002. Wilder won six Oscars and was one of the most admired writers in the business. These 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.

  1. 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.
  1. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer. Your plot points, those major incidents that are turning points in a story, may look quite different in different 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.
  1. 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.

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
.

Posted in Blog, From the Forge