I had fun with Billy Wilder’s tips for writing in the last column, so I’m going back to that well one more time. Remember that Wilder, who died in 2002, won six Oscars.
1. 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.
2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
This may be a natural extension of Tip #1. Wilder seems glibly 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.
3. 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.
4. Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
The more a reader can bring 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.
5. 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. 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
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.