Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Action [Part 3]

May 6th, 2012 by

If you are a screenwriter, you should know about Anita Loos. Loos was one of the most influential writers in the early stages of American cinema, associated with 136 film projects per IMDB.

Married to writer John Emerson, the pair wrote one of the first books on screenwriting in 1920: “How to Write Photoplays”. In Chapter VII “Action! Camera! Grind!”, the writers take on one of the single most important aspects of movies since their inception: Action [P. 28]:

One method of heightening the suspense is by foreshadowing coming events without actually giving the secret away. Significant actions on the part of the sleek chap in the dress suit make the audience suspect his villainous intent. Little sign posts should dot the course of your plot keeping the mind of the onlooker interested in what is to come next.

So they knew about foreshadowing all the way back in 1920! It can be the actions of a character such as Travis Bickle and his famous “You looking at me” scene, foreshadowing the violence that is to come. Or a line of dialogue such as the oft-repeated side in Star Wars movies, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.”

Another way of looking at it: Foreshadowing is a set-up to a later payoff.

Ironically the writer most often weaves foreshadowing into a story after the fact; that is the plot results in Action B, so the writer goes back in the story to establish Set-Up A.

When used effectively, foreshadowing can result in a satisfying experience for the script reader: The anticipation of an event to occur based on the setup, then the experience of it actually happening which resolves the tension of expectation.

So there you go: Another writing lesson from nine decades ago, courtesy of Anita Loos and John Emerson.

Next week, yet more on action from the book “How to Write Photoplays.”

If you live in the U.S., you can read “How to Write Photoplays” via Google books online here.

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