Screenwriting Advice From The Past: The Denouement [Part 2]

December 30th, 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”. I have been running a weekly series based on the book. You can access those posts here. Today: The Denouement [P. 90]:

The two important rules in building up to the denouement of your plot are: First, bring the situation to the highest or lowest possible point before you give your story the twist which solves the situation and, second, don’t give your point away beforehand.

The revelation should come instantly to get the effect. Once you have started to tell the secret, tell it in three words, and then hold your action so that the audience is stirred to its depths.

As noted in last week’s post, Loos and Emerson use the term denouement differently than I understand to mean in Hollywood story development circles: Whereas I think of it as the the scene after the Final Struggle where the script gives the reader a sense of what the Protagonist’s life will be post-journey, in “How to Write a Photoplay,” the authors state “it is the moment of revelation when the audience sees the point of the story.” That sounds more like the climax or Final Struggle.

Therefore looking at the advice above tied to a story’s conclusive Plotline point, Emerson and Loos offer some nice takeaways:

* Bring the situation to the highest or lowest possible point before you give your story the twist which solves the situation: If you are dealing with the climax of the story, that naturally calls for it to be an apex. Consider your Final Struggle in that light in terms of its setup and payoff. How big is it? How dramatic? To riff off the advice of Nigel Tufnel from “Spinal Tap,” does it go to 11, “one louder”?

* Don’t give your point away beforehand: This may seem like a no-brainer, but there is a difference between setting up a conclusive plot point, and giving it away. The Final Struggle should resolve the story in whatever fashion, yet not do so in a way that is obvious by way of what has transpired leading up to it. Otherwise you run the risk of reducing the impact of the story’s resolution because a script reader will have already anticipated the specifics of the events.

* The revelation should come instantly to get the effect: One way to think of Plotline points is they represent an event that happens that goes “whammo,” a big, exciting occurrence that significantly impacts the plot. Nowhere does this idea have more relevance than the Final Struggle and especially that moment where the conclusion becomes clear. That revelation should almost undoubtedly “come instantly,” providing a declarative and immediate impact on the characters, and as a result the script readers, a whammo across our consciousness.

* Hold your action so that the audience is stirred to its depths: This is a good reminder to check out screenwriter Michael Arndt’s take on great endings, how they need to work on three levels: External, Internal, Philosophical. Good stories have multiple layers of meaning, that is one big way they create a sense of depth. An ending should [in theory] provide a resolution in the External World [Plotline], Internal World [Themeline], and Philosophical World [or in my language system the psychological realm]. All three and especially the latter speak to a story’s emotional impact. At the end of the day, that is what we want to do: stir a script reader to their “depths,” make them feel something.

Finally there is this intriguing idea: tell it in three words. If we can create a concentrated iteration of our story in the form of a logline, is there any value in looking at a Final Struggle and articulate its essence in three words? An obvious advantage: The exercise forces us to be extremely clear about what is truly going on with this pivotal Plotline point, the conclusion of the story and its revelation.

Frankly there is so much meat from today’s look at “How to Write a Photoplay,” it occurs to me the entire point of this month’s long exegesis of the book might be simply to get to this post. Ponder these thoughts and ponder them well. Each is important in terms of crafting a kick-ass story ending.

Next week: More screenwriting advice from 90 years ago.

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

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