Screenwriting Advice From The Past: Midway in the Photoplay [Part 2]

February 3rd, 2013 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: Midway in the Photoplay [P. 99-100]:

This does not mean to give the plot twists and turns which are irrelevant to the story merely to interest your audience. Make your first synopsis very short sticking to the bare essentials of the plot. As you rewrite, the action will become more complex and the story grow longer because you will be better acquainted with your characters. After a few rewritings, you will suddenly be aware that your plot people have come to life and are taking the story into their own hands, altering their actions to suit themselves. If the characters are not real enough to you to predominate the story, the photoplay will be without the vital human appeal which sells the story anywhere. Force yourself into taking the story seriously.

Okay, seriously. If you have been following this series, you have to have noticed how so many of the ideas promulgated by Loose & Emerson are spot-on in their relevance to screenwriting today. But today, they have gone to the mountaintop and come down with perhaps the single best idea I’ve read about the craft in a long time.

They start off with pretty standard advice about prep-writing: Work up a basic synopsis, then continue to work at it, going deeper into the story and characters. As you do, it will become more “complex” and evolve into something “longer.” But the key is that you will become “better acquainted with your characters.” And then this:

After a few rewritings, you will suddenly be aware that your plot people have come to life and are taking the story into their own hands, altering their actions to suit themselves.

Not characters. Plot People. My God, I can’t even begin to express how much I love that idea. I have always pushed the idea that your characters exist, they live in their story universe. Take the idea of ‘seeing is believing’ and invert: Believing is seeing! That is, if you believe your story universe and characters exist, you will see them.

But what a wonderful way to look at your characters: Plot People. They are people who are immersed in your story’s plot. This goes straight to the heart of what I mean when I talk about the value of character-based screenwriting: The best way to find your story’s plot is through your characters. Don’t force it upon them, rather engage them directly and they will reveal to you the arc of the narrative.

That’s because they are Plot People!

I stumbled on this book and on a whim thought a GITS series on it could be fun. And I think we have learned a lot thus far. But honestly, this single idea — Plot People — could be worth the entire journey. But wait, there’s more:

If the characters are not real enough to you to predominate the story, the photoplay will be without the vital human appeal which sells the story anywhere.

In other words, the characters must come to life or else your story will be missing the vitality that only Plot People can bring to it. And finally this:

Force yourself into taking the story seriously.

I take this to mean a writer has to interact with characters as if they are real, sentient beings. Anything less is just playing around.

Friends, your story universe is real in its own way. Your characters are alive. And if you take the story seriously, these Plot People will lead you into and through the narrative.

Yet again, wisdom dispensed from a book written 93 years ago.

Next week: More screenwriting advice Anita Loos and John Emerson.

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

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