ADDITIONS AND CORRECTIONS
Most of the following additions and corrections
are due to i- the revisions I made in November 2007 to the French
version of Writing
Drama, ii- the fact that I never stop reflecting on the
nature of drama. Please visit this page once in a while. The changes
are highlighted in blue. Yves Lavandier
Go directly to WHAT'S RIGHT WITH THE
Page 33, one more quote:
"It is only with the heart that
one can see clearly; the essential is invisible to the eye."
(The Fox, The Little Prince)
Page 40, four last lines of the footnote:
life, and the best bet in this respect appears to be the exoplanet
of Gliese 581 C which is some 20
light-years away. Travelling at the speed of our present space probes
(50,000 km/h), we would require 400,000
years to get there.Cryogenics is already problematic
enough. In fact, if you really want to see extraterrestrials here
on Earth, your best bet is probably the principle of parallel worlds
and wormholes as posited in the recently-developed string theory.
In the meantime, from the point of view of narrative, it makes more
sense to see E.T
Page 42, last line of the footnote:
regimes in Latin America. An unfortunate side-effect that
the filmmakers obviously did not expect. Having
said that, a work can also be militarist (or racist, sexist or perverse)
because the writers allowed their reptilian brain (the part of us
which, among other things, harbours our capacity for human barbarism)
to affect their writing unconsciously.
Page 43, end of the first paragraph:
crashed into a gasoline tanker, to steal his van.
Other writers do not criticise the spectacular but choose to avoid
it. Thesis begins with an incident in the Madrid metro.
The line is being closed down because a man has thrown himself in
front a train. The passengers are asked to get out of the carriage
and to avert their gaze from the man's body, sliced in two by the
train. Obviously everyone tries to catch a glimpse, including the
protagonist (Ana Torrent). Just as she is about to succeed, a metro
employee pushes her away. Neither she nor the spectators of the film
get to see anything morbid. Dispensing with the spectacular is often
the elegant way out.
Page 54, first line:
is transformed. Antigone is the best-known
example, but one could also think of Babe, A
Bug's Life, A Foreign Affair, Mr. Deeds
Goes to Town, Rear Window, Toy
Story or even The Lives of Others in which the
protagonist is the playwright (Sebastian Koch) whereas the character
who changes is the Stasi captain (Ulriche Mühe).
Page 61, 4th line of the 4th paragraph:
mother and that this is her last chance, the spectator's empathy
is much more readily granted. In short, drama's
founding trio protagonist-objective-obstacles is even more effective
when it is transformed into the quartet protagonist-objective-stake-obstacles.
Thus, stories of investigation are much more exciting when
the investigator's fate depends on the outcome (cf. Oedipus
Rex or The Silence of the Lambs as compared
with Maigret). Consider the two
adaptations of Thomas Harris's novel Red Dragon. In
both versions (Manhunter and Red Dragon),
the wife and the son of the protagonist (William Petersen or Edward
Norton) are given protection. But it is only in the latter version
that the investigation has repercussions for the investigator's family.
The stake is higher, giving the spectator a keener sense of participation.
Page 65, end of the second paragraph:
his mother (Iran Outari) for permission to go out until at
last she gives way; Krimo (Osman Elkharraz)
in Games of Love and Chance, who gives everything he
owns (roller-blades, trainers, video-player,etc) to Rachid (Rachid
Hami) for the right to play the role of Arlequin, enabling him to
be with the girl he wants to impress; Gabrielle (Eva Longoria), in
the very first episode of Desperate Housewives, who
mows the lawn at midnight, in an evening gown, to prevent her husband
finding out that she's having an affair with the gardener.
Page 71, a new entry at the end of the
The Cornelian dilemma
The dilemma is a situation in which a person is forced to choose between
two propositions of equal weight. A dilemma is conflictual in principle
because it creates hesitation in the mind of the person confronted
with it. But if the dilemma is simply one of having to choose between
a magnificent tiramisu and a delicious strawberry tart, it can hardly
be said that there is an intensity of conflict. The dilemma is only
exciting (from a writer's point of view) if it engenders regrets,
suffering, a feeling of guilt. In Pierre Corneille's Le Cid,
Rodrigue is cruelly torn between two desires—that of keeping Chimène's
love and that of avenging his father (who has been wronged by Chimène's
father). The obligation to choose necessarily involves conflict. If
Rodrigue takes revenge, he loses the love of his beloved. If he does
not seek revenge, he loses his honour. In episode 1.10 of Prison
Break, Michael (Wentworth Miller) is determined to save his
brother from imminent execution at any cost. To do this, he must reveal
to the Mafia the name of a witness, effectively condemning the witness
to death. The choice, in short, is one between the plague and cholera.
The dilemma thus creates inner suffering, though it is not necessarily
the result of an internal obstacle. Sometimes it is the result of
chance, an ironic twist of fate, the way life has turned out. This
is the case in Prison Break 1.10 and in Uncontrollable
Circumstances (see page 85). By contrast, in Le Cid,
it's clear that Rodrigue still has a strong hand to play. He could
tell his father to settle his problems by himself. He could call in
the King's justice. Rodrigue does none of these things because he
has a fine specimen of internal obstacle, pride, which causes him
to turn in on himself and his dilemmas. We often describe as "Cornelian"
a dilemma that results from an internal obstacle.
Page 73, end of the 4th paragraph:
afflictions. As this makes clear, ill
fortune plays a major role in melodrama. Magnificent Obsession
begins with a well-known doctor having a heart attack. A defibrillator
would be able to save him but, as ill luck has it, it is currently
being used by an unscrupulous playboy named Merrick (Rock Hudson).
Sadly, the doctor dies. When he finds out, Merrick seeks forgiveness
from the doctor's widow (Jane Wyman). One day he chases her even when
she's in a taxi. In order to avoid him, she jumps out of the taxi
abruptly. As ill luck would have it, another car is passing at that
moment and strikes her. Sadly, she loses her sight.
Page 82, end of the 5th paragraph:
films resemble snuff movies. Similarly,
in Hotel Rwanda, the protagonist (Don Cheadle) does
everything he can to save a thousand Tutsis who have sought refuge
in his hotel, the scales tipping back and forth constantly between
hope and fear.
Page 87, 20th line:
represented. It is not enough to say
simply that human barbarism exists, I'm doing no more that showing
it. Broadly speaking, we can say that there are two ways of
representing human barbarism: the humanist way and the barbaric way.
Page 96, end of the second paragraph:
worse at the end of the film than a few words of criticism
from a judge.
The most subtle example of a revenge tale is
the film Coup de Tête in which Perrin (Patrick
Dewaere), an amateur footballer living somewhat on the margins of
society, is unjustly accused of rape and imprisoned. Circumstances
conspire to avenge him. He announces that he will exact a terrible
vengeance on the officials who have treated him so badly, but as he
is emotionally intelligent he takes no action—his intention was to
scare his listeners. This is to his merit. Except that the writer
is taking a risk here, the risk of frustrating the spectator who wants
to see the wrong-doers punished in proportion to the wrongs they have
done. Fortunately, in seeking to protect themselves against Perrin,
the officials inflict their own punishment. And writer Francis Veber
wins on both counts.
Page 120, end of the second paragraph:
message is valid because his constant death and rebirth is
an appropriate metaphor. Let's not forget that
in The Thousand and One Nights it takes the Sultan almost
three years of story-telling for him to renounce finally his desire
to avenge himself against women.
Page 124, 5th line:
husband she rushes from the room and goes to vomit in the
toilet. La Cage aux Folles (the
play) contains one of the finest secondary characters imaginable:
Mr. Languedoc. He's a butcher of the old school, built like an oak.
He arrives just as Georges is attempting laboriously to induce Albin,
his companion, into manly ways. "You've been sent by Providence,"
Georges exclaims, delighted to be able to show Albin what a real man
looks like. Languedoc begins in virile fashion to explain a recipe,
and knocks back a glass of schnaps in one. Then he tells how the pictures
of meat in the paintings of Bruegel the Elder revealed him to the
world of butchers. He starts discussing painting, making hand gestures
that become more and more gracious and feminine, finally announcing:
"The Fragonard pink has been lost forever." In dismay,
Georges hustles him out of the house. In a matter of minutes, Poiret
succeeds in adding a whole new dimension to a character while creating
conflict and adding a touch of humour. As a lesson in characterisation
it could hardly be bettered. A richer portrayal can be obtained...
Page 126, end of the 4th paragraph:
48, in the role.
(1962) tells the story of a lawyer, Sam Bowden (Gregory Peck), whose
family is being subtly harassed by a certain Max Cady (Robert Mitchum)
whom Bowden helped to put behind bars several years earlier and who
has been released from prison. Cady is clearly bent on revenge and
there is a distinctly devilish air about him. As devilish as the writers.
Cady is careful not to do anything reprehensible in the presence of
witnesses, and his rare criminal acts (killing a dog, beating up a
young woman) are committed off-screen. By the time an hour has passed,
the tension has built up to unbearable levels and the spectator is
wondering how Bowden is going to get out of the pickle he's in. There
appears to be no escape. There is no way Bowden can appease the former
convict. He has no evidence to enable him to call in the police with
a complaint of harassment. He cannot move to another part of the country
as Cady will simply track him down. He cannot murder Cady—even if
the spectator feels this might be the best solution. That would clearly
be an ultrasolution (see page 142), both immoral and fraught with
serious consequences. So what can he do? Bowden's idea is to trap
Cady by using his daughter (Lori Martin) and his wife (Polly Bergen)
as bait. This operation takes up the second half of the film. At first,
Cady swallows the bait. He plans to take advantage of Bowden's suppposed
absence to abuse the girl. Then comes the key moment: Cady realises
that he has been trapped. Logically, he should now desist from the
criminal activity he is presently engaged in and withdraw with a smile,
continuing to harass Bowden in the same, subtle manner he was using
previously. But the writers need to bring the story to an end. They
are in a pickle as much as Bowden. As a result, they change Cady's
characterisation. Where previously he was devilish, he now becomes
merely bestial and stupid, enabling the writers and Bowden to dispose
of him. N.B. In the 1991 remake the problem does not arise since Cady
(Robert de Niro) is presented as a brute from the beginning. He is
intelligent, but he has none of the subtlety of the 1962 Cady. Paradoxically,
the excess of violence in the remake renders the film less frightening
and less effective.
Page 130, end of the 4th paragraph:
is an essential part of the writer's armoury.
It is important to note that this principle,
much favoured by Hitchcock, is not a sweeping condemnation of dialogue
relative to image. Though dialogue is often used as an easy way out—I'll
return to this point in chapters 12 and 13—it can also be well used
as a means of showing. Take the case of a writer who wants to characterise
a brilliant pickpocket—let's call him Tweener. If he has Tweener say:
"I'm a brilliant pickpocket, take my word for it" or another
character say: "Tweener is a brilliant pickpocket, believe me",
that is simply dialogue, it is said and the information is conveyed
poorly. If however a character asks Tweener to steal him a watch (as
in episode 11, season 1, of Prison Break), and Tweener
(Lane Garrison) asks him for technical details (the make of watch,
the year, and so on) and then comments on the clasp, the difficulties
involved in stealing this particular watch, etc., then he is still
using only dialogue but this time the characterisation is being shown
rather than merely spoken. As we shall see, all the following examples
Page 131, end of the second paragraph,
a new entry:
Importance of the
One of the many ways of presenting a character at the start of a narrative
is to have them spoken about by other characters and then to have
them make a striking entrance. Molière provides a superb example
of this in Tartuffe. During Acts I and II (of five logistical
acts) we hear a great deal about Tartuffe but do not see him. His
entrance comes as late at the beginning of Act III when, in a famous
scene, he offers Dorine his handkerchief, telling her: "Cover
up that breast, it's not meant for my eyes." The same principle
is at work at the beginning of Le Jouet, with the character
of Rambal-Cochet (Michel Bouquet, see page 381), and at the beginning
of A Fistful of Dollars, with the character of Ramon
(Gian Maria Volontè). In each case, the writer arouses curiosity
about a major character and sets him in a situation the moment he
enters. Note that this rarely involves the protagonist since it's
logical to present the protagonist early at the beginning of the narrative.
Page 139, end of the second paragraph:
listening to her, he starts once more to desire her.
This tendency to constantly want more is inscribed
in the genes of living organisms, including those of plants. A man
locked up as a hostage miles from home will dream of a ray of sunshine,
a plate of spaghetti, a child's smile. Once released, he will find
fulfilment in the simplest things. But very soon he will be wanting
more. "Happiness means continuing to want what we already
have," said Saint Augustine. We can reproach Dom Juan, and
with him a major part of the human race, his inability to savour the
present time. But does it follow that Dom Juan is neurotic? Dom Juan
is a living organism in the full flush of his existence. His neurosis,
if that is what it is, consists of tiring too quickly of his conquests
and not knowing how to enjoy what he already possesses.
Page 146, last lines:
In other words, when an actor is good he of course deserves
all the plaudits he gets. But praise is also due to the director who
directed him as well as to the writer who created his role in the
first place. Actors, for their part, when promoting
work they are appearing in or receiving awards, tend too often to
forget those who created both their character and the structure of
which it forms part.
Page 147, last line:
Important: writers wishing to work on the structure
of their scripts will need to absorb more than the concepts set out
in chapter 5. Structure does not consist simply of setting up three
acts and a few plot points. Chapter 7 is of particular importance
in this respect, since preparation is the keynote of structure. Students
of structure will also find chapters 6, 8 and 10 relevant.
154, end of first paragraph (= WHAT'S RIGHT
WITH THE THREE-ACT STRUCTURE):
prescription and end with rather long "Fieldian"
third acts (as in Groundhog Day). Syd
Field has pushed his formula to such an extreme that today the opposite
argument has found traction: the three act structure is a myth. John
Truby and James Bonnet are two of the standard-bearers of this very
radical idea. They are right to criticize Syd Field but, in their
fury, they are throwing the baby out with the bath water. One dogma
has replaced another. I maintain that the triad can be found in nature
(mother-father-child; length-breadth-depth; solid-liquid-gas; inferior-equal-superior;
and above all past-present-future) and that every human action, whether
fictitious or real, contains three logical parts: before the action,
during the action, and after the action. In dramaturgy, these parts
are known as the dramatic acts (so as not to confuse them once again
with logistical acts) and they are found in works as diverse as Anton
Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard or The Terminator.
There are three dramatic acts in five-act plays such as Hamlet,
The School for Wives or Cyrano de Bergerac.
There are three dramatic acts in a two-act play such as Waiting
for Godot. There are three dramatic acts in a five-act film
such as Four Weddings and a Funeral. There are even
three dramatic acts in a puzzle such as 21 Grams or
in a film told backward such as Memento. Let's look
at a few second dramatic acts in detail, the first acts being obviously
before half of the following plot points and the third acts after
the other half of the following plot points.
- The second act of Hamlet runs from Hamlet's declaration
of objective in the first logistical act ("And thy commandment
(ie. to seek vengeance) all alone shall live within the book
and volume of my brain") to Claudius' death in Act V (i.e.
the fifth logistical act).
- The second act of The School for Wives runs from Arnolphe's
declaration of objective at the beginning of Act II ("I'll
stop him") to Arnolphe's declaration of love, in Act V, and
his abandoning his objective.
- The second act of Cyrano de Bergerac runs from the
moment Cyrano declares to Le Bret he is in love with Roxane to his
final attempt at the end of Act IV. The third dramatic act of the
play is made of its whole fifth logistical act.
- The second act of The Cherry Orchard runs from the
moment when the dilemma facing the family is set forth to Lopahin's
announcement that he has bought the estate (end of Act III, on a total
of four logistical acts).
- The second act of Casablanca starts with Ilsa's (Ingrid
Bergman) arrival and ends when she and Rick (Humphrey Bogart) kiss
and Rick finally agrees to help Victor Laszlo.
- The second act of Waiting for Godot starts when Vladimir
tells Estragon they're there to see Godot and ends when the boy arrives
and announces for the second time that Godot will not be coming this
evening. For the protagonists, the story has no beginning and no end
(an open form) whereas for its writer and for the spectator it clearly
has three acts (a closed form).
- The second act of Duel starts with the truck's first
attack on David Mann (Dennis Weaver) and ends when David gets rid
of the truck for good.
- The second act of Tootsie extends from the image of
Michael (Dustin Hoffman) dressed as a woman in the streets of New
York to his on-air confession.
- The second act of Roger and Me starts when Michael
Moore declares his objective (to make Roger Smith, the General Motors
CEO responsible for the layoffs, come to Flint, Michigan) and ends
with Moore's final unsuccessful attempt.
- In Four Weddings and a Funeral, the second act starts
when Charles (Hugh Grant) and Carrie (Andie MacDowell) meet and ends
when they tell each other that they love each other.
- The second act of Memento starts with Teddy (Joe Pantoliano)
saying to Leonard (Guy Pearce): "You don't know what's going
on. You don't know who you are. Do you want to know, Lenny ?"
and ends when we, the audience, understand what Leonard did.
- For details on the three acts of 21 Grams, read
The reader will have noted that the climax is logically part of the
second act, as it's the most important part of the dramatic action.
The first act is before the action, the second is during the action
and the third is after the action (the resolution). Granted, it sometimes
happens that you find also a climax in the third act; after the second
act climax provides a first dramatic answer, the action is re-launched
in the third act and this leads to a second climax. This is what I
call the "modified structure". More
details on the modified structure here.
Page 159, 5th paragraph:
At the very beginning of Dangerous
Liaisons, Madame de Merteuil (Glenn Close) asks Valmont (John
Malkovich) to take revenge for her against her lover, the Comte de
Bastide, who is preparing to marry the
young Cécile de Volanges (Uma Thurman).
The best way, she suggests, would be to seduce Cécile. Her
motivation for seeking revenge is not adequately explained. By contrast,
in Valmont, another film narrative of the same story,
the motivation of Madame de Merteuil (Annette Bening) is much clearer
because the writers have included an inciting incident: Gercourt (Jeffrey
Jones), the equivalent of Bastide in the Carrière-Forman
version, equivocates about their future rendezvous, as if
he no longer wants to see her.
Page 166, before the last paragraph:
This simple, logical outline is so embedded
in the unconscious of writers and spectators that we find it everywhere,
including many documentaries (cf. Roger and Me, page
515) or in a narrative as fragmented as that of 21 Grams.
A man is walking with his two daughters when a hit-and-run driver
knocks him down and kills him. This is the inciting incident. The
film follows the fortunes of his widow (Naomi Watts), the hit-and-run
driver (Benicio Del Toro) and the man who receives a transplant of
the victim's heart (Sean Penn). What is strikingly original about
this film is the way it breaks up the three storylines into their
component parts and presents them in complete disorder, inviting the
spectator to piece things together for himself. But the narrative
is not quite as deconstructed as it appears. The inciting incident
is presented in its essentials about 25 minutes into the film (out
of a running time of just under two hours) and the climax comes five
minutes before the end. In other words, even 21 Grams
sticks to the classic structure as outlined above.
Page 169, next to last paragraph:
A cliffhanger is a conflictual plot point that comes at the
end of a work and is intended to leave the spectator wanting to know
what comes next. It is thus an unresolved conflict that poses a dramatic
question. Note: the cliffhanger is not necessarily
There is a widely-held belief, entirely ungrounded in fact, that Casablanca
was made without a screenplay and much is made
of the fact that a number of scenes were written the night before
they were shot (scenes, perhaps, but the structure?). The idea
that a major success...
Page 198, third line of the 7th paragraph:
and creating a greater impact. This
can be clearly seen when you compare seasons 1 and 2 of Prison
Break. In the first season, the protagonists are in prison
together. In the second, they roam around the country, more or less
separately. The result has less power, less density. Hitchcock
Page 201, end of the third paragraph:
most legitimate. It serves to enrich a story, rather than
just pad it out. Moreover, a subplot may also
provide perspective, showing that there are other things in life that
the specific problems faced by our protagonist. It is a way of setting
the story against the bigger picture.
Page 213, beginning of the 7th paragraph:
Explanation scenes are a classic case of scenes that must
be written. Take for example the ending of The
Baker's Wife (described on page 46). After her amorous escapade,
it is only natural that Aurélie (Ginette Leclerc) should want
to thrash things out with her husband (Raimu) and that we should witness
Page 220, last paragraph:
At the end of Dead Poets Society, John Keating
(Robin Williams) is fired by the college where he has been teaching.
He returns to the classroom to collect his personal
belongings. Some of the students express their support for
him by climbing up onto their desks
Page 223, beginning of the 6th paragraph:
In addition to those of Laura
and Sleuth, the most famous example of a red
herring is the first part of Psycho
Page 225, 3d line of the 4th paragraph:
or a significance that they would not have had otherwise.
In Ninotchka and Some Came
Running, a hat helps us to understand how one
of the characters (Greta Garbo
or Dean Martin) is evolving. In Othello, it is...
Page 228, end of 3d paragraph:
But the language that interests us most here is the language
of scenes. The principle in play here is what
might be called "cerebral persistence". The language of
scenes is the most important language
in drama and, curiously, the one to which writers and their
partners devote the least attention. This may be because although
it is the most powerful means of creating meaning, it is also the
most discreet, the most imperceptible, the most difficult to apprehend.
Also, perhaps, because this essential language,
invisible to the eye, is that which requires the most talent.
Page 229, end of the third paragraph:
such as Fargo, The
Green Butchers, No Man's Land or Oedipus
Rex much of their force.
Page 233, 17th line:
Hat, North by Nortwest, Read
My Lips, Some Like It Hot, To Be or Not
to Be and Toy Story are
all works worthy of study and respect...
Page 237, end of the third paragraph:
making it to some extent credible and therefore somewhat less
shocking. In The Green Butchers,
the protagonists (Mads Mikkelsen, Nikolaj Lie Kaas) serve human flesh
to their customers. But there has been a series of preparatory details
to help us accept this extreme situation.
Page 244, middle of the 4th paragraph:
At the climax of Hamlet, in the duel between
Laertes and Hamlet, the swordsmen are deemed to exchange twelve thrusts.
The prince of Denmark wins the first two, but
in the third both of them are hit. And then Gertrude's death interrupts
Page 247, a footnote at the end of the
The most recent evidence suggests that
Pluto is not a planet but a dwarf planet, like Sedna or Ceres. This
would mean there are just eight planets in our solar system. Perhaps
if we wait long enough, the number can be whittled down to seven.
Page 250, third line, erase the example of The Full Monty.
This ellipsis does not exist in the film. I must have dreamt it. Here's
In Thirty Minutes
Over Tokyo (The Simpsons, 10.23), Homer and
his family have taken a room at an ultra-modern Japanese hotel. When
he goes to relieve himself, Homer is delighted to note the presence
of a video camera inside the toilet bowl. However he does not realise
that the image is visible in the next room where his family stand,
and when he sits down to enjoy a good bowel movement, a howl of disgust
is heard from the adjacent room.
Page 255, 5th line of the last paragraph:
pâté de tête) in his wife's bag. Near the
end of the story, a fire breaks out, creating
a general diversion. When order is restored, there are only
three or four lots remaining.
Page 265, between The Life of Galileo
The Lives of Others
(written by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck): We know that Georg
(Sebastian Koch) has had his phone bugged; Georg does not. We know
that the Stasi captain (Ulrich Mühe) has reinterpreted his surveillance
mission and is filing false reports; his superiors do not. We know
where Georg has hidden his typewriter; the Stasi do not.
Page 266, below Titanic:
A Distant Neighborhood
(written by Jirô Taniguchi): We know that Hiroshi, aged 48 but
trapped in the body of the 14-year-old adolescent he had once been,
is living his past all over again; the other characters do not.
Page 274, last line of the third paragraph:
not a case of him evading his responsibilities. Planes,
Trains & Automobiles suggests another approach. Neal (Steve
Martin) is having problems getting back home. The planes are grounded,
the trains are held up. He calls his wife (Laila Robins) regularly
to keep her informed of the situation. We realise that she suspects
him of cheating on her. But John Hughes uses a light touch. He simply
hints at her doubts.
Page 280, end of the third paragraph:
The same effect occurs in The Unfaithful Wife:
Hélène (Stéphane Audran)
understands that it is her husband (Michel Bouquet) who has killed
her lover. This is the resolution of a long dramatic irony.
But it also sees the installation of a new dramatic irony: we know
that Hélène has found out the truth, her husband does
not. She joins him and, with a glance of complicity, lets him know
that she knows. This second resolution is subtle and moving.
Page 282, end of the third paragraph:
Memento and Merrily We Roll Along
which use an inverse chronology. In a way it's
as if, in such cases, it's only the spectator who is enriched (as
in Waiting for Godot).
Finally, there are cases in which the resolution
take place—but is then annulled. This is what we find in cases where
the victims of lies discover the truth but are then deceived all over
again. But the most spectacular example comes in Men in Black.
Agents J and K (Will Smith, Tommy Lee Jones) possess a device that
enables them to wipe out the memory of witnessses who can testify
that extraterrestrials exist on Earth. Since this device has not yet
been made available to the general public, drama uses it sparingly,
limiting its use to the comic book by Lowell Cunningham and Sandy
Carruthers and to the films derived from it.
Page 295, 8th line:
surface, it's all smiles. But the tension is constant.
The babysitter is thus a bomb, metaphorically
speaking, a human bomb. The most famous example of a human bomb is
Iago, in Othello.
Page 304, 2d line:
in 2001: A Space Odyssey in which the
computer Hal endangers Bowman's (Keir Dullea)
Page 308, 11th line:
mind. To start with, mystery is a rather poor bedfellow
for humour. It can create situations that are unusual, or strange,
but does not lend itself to laughter. Comedy
needs clarity and the participation of the public to work properly.
This is one of the major drawbacks with mystery.
Page 310, end of the 4th paragraph:
cheap effect. The Walking
Dead has a similar scene to the one in Kadouma's Island
but the writers handle it with a great deal more integrity. John Ellman
(Boris Karloff) is put to death in the electric chair before the news
comes through that he is innocent. Dr Beaumont (Edmund Gwenn) succeeds
in reviving him. He asks him what death is. In response, Ellman tells
him to leave the dead be. But Beaumont insists: "What is death?"
Ellman thinks he can explain. He describes a feeling of peace, and
then... expires. That's is as much as we—the spectator, or any other
living character in the film—are told.
Page 311, third line:
Not only does the writer know things that he has not
put into his narrative, but if he has not been explaining things clearly,
the spectator will be left with gaps in his understanding. In
short, if we compare the writing of drama with a game of cards in
which the writer holds all the cards, it is more generous and also
often more rewarding to allow the spectator to hold one or two cards
than to leave him watching from a distance.
Page 314, 9th line:
when the revelation comes he is waiting for it. Take
for example a scene involving Russian roulette, real or fictitious
as in The Deer Hunter. We know that there is a bullet
in the cylinder but we do not know whether the bullet is in the chamber.
This uncertainty creates a mixture of suspense and mystery which is
resolved the moment the player pulls the trigger. The outcome can
in no way be considered a surprise, since only two results are possible.
What would constitute a surprise would be to discover, once the game
was over, that there had been no bullet in the cylinder. Or that the
bullet was a blank. In short, the resolution of a red herring
is a surprise, while the resolution of a mystery is a clarification.
In some cases writers employing mystery may
attempt to make the clarification a surprise. This is to mix the two
mechanisms. But the effect produced is not the same as that of a straightforward
surprise. For mystery tends to sabotage the red herring and telegraph
the surprise, thereby weakening the effect.
Page 315, end of first paragraph:
mystery and dramatic irony. Desperate
Housewives, Dexter, Diabolique,
North by Northwest, Prison
Break (season 1) and Psycho are extremely
skilful at mixing the three elements, although mystery is infinitely
less present than surprise or dramatic irony.
Page 332, middle
of the last paragraph:
friend (Joseph Cotten) writes an overwhelmingly hostile
review. What is the difference, then, between
serious failure and comic failure? In an effort to define comedy,
W.C. Fields  came up with this fine distinction: if during a duel
the sword of one of the protagonists breaks, this is a serious drama.
If it bends and stays bent, we're dealing with a comedy. Two failures,
but clearly of different types. A duellist can carry on fighting with
a shortened sword, but what can you do if your blade is skewed? The
lesson we draw from serious failure is: "Life is hard. We don't
succeed every time. But it is good to have tried." From comic
failure we draw the lesson: "Forget it. Don't even try. You're
ridiculous." In short, one tells us to try again whereas the
other tells us to accept failure and let it go.
Page 341, next to
laugh," is one of the classic (and most ill-informed)
critical reactions. To say this is to forget
that if it is funny, it has made a serious point. Comedy, and even
more so comedy of quality, is always a successful commentary on human
nature. A serious work that fails can nevertheless be described
as difficult, fragile or ambitious. A comedy
that fails is allowed no excuses. And yet a comedy can be every bit
as vulnerable as a serious drama.
Page 343, third
line of the 4th paragraph:
immune system. In the 1960s, an American journalist,
Norman Cousins  learned that he was suffering from a very serious
disease, ankylosing spondylarthritis. One day
he saw a film that set him laughing fit to burst. In the hours that
followed, he found that his pain had gone. He decided that
he would take a laughter cure.
Page 361, 6th paragraph:
At the end of Once Upon a Time in the West,
Frank (Henry Fonda) and the Man with the Harmonica
(Charles Bronson) face up for the final shoot-out. Like Frank, we
are keen to know what motivates the Man with the Harmonica, what has
been driving him to pursue Frank. We see in flashback...
Page 365, last line
of the second paragraph:
Welles) is the protagonist. Here too the flashbacks
are aligned in chronological order within each
Page 369, second
sound that are not saying the same thing. And
having said that, there are vectors of meaning that are even more
powerful than an image. As I have already noted, the essential is
invisible to the eye (and all the more so to the ear). We may have
grounds to regret that human beings do not see better with their heart
or their brain. But for the writer of drama it is reassuring to note
that the spectator is (unconsciously) more sensitive to the language
of scenes that to the language of sounds or images. Assuming that
a language of scenes is there to be perceived...
Page 372, middle
of the 5th paragraph:
(Will Sampson) in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's
Nest, the "no" spoken
by the mime Marcel Marceau in Silent Movie, or the...
Page 382, 20th line:
- Guido Rinaldo (George Raft) tossing a coin in Scarface;
Raft himself parodied this gesture in Casino
Royale, If I Had a Million (sketch The
Forger), Some Like It Hot and The
- Tibbs (Sidney Poitier), in In the Heat
of the Night, being slapped by a landowner (Larry Gates) and
returning the slap;
- Kong (Slim Pickens) sitting astride the atom bomb in Dr. Strangelove;
Page 384, end of
the second paragraph:
appears in Pygmalion: at the start of
the play, Freddy bumps into Eliza and
knocks her flowers over.
Page 398, 19th line:
revenge against Antonio ("And if you wrong
us, shall we not revenge?"). In other
words, Shylock is not telling Antonio: "Stop mistreating me,
I'm human like you", but: "You have shown me contempt, that
has wounded me because I am human, and I will make you pay dearly
for it." By changing the context
Page 405, a new
"This play is the image of a murder done in Vienna."
Page 405, second
On the relative effectiveness of image and sound, see
the beginning of chapter 12. Without wishing
to labour the point, I must stress that image is not the exclusive
property of cinema as we are so often told. Theatre too deals with
image every bit as much as it does with sound.
Page 407, 4th line
of the last paragraph:
becomes excited, realising that the tool can be both
a plaything and a weapon. After killing one
of his rivals with it, he throws the bone into the air. We
see it turning in slow motion.
Page 410, 7th line
of the last paragraph:
officers. This famous scene packs a heavy emotional
charge. Note that a similar scene occurs in
The Grand Illusion, a film made five years earlier.
La Marseillaise is of course not the only piece
of music freighted with meaning in Casablanca. As
Time Goes By
Page 427, middle
of 4th paragraph:
face it, something a little artificial about North
by Northwest. The film is very entertaining, but it does not
generate the kind of tension found in The Abyss, Alien, Cape
Fear (1962), The
Hitcher, Hotel Rwanda, It's Alive, Jaws,
Jurassic Park, Misery, Not Without my Daughter, Psycho, The
Silence of the Lambs, Take My Eyes, The Thing or The
Wages of Fear.
Page 451, second paragraph:
Another device is to see if there is an individual scene that
sums up the general intention of the work.
There sometimes is one. In Time After
Time, it's the scene in which Jack turns on the television,
shows Wells the horrors of war, the violence of our times, and says:
"I belong here. I'm home." In No Man's Land,
it's the last scene, even the last stunning image. In Victor/Victoria,
it is the scene involving Victoria (Julie Andrews) and King Marshan
(James Garner) in his room in which she begs him to allow her to continue
cross-dressing since that is the only way for her to find work and
to become someone. He wants her to stop because he does not want people
to think he is in love with a transvestite. The discussion turns on
issues of image, of how one is seen by others, of the male/female
duality that exists in all of us. The scene sums up the film's point
tells the story of a dull civil servant, Watanabe (Takashi Shimura),
who one day learns that he has a cancer in its terminal stages. He
decides to stay away from work and enjoy a little "good time"
before deciding what to do with the months left to him. At the end
of the second act a voice-over announces that he has died. This is
followed by a fairly long third act that portrays the funeral watch
at which his colleagues speak about his determination—the occasion
for a series of short flashbacks. This way, we learn how Watanabe
spent his last months. He campaigned for the building of a kindergarten.
His colleagues finally realise that, knowing that he was about to
die, Watanabe found the strength to fight against corruption and bureaucracy,
something that they had not been able to do. At which point one of
them observes: "We are all mortal," and they fall
silent. This is the scene that sums up the general intention of Living.
Hamlet contains several key scenes. In one of these, Hamlet
exercises his sardonic wit at the expense of the dead Polonius, described
as dining with worms; he recounts to Claudius the cycle "beggar
eats fish - fish eats worm - worm eats king" (IV/3) to explain
how a king can end up in the belly of a beggar. In another, Hamlet
remembers Yorick, the king's buffoon, ruminating over his skull (V/1);
merry one day, a corpse the next.
Halfway through Groundhog Day, Phil (Bill Murray) has
almost succeeded in his campaign to win Rita's (Andie McDowell) heart.
They are horsing around with some children in the snow, engaged in
a snowball fight. But Phil overdoes it, and Rita realises that he
is play-acting. She finally gives him a sharp slap. A montage follows,
a series of a dozen slaps. Since the movie's overall philosophy is
that "to break out of the repetitive psychological games that
poison our lives, we have to be authentic," it's clear that this
scene makes the point by showing the consequences of failing to do
Note: The term "key scene" that I have used here can denote
all sorts of scenes in a work of drama, including climaxes and the
resolution of dramatic ironies. To avoid confusion, I would stress
that not all key scenes contain elements that sum up the writer's
point of view in the way I have indicated here.
Page 453, next to last line of the third
appreciating even the flaws in a work of art, but many works,
even those of the masters, would be better if they were more consistent.
Moreover the idea that genius—if one possesses
any—is bound to manifest itself in anything one does is pure baloney.
To write, it is not sufficient to sit down at one's computer and open
a vein; you have to channel the flow. Talent and genius need an element
of rigour—not rigidity, but rigour. Hence the importance of knowing
what one intends and observing the rules to at least some extent.
Page 466, last line:
volleyball. In Jeremiah
Johnson, the protagonist...
Page 467, 5th paragraph:
In Wise Blood and Oedipus Rex,
the protagonist tears his eyes out. In The Unknown,
Alonzo (Lon Chaney) has both his arms
amputated in order to be able to marry the woman he loves.
Page 471, end of 3d paragraph:
To be sure, the problem in I Confess is a tough
one to crack, as the only people aware of the priest's secret are
the murderer, his wife (Dolly Haas) and
the spectator. But nothing would have prevented the priest explaining
the situation to another priest.
Page 483, 12th line:
masterpiece Belle du Seigneur, which adapters
have been attempting to dramatise for years. Another
is Patrick Süskind's Perfume, one of the most non-dramatic
works imaginable that defied the efforts of innumerable writers and
directors in the twenty years following its publication. Finding
a screen equivalent for odours is only one of the problems that would-be
adapters of this novel would have to resolve. The fact that much of
the action takes place in the protagonist's head and that he encounters
little conflict must have appeared to adapters a virtually insuperable
obstacle. Despite this, in 2006, Tom Tykwer
finally came out with a screen version. I am not sufficiently objective
to pass comment, but having seen the film, I can only insist: read
the novel. It's an unbeatable experience.
Page 485, nex to last line of the third
novel Moby Dick was shorn of its poetic, metaphysical
dimensions, the interior monologues and abstact digressions, and became
the portrait of an obsession doubling as
an adventure movie.
Page 486, 4th line:
forgetting that in the long term the effect will be to discourage
people from reading books, including their own. To
be sure, a film does sometimes give spectators the urge to read the
book that inspired it. On the other hand, many schoolchildren, asked
by their teachers to read novels like The Great Gatsby,
The Metamorphosis or Mrs Dalloway, rush
off to see the film and find out "what it's about" as a
means of not having to read the book. One logical consequence
Page 507, 8th line:
passenger to see the driver) that launches the action of the
following scene. Note too that the protagonist's
life routine is not shown in the first act but in the second (scene
3). It is used as argument in a conflict.
Page 515, end of the second paragraph:
wonder this 90-minute documentary was distributed commercially
as if it were a fiction movie. N.B. Moore has
been accused of arranging the facts to fit his argument. If that is
so, it is indeed regrettable. But it remains true that Roger
and Me is very intelligently constructed.
Page 520, next to last paragraph:
Writers who undertake transformation exercises of this kind
will be surprised at how easily they are led towards comedy. And
the exercise will be all the more valuable if they resist the temptation
to indulge in parody. It is nobler to laugh at life than to laugh
at other people's work.
Page 521, third paragraph:
This confirms too that a remake is not necessarily any worse
than the original, despite the popular wisdom. "It's the same
story as the film by So-and-so, but without the freshness of the original"
has become the great critical cliché in this regard. There
are innumerable cases that disprove this. Apart from The Miser
(a remake of Plautus' The Pot of Gold) and Hamlet,
one could point to A Star Is Born (1954), His
Girl Friday, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956),
Some Like It Hot, The Thing, True
Lies, Victor/Victoria. Not to mention My
Father, the Hero.This remake of the French film Mon
Père, ce Héros
Page 535, between Contrast and
a conflictual situation in which a character (often the protagonist)
has to choose between two courses of action, each of which, through
his own fault, has become unsatisfactory. Example of an external
obstacle of internal origin.