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Writing - Things You Should Not Write About

( Originally Published 1922 )

Avoid Impossible, Impracticable and Too Expensive Subjects. The preceding chapter has indicated the importance of knowing what to write about. It is also vital for the beginner. to know what he should not write about, for there are many subjects which, in themselves, make the sale of a photoplay practically impossible.

The beginner often writes about a subject that is impossible or impracticable to produce. He does this because his knowledge of photoplay requirements is often limited; or he out does himself in an attempt to produce something extraordinary; or, having seen so many impracticable pictures on the screen, he is led to believe that the average motion picture company is anxious to produce the spectacular.

As to what is possible in the way of stage equipment to carry out a plot, the writer must be guided by his own judgment. There is no rule except common sense. Producers can provide almost anything, such as, automobiles, mansions, and so forth; but they can't easily wreck passenger trains and destroy battleships.

Always remember that each scene must be posed before the camera. All settings must be built by stage hands. There-fore, army battles, shipwrecks, train wrecks, and the like, are not only impracticable, but highly expensive. If you let your characters indulge in these gentle pastimes, your chances of making sales are few.

"Big scenes" are not only expensive and impracticable; they often are not worth the trouble. People care less and less about the spectacular. There is far more effect, power, and artistry in a simple scene, well planned, skillfully directed, ably acted. Very often scenes costing only a few dollars reach the heart of an audience when the more spectacular fails.

Hundreds of otherwise good manuscripts have been returned with the simple remark, "Too expensive to produce." Try, therefore, to be economical. But do not imagine that producers are penurious. They are quite the contrary, yet the photoplaywright should not make it obligatory for them to spend any great amount of money. Let them decide whether they will or not. If they think your work warrants an expensive scene, they will provide it; but you should not handicap the sale of your manuscript by insisting on the scene.

Leave out of your plot all action requiring unusual scenic effects or elaborate stage settings. Of course, a powerful theme should be well handled with respect to setting; but it is best to treat your theme in a general way regarding the exact location and leave the entire matter in the hands of the producer. If the action of your plot takes you to an unusual place, the filming of which will cost considerable, ask yourself if the same action could not be well worked out in a less ex-pensive location. You might think a great number of people are required to produce a certain scene. No doubt it would be very effective to have your hero quarrel with the heroine in some elaborate scene, a ballroom, for example. But this would require a great number of "extras," when the same scene would be just as effective, even more effective because of centralization of interest, if it occurred in a quiet room of the girl's home.

Do Not Write About Children and Animals.—A great many photoplays have been produced in which a trick animal has been featured. Mack Sennett has often used in his comedies a very intelligent dog. Horses with special training have also been utilized. These pictures are generally so appealing that many beginners immediately decide they must write one. Here they make a big mistake, for the average company is not equipped with trained animals and is, therefore, unable to produce such manuscripts.

If, however, you have an excellent plot absolutely requiring the use of a trained animal, the best thing for you to do is to take the matter up with some company before you attempt to write the script. Do not waste time on the play unless you first find out that there is a possibility of selling it.

For the same reason, you should not attempt to write photo-plays requiring the use of children; that is, children skilled in dramatic art. Many different children have been featured in different productions. Most of them have made a decided hit. But it is not advisable for the new writer to attempt this type of production unless he previously makes arrangements with some company to consider his work. In writing your first plays, you will do well to confine yourself to subjects that can be produced in most any studio. This will greatly increase your chance of success.

Why Costume Plays Seldom Sell.—The first thing some beginners want to write are plays requiring the use of elaborate costumes of romantic days gone by. Such productions are called "costume plays." A great many of them have been produced, and always will be produced; but, as a rule, they are written in the studio by staff writers, or are written by free-lance writers at the request of some particular producer. You can readily see-, therefore, what small chance a beginner would have of selling a costume play. There is scarcely one chance in a hundred that he would find a producer who was ready and willing to go to the tremendous expense of producing his script.

It is just as easy, in fact much easier, to write plays of the present day, in which characters appear in their regular clothes. To write such manuscripts requires no research work, while to write costume plays you must diligently study the custom and costumes of the period you wish to portray.

Things the Censors Don't Like.—The National Board of Censorship is a committee made up of men and women of various occupations, who review and pass on all photoplays produced, deciding whether or not the film in question should be allowed to go before the public. In addition to the National Board of Censorship, there are state boards which also pass on all films and decide whether they shall be exhibited in their own particular state. We also further find in various cities muncipal boards which function in the same way as the state and national bodies, with respect, however, only to their own city.

In many localities, the Board of Censorship goes to extremes and often bars subjects already passed by the National Board. In other cases, they very foolishly cut out parts of films, often spoiling the picture:

Because of the fact that the censors are often extreme in their judgment, writers must be exceedingly careful about what they let their characters do. If, however, you write as your conscience dictates, tempering it with a sense of decency, the probabilities are that your plays will not meet with any serious objection. But be careful not to introduce scenes inviting objection, simply because you have seen them make a decided hit in other productions.

The Board of Censorship does not give an actual list of things they object to. This is probably because a certain action might be objectionable in one play but not in another. In other words, whether or not a scene is objectionable depends largely on the author's manner of handling the subject. The following list, however, is very apt to cover all the general subjects coming under the ban of the National- Board of Censorship.

1. The Unwritten Law.—The censors do not consider the unwritten law a justification for murder.

2. Crime.—A picture with crime in it will not pass (1) when the crime is plainly the main purpose of the picture; when the entire story depends on the crime; or (2) when a crime is repulsive; or (3) when anything is barbarously killed; or (4) when a crime is executed in some unique manner. The reasons for the rejection of the above subjects are so apparent that they need not be amplified.

3. Suicide.—One of the most vital aims of the Board is to eliminate all suggestion of self-destruction; they will not pass a picture in which suicide is a feature.

4. Burglary.—A scene of burglary may be introduced successfully, provided there is no actual theft portrayed, no demonstration of the act. The burglar may be shown entering a house, but he must not be shown in the act of "breaking in." He may be shown with his back to the audience rifling a safe, but he should not be seen opening the safe by any of the methods known only to burglars.

5. Vulgarity and Suggestion: Your play should not contain any vulgar or suggestive action. Eliminate all question able flirtations and everything verging on the degenerate.

6. Mischief: Avoid actions that tend to suggest mischief to youthful people. For instance, no one in your script should play a joke on an invalid or a cripple. Neither should property or valuables be destroyed simply to perpetrate a joke on someone.

7. Lynching.—The only time lynching is permissible in a picture is when the lynching occurred in the days when it was commonly practiced—in the days of the early West.

8. Deadly Weapons.—Guns, knives, and deadly weapons are not objectionable when they portray historical incidents. Otherwise they are taboo.

g. Immorality.—Immorality is not tolerated unless skill-fully handled. Remember audiences are often composed quite largely of children.

10. Kidnapping.—Objectionable in some localities.

The above is not an absolutely complete list of objectionable subjects, owing to the fact that new things seem to be arising all the time. The important thing for the new writer to bear in mind is that many of the things listed above are not absolutely barred from pictures. A great many films are produced using crime scenes, for instance; but the author was able to handle them in a proper manner, and probably the crimes were essential to the story and not the purpose of it. In other words, crime and even immorality may be introduced in a play if it is properly handled. In many cases it becomes necessary in order to teach a lesson.

Other Objectionable Subjects.—There are many things produced on the legitimate stage which would not be tolerated in the photoplay. This is because a large proportion of the people attending motion picture theaters are children or impressionable adults. Therefore, the photoplay has a standard of its own.

Do not confuse sincerity with suggestion. Pictures have been made in which women have quite properly appeared in the nude, or practically so; but such action was necessary to pro-duce the picture and was masterfully handled, so cleverly, in fact, that no one could take offense. On the other hand, a woman might unnecessarily reveal more of her ankle than is customary and make the scene objectionable—suggestive. As George Ade said about courting a haughty lady, "It has to be done in a certain way."

One type of unpleasant drama is that showing scenes of drinking and debauchery, wherein some character becomes badly intoxicated, slinks home to his sickly wife, beats her, then, after performing all manner of vile acts, suddenly braces up and reforms!

The only time that murder should be shown, and that very delicately, is either in a detective drama or else in good tragedy, where the removal of some character is essential to the plot. All of Shakespeare's tragedies deal with crime, but they do not exploit it, and never revel in the harrowing details to produce a thrill.

The producers themselves are often responsible for much of the objectionable appearing on the screen. In many cases, and especially in comedies, they introduce questionable elements to gratify a known demand on the part of certain elements of the public. If you are not going to limit the possibilities of selling your work, however, you had better eliminate all objectionable features in your plot.

As a rule, no matter what you write about, the sale of your play depends largely on the way in which you handle your subject. If you are not careful, many otherwise harmless incidents may become undesirable. For instance, an elopement is not generally considered objectionable in a photoplay; in fact, the audience is quite apt to sympathize with the lovers when the girl's father refuses to allow them to marry. But, if the boy is seen in certain scenes wasting his time or doing any one of perhaps a hundred similar things, the audience is quite likely to think the father is a good judge of character and give him all of their sympathy. Should an elopement then occur, it would prove objectionable.

Censors realize, as well as anyone, that morality is to be desired ; and, to this end, crime, or suggestion of crime, will be permitted if it teaches a lesson. But crime for crime's sake is condemned.

Many young authors somehow have the idea that in order to make their plays worth while, there must be a violent or tragic death scene. But the truth is that there are thousands of intensely interesting pictures in which there is not the slightest suggestion of death. In fact, a play without this depressing element is quite apt to be far superior to one containing it. It is a positive fact that editors return hundreds of otherwise good manuscripts in which there are suicides, murders, and deaths, simply because they are too depressing to be produced.

Shun Depressing Subjects.—This leads to a more detailed consideration of depressing subjects.

People go to the movies to be entertained, to forget their troubles, to live for a few brief hours the life of their dreams, to be the hero or the heroine they unconsciously want to be in their own minds. So it becomes highly desirable to eliminate all depressing elements from your plays.

As previously stated, death should be avoided as much as possible; yet it is not entirely out of place if it is absolutely necessary to the logical culmination of your plot. Too many stories, however, contain unnecessary death scenes. For this reason the author is cautioned. Do not imagine, however, that people go to see photoplays merely to laugh, or to be amused. "They come to weep as well as laugh." But the thing to remember is that very often a scene showing the saving of a life is far more welcome than one depicting death. Even though a character is detestable, it is not desirable to show his death, if otherwise the plot can proceed. We often feel that some characters are so obnoxious that it would be a good thing if they should die, but there is another side to the question—the good-for-evil side. Wouldn't it be better to show a change of heart on the part of an evil character as a solution, than to exterminate him !

A distinction should be made between gloomy pictures and those which simply introduce elements of sadness. Remember what the poet said about "a tear in the eye and a smile on the lips."

Do Not Write Offensive Plays.—Do not offend anyone's religious or political faiths. People do not object to being "talked to" in a mild or perhaps entertaining way, but they don't want to have their feelings hurt. A gambler will watch a picture portray the evil result of his folly and not object to it; in fact, he may be benefited by it. He may be glad he saw it, and resolve to change his ways. But a man does not enjoy being ridiculed or abused because of his religious or political faiths.

There have been a number of pictures released which have caused a world of strife among various religious denominations and even in the moving picture industry itself. Producers, therefore, are on their guard, and will not use any kind of play indulging in sectarian squabbles. If the beginner wishes to retain the good will of the producer, he had better avoid anything likely to offend religious beliefs. Leave religion to the churches; it has no place in the "movies."

Moving picture theaters are patronized by all classes of people. Therefore, exhibitors must be careful what they run. They must not "step on anyone's feet."

You should be careful not to offend anyone's political faiths, but you do not have to avoid writing about politics. A play could be acceptable if it dealt with socialism, provided it were not written for socialism's sake. In other words, if you write about a political theme, politics should not predominate. Heart interest should be the all-engrossing element. This is equivalent to saying that the new writer will do well not to write about politics.

Do not "knock" anybody or anything in your plays, no matter how strong the desire.

Do not offend good taste. If your play is likely to prove distasteful to a single person, don't write it. Plays antagonistic to the better elements in people never should be written.

Do not hold any race up to ridicule. It is permissible to make light humor of certain racial characteristics; but, if you do this, you must be careful to make the audience laugh with the characters and not at them.

Do not write plays dealing with certain sections of the country, or the peculiarities of locality. Be broad in choosing your themes. Your work should deal with the problems of humanity in general, without reproach for any race, color, or religion.

Beware of Hackneyed Themes.-Always avoid the obvious. "There are a number of subjects about which all new writers somehow want to write. If you could review the hundreds of manuscripts sent to any editorial office, you would be surprised at the great number who write about the same old hackneyed plots. At first one wonders why this is. But the reason is simple. The beginner is quite apt to follow the line of least resistance, and naturally write about a worn-out subject. It is easier than to contrive a new one.

In casting about for a theme or plot, many writers lazily grasp the first thing they come to, without trying to locate something with originality. They develop their plot in the same slothful manner. The result is a photoplay almost exactly like hundreds of others received by every studio every day. It is hopelessly unsalable.

Nineteen Hackneyed Themes to Be Avoided.—There is a general list of subjects not wanted by any editor unless they are treated in an exceptionally new way; even then is it doubtful whether they would sell. Of course, there is no arbitrary list; but it is safe to say that any manuscript based on the following subjects will not find a ready sale unless the author is clever enough to write the plot in a strikingly original manner. Obviously, therefore, the best thing for the beginner to do is to shun a plot based on any of the following subjects:

(1) The stolen child, kidnapped by gypsies usually, and finally restored to its parents by means of a locket, birth-mark, or some equally foolish means.

(2) The child who prevents the parents from separating, or reunites them after separation. These plays are generally called, "A Little Child Shall Lead Them."

(3) Two men in love with one girl. She gives them a common task to perform; one tries to win by crooked methods and is discovered. She marries the other. (Note—Two men in love with the same girl creates a hackneyed situation, but does not necessarily mean a hackneyed photoplay. Many excellent productions have been built around this theme. And it is safe to say that hundreds, even thousands, of other excellent manuscripts will be written around the same triangle. But they will be treated in an entirely original manner by their authors, and the only thing hackneyed about them will be the eternal triangle situation.

(4) Plays in which a rich child, usually a cripple, is contrasted with a poor child, usually strong and healthy.

(5) The husband jealous of one of his wife's relatives, generally a brother who has been in South America since early youth.

(6) The discharged workman who sets out to injure his former employer, but who, instead, performs some heroic task, thus regaining his old job.

(7) The couple who fall in love, only to find that they are brother and sister, parted early in life.

(8) The unapproved marriage finally made acceptable by a child.

(9) A mischievous little boy.

(10) All stories requiring trick photography.

(11) All stories based on peculiar "influences," or other uncommon sources.

(12) The burglar who enters a house and is prevented from stealing by a child, sometimes even his own, adopted by the family. This type of play usually ends with a rapid-fire reformation, very unconvincing, to say the least.

(13) The escaped convict, who steals another man's clothes and gets the other party "in bad."

(14) The hero who assumes another's crime because he loves the heroine.

(15) Do not under any circumstances build a play around a pair of, baby shoes.

(16) Stories built on well-known criminal cases.

(17) The poor lonesome character, usually friendless, money-less, homeless-and, I almost said, brainless—at Christmas or Thanksgiving.

(18) The hard-working young man who finally gains an interest in "the business" and wins the "hand" of the employer's daughter. The opposition in such a play generally is the foreman or a scheming partner.

(19) The hero having a duty to perform, generally an arrest to make, who falls in love with the evil one's daughter, and—this is the "crool" thing—has to choose between love and duty. Why, there's the title! "Love and Duty." These plays are turned out by the million.

This isn't the end of the list by any means. One could go on listing hackneyed subjects almost indefinitely. Most beginners seem to take a keen delight in writing about them.

Nothing could make the rejection of their work more certain. But it is a- waste of time to give more examples, for the list above is sufficient to give the earnest writer a clear idea of the type of manuscript not wanted, under ordinary treatment.

Some beginners will wonder how they are to avoid hackneyed subjects. The first thing to do is to use common sense. The next best antidote is a never-ending study of the screen. The rejection slips you receive are often good indicators, too. An extensive reading of books and periodicals will also greatly help you.

A number of stories and plays have been produced in which some of the above themes listed as hackneyed have been used in some form or other. Take the mischievous boy for example. Who wouldn't like to see Booth Tarkington's "Penrod" come to life on the screen! Naturally the beginner wonders why such a play would be acceptable. The reason is simple. A clever writer is often able to take an impossible theme and do wonderful things with it. He disguises it, so to speak. But this is work for experienced pens.

Things in General to Avoid.—Beginners frequently make the mistake of attempting extremely long and exhaustive subjects before they have succeeded with short plays. Many new writers want to begin their career with an "Intolerance" or a serial of twenty episodes and forty reels, generally on the order of one of the "perils" or "masked figure" pictures so well known to playgoers.

Spectacles like "Intolerance" are subjects which have been turned over in the author's mind for years. Usually the author writes and directs his own manuscript. He spends perhaps from two to four years producing it. It is hardly necessary to say, then, that this is not a subject for the beginner. The new writer will do well to confine his writing to five- or six-reel dramas and one- and two-reel comedies.

There is practically no demand for Bible stories. Occasionally, a story is produced from a Biblical subject; but the work is usually done by a company specially organized for the production. If you attempt to write Bible plays, you are doomed to failure before you start.

Allegorical stories and labor problem plays are not wanted. Sex stories are rapidly going into the discard, even though now and then one is produced in a sensational way. Drug and liquor plays are rapidly disappearing. In truth, the ever-increasing aim of producers and exhibitors is to get away from all unclean, unwholesome, and unhappy subjects. There are so many bright things in the world that the unclean ought to be strictly avoided. People, too, have so many vexations in their own lives that they do not care to witness trouble in their entertainment. In this connection, remember again the happy ending. Many lives end in lost hope, broken faith, and shattered love; but producers are striving more and more to get away from these things, so the new writer will do well to gratify their desires and give them the happy ending.

Many an otherwise salable photoplay has been rejected because its plot contained a glaring inconsistency unknown to the author. This does not mean that little inconsistencies in a photoplay necessarily cause rejection. It is only when the inconsistency is an actual element or important situation in the plot that it is rejected.


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