Writing - The Photoplay Plot
( Originally Published 1922 )
The Function of Plot.-Before the actual writing of the four principal parts of the photoplay is taken up, it is desirable to get a thorough knowledge of just what constitutes a photo-play plot. This is desirable for the reason that the actual writing of a photoplay cannot begin until a plot is first worked out. Furthermore, plot-building is by far the most important phase of photoplay writing. If you cannot build plots, you cannot write photoplays.
A clear way to define and explain the function of plot is to say that plot portrays struggle in all of its phases. Struggle is the chief factor of plot. One character, or several characters for that matter, want something. They try to get it. Someone, or some thing, resists the efforts to obtain the thing desired. The delineation of these efforts—sometimes succeeding, sometimes failing, here changing in plan, there surprising the antagonist—is said to be plot.
Why There Must Be Opposition.—The photoplay plot is life pictured on the screen. As every one knows, life is made up largely of struggle or conflict. Therefore, plot should be a record of struggle. That struggle may be a combat between the forces of the individual and nature, as it is in so many of Victor Hugo's novels. Here the hero or heroine is fighting against the forces of fate. Or the struggle may be between the moral forces of a single character. Thus, in "Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde," there is a struggle between the characteristics of the same individual. In this story, the struggle between the good and the bad becomes so powerful that the demon of bad and the angel of good are personified. In a recent film adaptation of a religious novel, the main character, a minister, is found struggling against his awakening conscience, which tells him to follow in His steps, to take up the sword against the evil forces of his conscience--a struggle only too long neglected. Again, the struggle may be between mere physical forces, as it is in so many of Jack London's and James Oliver Curwood's stories. Here the main character, a beast or a man, struggles against some hereditary enemy. In Robinson Crusoe we see man struggling against nature—against the sea, for food, for shelter, against beast, cold, and hunger.
The photoplay plot, then, is a record of struggle, a history of conflict—man's struggle with nature, man against man, man against society, man against temptations. This is really life itself. Every great book or work of the ages deals largely with conflict. Even the Bible is a history of struggle —the struggle of right against wrong. All life is a conflict —never ending.
Why a Mere Series of Events is Not a Plot.—There cannot be plot unless there are complications, which must be worked out and fully cleared away before the story ends. Many beginners have the idea that a mere series of events, closely connected perhaps, but not involving any change, or crisis, in the lives of the characters, is plot. Not so. A mere chain of events does not make plot. Suppose Frank, our hero, joins the Aviation Corps, goes to France, works hard, becomes a great bird-man, wins praise, and re-turns home. Is this plot? Most assuredly not, although it contains excellent plot material. But—let Frank meet an old enemy in France! Now we have plot! Complications arise, a big crisis may occur—in short, there approaches struggle, the ultimate solution of which constitutes a real plot.
Whatever the character of the struggle, there must be contest of some sort; for the photoplay without some clearly defined and original conflict—that is, a struggle occasioned by new motives worked out along new lines—is not a photoplay at all. It is a play without a plot. When struggle ends, a mere uneventful chain of events begins.
Why Plot is a Simplification of Life.—Robert Louis Stevenson once advised story-writers in this way:
"As the root of the whole matter let him bear in mind that his novel is not a transcript of life, to be judged by its exactitude; but a simplification of some side or point of life, to stand or fall by its significant simplicity. For al-though, in great men, working upon great motives, what we observe and admire is often their complexity, yet underneath appearances the truth remains unchanged: that simplification was their method, and that simplicity is their excellence."
This applies equally well to the photoplaywright. The real method of every art is simplification. It should be the duty of every photoplaywright to simplify life. He first should select his essentials from the great kaleidoscope of life, then arrange them in an exact, detailed manner. In evolving a plot, the photoplaywright should select only those events having a close relation to every other, and arrange them in a certain pattern according to cause and effect.
The Importance of Unity and Motive.—Every good photoplay is a unit. Unity is a prime structural necessity in the photoplay as it is in any work of art. And the only way unity can be secured is by forming a definite idea of just what is to be accomplished and the determined focusing of attention on its accomplishment. You should exclude from your thoughts all things not pertaining directly or indirectly to the end you have in view.
Since it is the aim of the photoplaywright to portray a series of events closely related to each other, it is easily seen that he cannot do this unless all extraneous matter is eliminated. For this reason, it is wise for the writer to select a motive—a good reason for the different things happening in his play. To use the words of Stevenson again: "Let him (the writer) choose a motive, whether of character or passion; carefully construct his plot so that every incident is an illustration of the motive, and each property employed shall bear to it a near relation of congruity or contrast;-and allow neither himself in the narrative nor any character in the course of the dialogue, to utter one sentence that is not part and parcel of the business of the story or a discussion of the problem involved. Let him not regret if this shortens his book; it will be better so; for to add irrelevant matter is not to lengthen but to bury. Let him not mind if he loses a thousand qualities, so that he keeps unflaggedly in pursuit of the one he has chosen."
Stevenson had story writing in mind when he penned the above; his words apply equally well, however, to the photoplay writer. In every photoplay there must be a good reason for every act. Any situation without an underlying motive is valueless. Writers often overlook this. They frequently al-low their characters to meet in various places and under certain desired conditions without showing any good reason why they should be there. In other words, many events in their plays just "happen" for the author's convenience in developing his plot.
For example: Two characters plot in secret conversation. A third character, while passing, overhears their plans. This would work out all right providing there was a reason why that third character happened along when he did—providing there was a motive back of it all. Without the motive, the whole business becomes mere absurdity.
So no one of your characters should perform any important act unless there is a motive back of it. Of course, it is much easier to let characters "do things" without motive; but plots developed in such a lazy manner seem too artificial. And the minute you adopt this easy-going style of writing, you cease to interest—you even become offensive to ordinary intelligence. To be convincing and satisfying, your entire story must be dominated by a powerful motive. If there is a motive, cause and effect will take care of itself; without motive, your characters will lose themselves in a maze of absurdity.
Why Structures Are Important—But no matter in what manner you work you will find that most good manuscripts are completed before they are written; they are completely worked out in the author's mind before he sets them down on paper. This explains why, when viewing a good photoplay, we always feel as though the author is taking us to a definite place, that we are "getting somewhere." Of course, it is impossible for us to foresee the ending, still we know in our heart all the while that the author has carefully planned just what the ending will be. This conviction produces deep interest on the part of the audience.
Why are photoplays so popular? Find your answer by looking at life itself. What is life? Not a great deal more than a jumble of events leading "every which way." Life is usually a mix-up. It lacks a neat pattern. It does not proceed in an orderly, processional manner. The average per son thinks that some wizard, or God, alone can understand the future. In seeing a good photoplay, however, the average individual is always satisfied that the author knows what is going to happen next, that he knows what to-morrow will bring forth, that he thoroughly understands the direction in which everything is progressing; he seems to know all. Hence, he makes life interesting because he makes it orderly, systematic, understandable. He accomplishes this in no small degree by his constructive ability.
The Simplest Form of Plot.—The most elementary plot possible would be one in which a series of events proceeded without interruption along a single strand of causation. Here, the first event would be the cause of the second, the second the cause of the third, and so on to the culmination of the series. This simple form of plot is frequently employed in Boccaccio's "Decameron." This style of plot certainly is logical; but such a style would never do for most photoplays because it is too childish. In fact, such a plot would not, in a large sense, be a real interpretation of life—and the portrayal of real life is the aim of the photoplay. It would not portray life because it would not show the definite shifts from one event to another It would fail to exhibit the complications of real life. In other words, a simple plot like this is too straightforward to be interesting. It is too regular. It lacks suspense.
An Easy Way to Create Interest and Suspense.—The easiest way to make your plot interesting and more interpretative of real life is to introduce negative elements—to usher in events tending to retard progress and make it difficult for the characters to accomplish their desired aims. In doing this, you not only create suspense and make your plot more interesting, but you also emphasize the ultimate victory. These negative and hindering elements are not extraneous; they hinder the progress of events, but they also help matters along through their failure to stop them.
The events in a well-constructed plot may, consequently, be roughly divided into two classes: direct, or positive; in-direct, or negative. By a direct event is meant one helping the progress of the plot toward the climax. By an indirect event is meant one tending to arrest progress.
Life is made up of conflict and victory. So by introducing elements tending to retard temporarily the progress of your plot, you portray life as it actually is.
Half the charm of a good photoplay lies in not knowing what is going to happen next. If the people of an audience know how your play is going to end, they are no longer interested. This state of suspense—uncertainty, anxiety, or expectation—should be kept in mind all the while you are developing your plot. Introduce unexpected "twists," little surprises, minor climaxes, so that the audience will be kept in a constant state of uncertainty.
In your desire to create suspense, do not introduce into the first part of your plot events likely to mislead the audience into thinking that they have bearing on the ultimate climax, when they have absolutely no relation to it. On the contrary, the little events all through your play should indicate, in a vague way, how it might end; but, as previously stated, you must not let the audience "see through" your story. There is a vast difference between being prepared for an event and anticipating it.
Always remember that suspense is an indispensable element in photoplay writing. If you use it properly, you will find it a most valuable asset in writing salable manuscripts.
How to Complicate a Plot.—The simplest form of plot is the weaving together of two separate series of events. The simplest way to weave a series together is to join them in a common culmination—even though they be widely separated at their beginnings. This common culmination, or climax, might aptly be termed the major knot.
For example, consider "Silas Marner." Here the culmin. ating event is the redemption of Silas from his aloofness from life. This is accomplished by the influence of a child; it is led up to by two separate series of events. One series begins with an injustice done Silas when a youth; the other series begins with the secret marriage of Godfrey Cass. The beginning of each series has no connection with the other; but, in spite of all, each approaches nearer and nearer until they unite and form a climax, or major knot.
The above is not an elaborate plot—it contains only two strands, or lines of causation, while it is possible and permissible for the author to approach his culmination through three or more separate strands. Witness Sydney Carton's death in "A Tale of Two Cities." This is the culmination of several strands of causation. The author may complicate matters still further by tying the various strands at points other than the culmination. Watch Spakespeare. In "The Merchant of Venice," the culmination, climax, or major knot, takes place in the trial scene, wherein Shylock is outwitted by Portia. The strands are also tied together loosely in the play's very beginning when Antonio borrows from Shylock.
Also, an event in the main series may become the culmination of, a minor series, thus forming a sub-plot. Refer-ring to "The Merchant of Venice" again: The elopement of Jessica and Lorenzo—a subplot—culminates in a scene occurring midway between the beginning of the main strand (this begins with the signing of the bond) and the grand climax—the defeat of Shylock.
All About the Major Knot.—No matter how complex your plot may be, it is bound to reach a point where one big event stands as the climax of all events. This is the major knot tying all strands together. In most plots, the photoplay aims to show the reader how this major knot came into being —how it was tied. This is not enough, however, to satisfy the public completely. They must know how events readjust themselves; how the major knot becomes untied. Therefore, the major knot, or the point of greatest complication, must not come at the end of your play. Instead, it should appear about three quarters of the way through your story. Consequently, the first three quarters of your play should show what leads up to the major knot, and the last quarter should disclose how events adjust themselves. Therefore, a plot consists of certain conditions leading up to a complication, which, in turn, is followed by an explication—a tying followed by an untying.
The Three Elements of Plot.—Aristotle said that each plot must have "a beginning, a middle, and an end." He did not mean that each plot may be cut into three equal parts. What he termed the "middle" is likely to appear very near the end of the average photoplay. It is not likely to be in the center. But everything that follows is, and was considered by Aristotle, the "end," and everything that precedes, the "beginning."
The elements of plot are three in number, then: the complication, or beginning; the climax, major knot, or "middle"; and the explication, "end," or final untying of the major knot.
1. The Complication, or Beginning.—When photoplay writing was young, editors were content to feature material with a big climax or an inspiring ending, and were satisfied to allow the author to lead up to this climax in a more or less slow, uninteresting manner. This is not possible to-day. Now the author is expected to "start something" at the very opening of his production. The interest of the spectator must be captured at the very outset; hence, the action of the play should not begin with a slow, casual introduction of the characters; should not picture a multitude of commonplace and ordinary incidents leading up to the climax. You must begin your play immediately with action. Certainly a stirring climax is worthy of an interesting introduction.
Begin your play in a natural manner. Do not make the condition of events at the opening seem artificial. Don't take things for granted. You must not grab your characters out of the air and say such-and-such conditions exist. Tell why and how those conditions came about.
Make your beginning interesting. Many otherwise good productions are ruined because their opening is so tiresome and uninteresting that, by the time the spectator reaches a worth-while portion of the plot he is asleep, disgusted—and in no condition to judge fairly the merit of the balance of the play —or has left the theater. The best way to make your beginning interesting is to eliminate all extraneous matter and promptly "get down to business."
The beginning of a play should be fresh, new, different. Make the first scene tell something of the story; make all of your explanation in action.
Start your play v-i-v-i-d-l-y-the word needs emphasis. Let everything be bright, intense, active, gripping—possessive of all the qualities of vigorous life. Make your opening of vital concern to the audience.
2. The Climax, or Major Knot—While writing your play, carefully watch the climax itself, for it is the final climax to which we are constantly advancing. And it is the climax for which the audience should be breathlessly waiting. Situation follows situation, suspense constantly grows, events become more and more involved until the solution seems impossible—misfortune seems bound to engulf our players. Then light appears. The "big scene" takes place; the climax is reached. Our curiosity is gratified.
But wait! The characters can't be left "in the air."' True, the knot has been cut, but we are not satisfied. Does the hero marry the girl? Are those estranged lovers united? Is the schemer punished? This must be made clear, or the audience will leave the theater and say, "It was a good play, but had a peculiar ending." There is where Aristotle's "end" fits in nicely.
3. The Explication, or End.—The third element of plot is the untying of the major knot. Usually the play ends in short order after the climax. The characters quickly adjust all of their affairs and bid the audience a hasty "good-by." In one of O. Henry's stories, however, the value of the work rests in the explication. The story opens with a young married couple sitting in their home. Love is everywhere. The bride voices a wish, a fervent desire. It is early spring but she wants a peach. So the husband starts out to find one. He sees a lot of oranges everywhere, but peaches are mighty scarce. In fact, they are nowhere to be found. Still he has hope. He knows of a certain gambling establishment, wherein the proprietor makes a hobby of serving to his patrons all the delicacies the world affords. So the hero organizes a raid on the place, breaks in, and quickly makes for the culinary department. With great joy he grasps one lone peach. His is the pride of an Alexander as he places the coveted fruit in the hands of his beloved wife. What's that the bride says? "I don't know but what I would just as soon have had an orange."
In writing the ending to your plot, try, without being grotesque, to break away from the commonplace. Conclude your plot in as unexpected a manner as possible.
Why the Ending Must Satisfy.—It is hardly necessary to say that the photoplaywright must interest his audience. He has another duty, however; he must satisfy them. This the explication does. It is a fine thing to write a gripping plot, making it intensely interesting up to the ending; but, in that last scene, you must untangle the knot you have tied, you must satisfy the audience, you must make them feel that everything has ended in a pleasant, gratifying manner. You don't want them to go away displeased.
It is not only important that you explain what happens to the characters, but also that you show why things happen as they do. The average person knows there must be a reason for everything. He will give your play a fair chance. He will sit patiently through your plot even if it is rather dull, and, in the end, be satisfied if you only show him before you are through that there is a reason for all that has gone before.
If your story contains any kind of a mystery, do not allow the audience to guess the solution. Their interest depends on suspense and doubt; but a natural ending is necessary. Every-thing must be made clear and satisfying. Many otherwise excellent manuscripts have been rejected simply because they ended in an unsatisfactory manner. The plot may begin in a very pleasing way; the complications and situations may be truly interesting and entertaining; but, somehow, the story fails at the end. In other words, the explication is not satisfying.
You will realize how important the explication of a manuscript is when you know that the public demands a happy ending. No matter how artistic it may seem to end your work tragically, I advise you not to do it. The public wants real life as it actually is, except in this one particular. Even though the happy ending is somewhat inconsistent, it still is demanded ; and if you hope to sell your work you had better confine yourself to the happy ending.
Where to Begin a Photoplay.—After you have gathered together all the material you intend to use in your plot, you then must decide where to begin. Here you enjoy the utmost liberty; you are guided only by your own desires and inclinations. You may start at the actual beginning of your plot; or you may follow the plan often used by Horace, of beginning in the middle and working backward toward the beginning. For it is plain that, as long as the photoplaywright presents the events of his plot in logical sequence, it is not absolutely necessary to introduce them in chronological order. A photo-play may be told backward as well as forward. This is the device necessarily used in detective and mystery stories. Here, the writer begins with a major knot and works backward—unraveling as he goes—though his events still follow in logical sequence.
In some plays, the writer opens with the main character well advanced in years; then the action reverts to former years by way of explanation. In fact, retrogression in time is often absolutely necessary. It is better, however, for the new writer to make the events of his plot follow each other not only in logical sequence but also in chronological succession.
Tying and Untying Knots.—The complication and the major climax of a plot usually are far more interesting than the ending. That is, the causes leading up to an important event in a person's life, and the event itself, are more entertaining than the readjustment. This is the reason why the culmination of a photoplay should he placed well toward the end. Often, however, the knot in a play is cut at the very end—producing a great surprise often—but there really is no dried-and-cut reason why the climax should come far toward the end, because frequently the adjustment following the main complication is very entertaining. In fact in many stories, the main complication arises at the beginning and the photoplay itself deals with an elaborate explication. Thus it is in detective stories. Here a knot is tied with Gordian intricacy at the very beginning; the play itself exploits the prowess of the detective in untying the knot.
How to Find Plots.-Some beginners have an idea that all ,the available plot material has been used. They are very wrong in this. Look at O. Henry. His stories will live forever. He will always touch a responsive chord in the hearts and minds of fiction lovers everywhere. Why? Simply because he saw interesting stories everywhere, good ideas in everything. Suppose he had said to himself : "It's useless for me to try to write. The plots have all been used up. There is nothing new I can say. Shakespeare said all." Had he done this the world would have lost scores of the best short stories ever written. True, practically every subject has been written about; thousands of plays have been produced; but thousands more will come to life upon the screen after present-day writers have unraveled their life's plot and have passed "out of the picture." Decades from now, authors will be turning out play after play in ever-increasing numbers; and, even though the basic themes of their work are, in a sense, old, they will be treated in a new way, so that they will seem new and fresh to the average playgoer. Life itself is world-old, yet all of us live life differently, no two alike.
There are stories everywhere. The world is full of plots. Life is so burdened with plot material that the really earnest writer should be more concerned in deciding what he shall use than where he shall find it. No matter where or in what circumstances you live, there are innumerable plots all about you waiting to be utilized. All of your friends are living plots; your neighbors also; your family even. There is a story in every street, 'round every corner, in every city, in every country. Find them! Don't dream of things or conditions about which you are unfamiliar. Instead, look around in your every-day life for material. You will find plenty of things to write about.
There is no limit to the places from which you can gather ideas; no limit except that prescribed by your own observation and your own knowledge of life. Study humanity; watch people; be observant. The lives of people will furnish you with ideas—and surely there are enough different types of people to supply millions of plots. No two people are just alike; they can't be; their circumstances and the things going to make up their lives are varied. So that most of their struggles, their joys and sorrows, their hopes and fears, form a wonderful field for you to work on. Every passing minute has its story, every breath of life its plot. You can find them if you will.
Look at the world sympathetically. Study people, actions, motives. You will be surprised at the great wealth of material that will quickly unfold before you.
Why You Must Have a Definite Objective.—Unity in the photoplay is just as essential as it is in the novel; and the only way in which a writer may obtain unity is to maintain a definite objective point, to keep constantly in mind the culmination of his series of events, and not utilize any incidents or situations not helping to bring the action to a climax. In other words, a writer must have the end of his story in mind before he begins. He must make the audience feel that he knows just where he is leading them. They must have a sense of progressing toward the desired end. Before an author actually starts to write his play, it must be entirely worked out in his own mind. He must know quite definitely just what is going to happen and what will not be included in the action of his plot. He must not try to make up his story as he goes along—the favorite pastime of many beginners.
If a writer fails to keep the climax of his play in mind, he will not be able to decide, when writing his manuscript, whether this or that event does, or does not, belong in the series leading to the major knot. The result will probably be a jumble of events leading nowhere.
How to Build a Plot.—As previously stated, there can be no plot unless there are complications, or, as sometimes termed, situations. A situation is a temporary combination of conditions or state of affairs—usually not pleasant, generally unfortunate for the time being. As a rule, the average plot consists of a number of situations of minor importance, all leading up to, and culminating in, the major climax. As soon as a writer is able to work out an interesting situation for his main characters, he has the beginning of a plot; then it is not such a difficult matter to complete the story.
As previously outlined, there are three elements of plot: complication, climax, ending. To build a plot in an easy way, begin with the climax or major knot; think of an appealing predicament for your main character; then build your story backward to the beginning, and onward to the end.
Of course, people with synthetic minds naturally reason from cause to effect. Analytic minds, on the other hand, tend to reason from effect to cause. In evolving a plot, therefore, it is quite likely that the former intellect would construct forward through time ; the latter, backward. If you place yourself at a certain beginning, it is easy to imagine forward along a certain series of events leading to a climax, then to an ending; or, beginning at the climax, it may be just as easy, or perhaps easier, to imagine backward to the various causes, or events, which brought about the major knot. In other words, most writers build their plots in either one of two ways: from cause to effect, from beginning to end; or from effect to cause, from climax to beginning.
If you will take your climax, analyze it, pick out possible reasons why the characters are in their predicament, then find the solution for their trouble—working out all of their difficulties, or untying the knot, as it were—you have your entire plot. In this way, you quickly construct a logical chain of events advancing to an interesting climax and ending in a satisfactory solution. You can readily see that, in developing your plot in this manner, you will unconsciously be logical; your work will be a perfect unit.
After you have worked your plot out in this manner, go back to the beginning. Rehearse everything completely from start to finish. Thus you will be sure to eliminate contradictory elements, or illogical situations, either of which may have crept into your work.
This easy method of plot building has been outlined for the reason that it will greatly simplify your work. It is not necessary for you, however, to develop your plot in this manner. There are no hard and fast rules. Methods vary with individual temperaments. You may discover a new method yourself. At any rate, it is safe to say that your own method, no matter what it is, will seem the most logical to you; for, after all, it is a question which each writer must work out for himself. Most successful writers have found, however, that they must know the general course of their play—and above all know the end—before they can begin.
You might make Euclid your model. He outlines his plot, then immediately starts to develop it, carefully weeding out all incidents not directly relating to the climax. He always keeps his eyes on the end he has in view. And, the minute he reaches the culmination, he stops.
Some Suggestions Relating. to Plot Development.—The beginner is advised to develop his plot in the analytic manner—from effect to cause, from climax to beginning. He will be more apt to eliminate the extraneous, in reasoning from effect to cause, than in working from cause to effect. Futhermore, in building analytically, he is more apt to produce a perfect unit than if working in the synthetic manner.
Fully ninety-nine out of every hundred manuscripts are rejected because they lack a strong plot. Most writers fail because they really have nothing to write about. The great, crying need of the average script is plot, plot, plot. This statement cannot be over-emphasized.
In developing your plot, keep an elastic mind. Don't take certain fixed situations and try to adhere closely to them. See if it is not possible to alter your series of events and forge into new channels of thought. If you do this, you may be surprised at the great number of ideas which will readily present themselves.
After you have completed your plot, do not immediately start to write your synopsis. Don't hurry. Take plenty of time. Lay your work aside for a week or two. Forget about it. Write more plots. Then, after your first ideas have become rather vague in your mind, go over them again. The chances are ten to one that you will find many flaws and inconsistencies in their development. These you can easily remedy and greatly increase the value of your work.
"Eternal Three."—The plots of stories often deal with only one character. Hawthorne's "Wakefield" concerns itself with the analysis of the character of a certain gentleman who decided not to go home one night. Instead, he lodged in another street; and, as a result, stayed away from home for twenty years. Other stories, like "Silas Marner," involve two main characters. Most photoplays, however, deal with three leading people. This three-cornered relationship has often been termed "eternal triangle," "dramatic triad," and so on. In this treatise it will be called the Eternal Three.
While it is possible to write photoplays concerning only two characters--or even one, for that matter—it is not a desirable thing for the beginner to attempt. This is true because, in dealing with one or two characters, it is difficult to get sufficient action and strong complications. It is far easier to precipitate swift complication when there are three characters. Here the attitude of two characters toward the third immediately precipitates action. For example, see how easy it is to inject complications into this three-cornered plot from Miss Wilkins' "New England Nun."
Louisa Ellis, an "old maid," is quietly seated in her little home one afternoon. Her betrothed lover, Joe Daggett, calls. They have been engaged for fifteen years, during which time Joe has been seeking his fortune in Australia. Both have been faithful; but, now that the wedding day is drawing near, both are apprehensive. Louisa Ellis dreads the marriage, but does not dare tell Joe. He has realized, too, that the love between them has vanished—in fact, he has fallen in love with a young woman, Lily Dyer. But he is faithful to Louisa. Here is a real knot. Miss Wilkins unravels it easily in this manner. Louisa, while strolling down a road one moonlight night, unintentionally hears Joe and Lily talking. She hears them say they think it wrong and unjust for Joe to break his engagement with Louisa. Having heard this, Louisa breaks the engagement herself. This completely unties the knot; the solution is simple and natural.
The elements of these three-cornered plots present a very fascinating problem to the photoplaywright. The characters may be two men and one woman, or two women and one man. Such a triangular relationship inevitably brings up consuming passion, fear, jealousy, surprise, anger, remorse even—all of which are right at the playwright's finger tips when he uses the "eternal three."
You may think at first glance that the eternal triangle does not exist in many stories. Perhaps the story may deal with only one character. If you will analyze the situations closely, however, you may find that the three-cornered plot is there even though we only have one character. That character may be struggling against opposition of some sort to gain wealth. Here the triangle is: character, opposition, wealth, He may be struggling against poverty for fame. Here it is: character, poverty, fame. But what is more common he may have a sweetheart. The girl he loves and a third per-son in the form of a rival or an objecting parent, completes the ordinary triangle. There are any number of three-cornered arrangements; in fact, it is rare indeed that a plot is built without the three-leaved relationship.
Therefore, the best thing for the new writer to do when beginning his plot is to locate a definite set of characters —a trio, preferably; then put them in a predicament. It is not necessary to rack your brain to find things for them to do. Look around in your own life, in your own experiences, and in the lives and experiences of your friends. You will find plenty of situations. You read stories, you read magazines, you read newspapers; therefore, it ought to be a simple matter for you to find any number of intense situations for your characters.
Why Real Life is Not Always Good Plot Material. —Not all things in real life are suitable plot material. They may lack dramatic qualities, they may be trite and commonplace, or they may be so out of the ordinary that it would be impossible to make them convincing on the screen. Many writers imagine that, if something actually happens in life, it ought to make a fine plot. Not so. There have been instances where mothers have injured their children, but it would not be wise to write a photoplay on such a subject; it would be practically impossible to convince the average person that it was true to life, because of the fact that it is so out of the ordinary. Therefore, you will have to use care in selecting plots from real life.
R. G. Moulton says: "It may be said boldly that fiction is truer than fact. Half the difference of opinion on the whole subject rests upon a mental confusion between two things, fact, and truth—fact, the mass of particular and individual details; truth, that is of general and universal import —fact, the raw material; truth, the finished article into which it is to be made up, with hundreds of chances of flaws in the working."
"Prefer an impossibility which seems probable to a probability which seems impossible." Aristotle.
How to Study and Analyze Other Photoplays.—If you will study other plots you will be amply repaid. You will be surprised at the great good this will do you. Read other people's stories; see their plays. Watch how they build plots. Then invent situations and complications of your own. This will unconsciously teach you to cultivate a creative attitude and is bound to make you a better writer.
When watching a photoplay, mentally tear it apart. Turn the situations inside-out. By doing this you will learn to invent plots yourself.
The average picture-goer fails to analyze the photoplay he sees. He goes to the theater to be entertained. Of course, he carefully watches the play on the screen. But, when it is all over, the chances are that he doesn't know why he likes it, if he does. It pleases him, that's all. On the other hand, if he told you a certain picture appearing in your city wasn't good, he probably couldn't tell you exactly why. He might attempt to advance a reason, but probably couldn't give an adequate one.
Hereafter, when you go to the theater, watch every play carefully. Note every action, every expression, every scene, every scenic effect. Examine the situations, dissect the play completely, see if you can find defects in it. Don't be unreasonable, but try to develop a critical attitude. Cultivate that attitude in every way possible.
Watch everything with a clear eye. By so doing, the play you see will cause a great many germ-plots to suggest them-selves to you. These bare ideas can easily be enlarged upon and used as main situations in your own work. It is safe to say that the average successful writer has thought of many plots when viewing other productions.
Don't go to see any particular class of pictures. It is impossible for you to witness everything, but you can try to see a variety of material. This will greatly help to give you a variety of ideas.
Remember this. When you see a picture on the screen,, you are viewing something which has been approved, probably written by a successful writer or a well-known director. Try to find, then, why the play is successful; why the studio liked it; in what particulars it differed from your work. Keep an open mind. This may be difficult to do, but it will repay you a thousand ways.
Why You Should Keep Well Informed.—The successful photoplay writer must keep himself well informed. He must know what the other fellow is doing and what is being produced. He must understand thoroughly the different requirements of all studios and know in a very comprehensive manner what type of material each of them is buying. Read newspapers carefully. Study magazines. You will be astonished at the great number of plots you will find in the events daily transpiring all over the world.
Besides closely watching what the "other fellow" puts into his picture, try to find incidents which he could have utilized in his work, yet failed to. Few writers make the best use of the material they have in hand. They often overlook a lot of good ideas, which you probably can use in some of your photoplays. Also note, in a general way, the amount of reading matter the author shows on the screen, the average length of his scenes, the number of close-ups he employs, and so on, remembering, above all, that, even though you may be able to find defects in his work, there was enough good in it to warrant its being produced.
A Way to Make Plot Gathering Easy.—Some writers overflow with ideas for plots. To them, plot-building seems a matter of instinct. They are born story-tellers. They find it the easiest matter in the world to think of any number of excellent ideas. As Bliss Perry nicely observes: "For these natural spinners of the yarn, to whom invention is the most easy, the most fascinating, the most captivating of gifts —for a Stevenson, a Scott, a Dumas--to block out the plot of a story is a mere bagatelle." With the average person, how-ever, it is a far different matter. He has to do a lot of hard thinking to work out something satisfactory.
You can greatly simplify your plot troubles, and make the problem of finding suitable plots an easy one, if you will acquire the note-book habit. Never be without a note-book. Whenever you think of a new idea—any kind of a suggestion which you may be able to use in any way—write it down. Don't let it fly by just because you have no immediate use for it. Jot it down anyway; then, at some later date when you are in need of material, you will run across it and be deeply grateful that you did write it down. And remember that no writer in the world glances around and finds a plot already worked out for him. They all begin with simple ideas and carefully work them out into finished productions. So don't wait for ideas to come to you. They won't step up, tap you on the shoulder, and say, "I'm a plot." You have to find them hiding around the corner, and bring them out into the light.
Maybe you are the type of writer who thinks of ideas easiest when your mind is busy—when you are working on one of your other productions. Anyway you will find that ideas come more readily at certain times. Many writers have found that they can think of ten times as many good ideas after they lie down for the night. If this is the case with you, keep your note-book handy.
Do not think for one minute that this note-book suggestion is mere theory or sheer waste of time. If beginners some-times imagine this, it is because they do not understand the importance of system in writing. System is just as essential to your success as it is to any business man or professional. So don't scorn the note-book habit and be the loser.
How to Gather Ideas from Other People's Plots Without Imitating.—Few writers, indeed, intentionally apprehend any part of another person's writing and use it as their own. And it is not the purpose of this chapter to give anyone the idea that they should utilize other people's ideas in this manner. The author of this book despises such methods. Therefore, the first thing to be said is, do not rehash other people's ideas and pass them out as your own. You won't get far if you do. The photoplaywright, if he is to be anything, must be his own thinker.
But, though you must not take other people's ideas, it nevertheless is true that the plots of other writers will cause ideas of your own to suggest themselves, and you would be very foolish if you failed to make use of these new ideas simply because you thought they might have some connection with the other .story. By studying other people's work, your own imagination is stimulated; and you must not fail to use the ideas brought to your mind in this manner. Of course, when you take ideas from the newspapers, there is no possibility of purloining another's brain. The accounts in the papers are just as much yours as anybody's. Although they are written by certain correspondents, still they are merely an account of events. They are public property, often of great dramatic value. (This does not apply to articles, stories, small fillers, and the like, in newspapers.) But you should not take a plot bodily from the papers. Not that it belongs to anyone in particular, but if it is good, the chances are that ten thousand would-be writers have done the same thing—maybe sooner than you. Therefore, use newspaper incidents merely as a basis for a plot, and work out the chain of situations in your own way. Then your finished manuscript will be different. In other words, use the newspapers as a stimulant for your own imagination.
Use great care in utilizing plots gathered from other people's work, not only for your own safety, but because of the fact that, if you try to adopt another's ideas bodily, the chances are that many unscrupulous writers will "beat you to it." In other words, use only the bare idea you gather from other people's writing. In this way you can reshape them and surround them with new incidents in such a manner that no one would recognize them as having sprung from any particular source. Such plots truly will be all your own. This is not only the safest way, but the only sensible way to write; for, if you adopt other people's ideas bodily, you never will sell a manuscript. Your work will be so like other writers' productions, already filmed, that no editor will buy from you.
The copyright law provides a penalty of $100 for every exhibition of a photoplay based on a copyrighted story or play, provided the owner of the copyright has not granted permission to use his work. So it becomes pretty expensive to use another's ideas.
But suppose you take another person's plot and made a play out of it, and even succeeded in selling it. Suppose again, that it was produced at a cost of several thousand dollars. After going to this great expense, the producer puts the play on the market; and, after it has appeared several times, the original writer learns you have stolen his work. Can you imagine what would happen? Can't you see how many thousands of dollars it would cost the producer to settle the case? Not only that, but you probably would never be able to sell another manuscript to any other company. They would keep you well in mind. You would be persona non grata at every studio.
Why Your Reading Should Be Well-Balanced.—Don't confine yourself to the reading of newspapers and fiction. A comprehensive knowledge of fiction and all current events is of great importance, but you should also be familiar with the better books of philosophy, history, science, and education. In fact, in order to make yourself a well-balanced, broad-minded writer, you must gain a general knowledge of all writing. And from this extensive reading, you will constantly gather facts and situations, complications and predicaments, all of which you will, at one time or another, be able to develop into cashable ideas. Almost everything you see or read is of value. It ought to serve either one of two purposes; suggest a new plot to you, or suggest a better way to complete some idea only partially worked out.
Some Material is Worthless.—A great many beginners read of some sensational trial in the courts and immediately conclude that it will make a wonderful story. They copy the entire trial incident for incident, sometimes even to actual names. The result is a hopelessly unsalable play. These writers make the mistake of copying a story from the news-paper, instead of getting a basic idea from the real event and working it out in their own way. Newspapers and other people's stories will not aid the writer who lacks inventive ability. They serve merely as sign-posts to show the wise writer where he can find inspiration. It is not what you read in the papers that counts, but in what manner the reading excites your imagination.
Row often the writer is approached by a friend who says, "I've a great idea for you." Usually, the only consideration which should be granted this "great idea" is respect for the aged. Do not make the mistake of writing about the plots your friends give you. Think for yourself. Don't refuse friendly suggestion; listen to what people have to say. You may, once in a lifetime, get a fine suggestion in this manner. As a rule, however, the ideas given away are not worth accepting; people with worth while ideas aren't peddling them.
Therefore, in gathering ideas from other people's plots, be very careful to use incidents here and there, and let them serve as a stimulant for your own imagination, so that you are really and truly able to work out a finished manuscript all your own.