Writing Wednesday: Classic Movies and the Craft of Writing

I love old black and white movies. Some people have comfort foods; I have comfort movies. I’ve probably seen Jimmy Stewart carrying Katharine Hepburn in his arms while singing “Over the Rainbow” more times than I’ve let my dog outside this week. The other day I was watching the beginning of Auntie Mame on the treadmill and I burst out laughing more times than I care to count right in the middle of a crowded fitness center. If you’ve never seen Auntie Mame, give yourself a treat and watch this movie. Auntie Mame and His Girl Friday are just two of the reasons Rosalind Russell is a national treasure. As I was walking along and watching the opening frames, I started thinking about how well the writer and director used just a touch of backstory at the very beginning of the movie to set up the picture. All of a sudden, it clicked to me that classic movies are a hidden trove of information related to the craft of writing. So for the next three weeks, I’m going to weave six tips about the craft of writing with the rich tapestry of classic movies. This week, I’ll cover what classic movies have taught me about the judicious sprinkling of backstory in the first chapter and how the hero’s POV can start a novel. Next week, I’ll talk about supporting characters and a support network. The last week, I’ll talk about voice and chemistry.

Backstory. Auntie Mame is a gem of a movie. Rosalind Russell’s performance alone is a tour de force and makes the movie worth watching. Auntie Mame recounts the story of an independent free spirit who suddenly finds herself bringing up her young nephew after his father dies. It’d be very easy to open the movie with Auntie Mame and show her exotic lifestyle. Instead, the movie opens with someone’s will being read aloud. A man’s voice describes his estate and tells what should happen to his ten-year-old son if anything happens to him but takes great care to explain that nothing will happen to him because he takes such good care of himself with the explicit reason that he never wants his son to fall into the hands of his eccentric sister. The man’s hand reaches out and affixes his signature to the will. The next frame shows a newspaper headline that a financier has died at his health club. The viewer knows, without a doubt, it is the man who doesn’t want his wacky sister raising his son.

What a great beginning! It captures the attention. It begs the question of why does this man find his sister to be so reprehensible that he tries to keep himself in top shape. It hooks the viewer into wanting more. It doesn’t show a montage of Mame’s life to present. Instead just a few well placed sentences create an expectation of something coming to the viewer that is slightly out of the ordinary. And the movie delivers just that.

Other classic movies also tantalize the viewer with just enough information for him or her to know what is going on but not so much as to prevent the action of the movie from starting. For example, The Palm Beach Story shows a hilarious montage of twins tying up their identical twins in order to get to a wedding on time. It gives just enough backstory to set you up for a wild hour and a half of screwball comedy mayhem. In My Favorite Wife, Nick Arden asks the judge to declare his wife legally dead. The judge reads details of the brief aloud to give the viewer enough info for the particulars of the case. No sooner does the judge declare Ellen Wagstaff Arden legally dead as Nick Arden asks the judge to marry him to Bianca.

All of these movies give the right amount of backstory so the viewer knows what is going on, but not so much as to stall the story.

The Beginning. Some romance readers like a romance novel to start with the heroine’s POV, but there are several classic romantic comedies that show that the hero’s POV may be the right place to start.

Bringing Up Baby. One of the funniest classic movies ever. If you haven’t watched this movie, stop reading and go watch this movie. The words Cary Grant, Katharine Hepburn, Asta, and a leopard should be enough of a reason. Unlike other romantic comedies, this movie starts with the hero’s POV. The first shot is of a dinosaur skeleton as the camera zooms into Cary Grant deliberating something. It would be easy to start with Katharine Hepburn’s character Susan Vance asking her aunt for a million dollars, but instead, the viewer’s introduced to David Huxley who loves his work and is engaged to be married to Miss Swallow the next day. We see his disappointment when Miss Swallow informs him that theirs is to be a marriage without children as the museum is their baby. David may love dinosaurs but he also wants a real marriage. We instantly care about who David ends up with, not only because he’s Cary Grant, but also because we care about him being happy for a lifetime with the right woman.

Think about some of your favorite movies. What separates their beginnings from other movies? How do the writer, director and actors draw you into the story? Does the movie sprinkle in enough backstory to make it interesting? Why do you think the writer chose which character to start the movie? Then think about how you can transfer what you thought about to your own writing.

What movies have helped you think about the craft of writing? Let me know.

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