Take a Lesson in Screenwriting From Billy Wilder

“I don’t know. I just get them. Some of them on the toilet, I’m afraid,” said Billy Wilder in an interview with The Paris Review when asked about how he gets his ideas. “I have a black book here with all sorts of entries. A little bit of dialogue I’ve overheard. An idea for a character. A bit of background. Some boy-meets-girl scenarios.” And as one of cinema’s most brilliant and iconic screenwriters and directors, Wilder gave us some of the most beloved films ever—from Sunset Boulevard and Some Like It Hot to The Apartment and Double Indemnity.

After first working a reporter, drama critic, and as part of the German film industry, Wilder then moved onto Hollywood where he went on to make films that danced between all worlds of cinema, from the most memorable noir dramas to enchanting comedies—”all his films, nonetheless are marked by a singular vision—elegant dramatization of character through action, distinctive dialogue, and a sour/sweet, or even misanthropic, view of humanity—qualities that stem, for the most part, from the writing.”

So who better to take a screenwriting lesson from than the man himself? In filmmaker Cameron Crowe’s 1999 book, Conversations With Wilder, there’s a section which features ten rules for writing from Wilder and of course, they’re as concisely insightful and necessary as they are enjoyable to bury into your brain. Take a look below.

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1. The audience is fickle.
2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
4. Know where you’re going.
5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then — that’s it. Don’t hang around.

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