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08/31/2005 - Larry Turman's Thoughts (No. 3)

Richard Brooks, a great Hollywood screenwriter (later director) of such classics as Blackboard Jungle, Elmer Gantry, The Professionals, and In Cold Blood, had 3 words on the bulletin board above his typewriter: Structure, Structure, Structure. (Not unlike Orson Welles, who famously said his 3 idols/masters were John Ford, John Ford, John Ford.) No matter how colorfully brilliant your dialogue is, or how imaginative a couple of scenes are, if your script is not built upon a firm foundation, the finished script will look like the Leaning Tower of Pisa rather than the Taj Mahal.

Clarity has always been my maxim. Who is doing what to whom, and why? Especially ‘why.’ That’s a good news reporters maxim, and I believe equally so for a screenwriter. You can still be artful, entertaining, even subtle and occasionally oblique. But you better make sure your intention, the story you want to tell, is leadpipe clear to your audience. Oddly, I learned this watching Jack Benny tell a very long, involved, humorous story. Along the way, and at the very end, he would repeat or recap pertinent information to make sure the audience got his joke. An audience needs information ??" literal and emotional - to get involved in your story and experience the emotions you want them to feel.

What could be more subtle, yet powerfully affecting, than Jon Voight at the very end of Midnight Cowboy confiding to Dustin Hoffman (who the audience knows is already dead, but Voight doesn’t ??" great dramatic irony): “I think I’m going to give up hustling.”


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