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09/07/2005 - Larry Turman's Thoughts (No. 4)

Even though some of my very favorite films are more internal and meandering (The 400 Blows, Terms of Endearment, 8 and 1/2, Wild Strawberries, Lost in Translation), I’m a great believer in narrative drive. One of the greatest filmmakers to never win an Academy Award, Alfred Hitchcock, famously said, “Making a movie is like telling a story to your nine-year-old niece sitting by your side. If at any point in this telling you stop, your niece should say, “And then what happened?” Therefore, at the end of each act of the often-evoked classic three-act form (Act I get somebody up a tree, Act II throw rocks at them, Act III bring them down) should promise future action.

That’s why the word “cliffhanger” was invented for the old-time Saturday afternoon serials, which would end with the hero literally hanging by his fingertips on the edge of the cliff. The audience knew he wasn’t going to fall and die because there were seven more chapters to go in the serial, so they were eager to return to the theater the following week to see how he saved himself. Although a shrinking number of television movies continue to be made, they utilize a seven-act form. The writer has to think up a half dozen cliffhangers, so the people watching at home who get up to take a pee or grab a beer from the refrigerator rush back to the TV to see “what happened next.” I once had a writer deliver me six dynamite act breaks in his very first draft, and I knew I was home free. Indeed, the network greenlit that first draft.

There have been many books written about screenwriting, but some of the best and most successful writers have not read them nor formally studied dramatic construction. The craft of course can be learned, but not the skill, the art. It’s not by happenstance that writer Ernest Lehman’s credits include Executive Suite, Sabrina, Somebody Up There Likes Me, his classic original North By Northwest, West Side Story, Sound of Music, and more. However, he gave me a crucial touchstone about script development: “Each scene should be an arrow into the next scene.”

Think about that. Think about it some more, and it will make great sense. Here’s the best example I know of: three friends are having a heated discussion which leads to an argument, during which one pulls out a knife, stabs another, and then flees. That’s pretty damn dramatic, right? Wrong. It’s theatrical. But what would make the scene a dramatic arrow into the next scene would be for the third remaining person, after the stabbing, to say, ”I’m going to get that son of a bitch if it’s the last thing I do.” Now people are leaning forward in their seats saying, “Whoa. What’s he going to do? How’s he going to get him? What’s going to happen next?”


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