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In The Spotlight: Billy Wilder’s Top 10 Writing Tips

All About Billy Wilder

Billy Wilder’s considered one of the best screenwriters and filmmakers in film history. Working with other greats like Raymond Chandler during the golden era of Hollywood, Wilder co-wrote and directed such classics as Sunset Boulevard, Some Like it Hot, The Apartment, and Double Indemnity.

In short, Wilder’s the bee’s knees and screenwriting royalty! I re-posted his top 10 writing tips to the Bang2write instagram recently and it went WILD. Which one is your favourite and why? Let us know!

1) ‘The audience is fickle.’

Notice Wilder says ‘fickle’, NOT stupid. It’s very fashionable for writers to say audiences are clueless, but this has never been the case. Audiences are incredibly media literate, with a great intuitive understanding of how storytelling works.

However, ‘fickle’ means ‘changing frequently, especially as regards one’s loyalties or affections‘. This is DEFINITELY true … Audiences have so much vying for their attentions, especially nowadays in 2019.

So, like Wilder says … how are you going to ensure they pick YOUR story?

2) ‘Grab ’em by the throat and never let ’em go.’

I see this as a variation of the old screenwriting adage, ‘hit the ground running’. (This doesn’t mean you have to start wham-bam in the middle of the action either. You can still do it using slow burn techniques).

3) ‘Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.’

Do you know what who your protagonist is, what s/he wants and why? Do you know who will stop him/her and why? That’s a ‘clean line of action’.

4) ‘Know where you’re going.’

It’s always easier if you are not blundering around in the dark, literally or metaphorically. This is why I always recommend outlines or treatments … I think of them as ‘story maps’. I even write them for novels.

5) ‘The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.’

Another hard agree with Wilder’s point here. It’s easy to clunk your audience over the head with obvious and predictable plotting signposts … MUCH more difficult to make it feel natural and inevitable. For more on plotting (and how it’s a symbiotic relationship with characterisation), CLICK HERE.

6) ‘If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.’

No lies, this tip changed my writing LIFE! Let it change yours too … More, here – How To Avoid Plotting Hell And Save Writing Hours.

7) ‘A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.’

Harking back to point 1 on this list, Wilder is reminding us again that AUDIENCES ARE NOT STUPID. I see writers constantly making this point in Facebook groups and they are shooting themselves in the foot. Audiences lovelovelove smart writing (even in the dumbest of concepts). Never, ever ever dumb it down or spoon-feed them.

As an aside, Ernst Lubitsch was a great writer and filmmaker in his own right. It’s only natural a great like Wilder would have looked up to someone like him. Nothing exists in a vacuum. Know who came before you and see what you can learn from them. Don’t try and reinvent the wheel!

8) ‘In doing voiceovers, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.’

I absolutely love voiceover and Wilder’s bang on here. The worst voiceovers are boring and not dramatic, because they’re straight-forward narration … The ultimate in TELL, NOT SHOW!

Not consider a masterly voiceover like June’s, contrasting her RAGE against the meek Offred’s in The Handmaid’s Tale. See the difference?

9) ‘The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.’

AKA plot point 2, pinch point 2, catalyst … Whatever you want to call it. Whatever it is, it should boot us straight into the main showdown. So learn more about structure and how to describe it … It will help you with this.

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.’

Yup, Wilder’s totally on point and he nails it again … Never have a story outstay its welcome.

Good Luck!

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