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The Art of Screenwriting: Billy Wilder

There are plenty of masterful screenwriters for aspiring writers and filmmakers to admire, but hardly any have had as long of a career as Billy Wilder. Wilder’s career spanned five decades, where he is regarded as one of the most gifted and accomplished filmmakers of Classical Hollywood cinema.

Wilder had a uniquely subversive sense of humor that was met with critical acclaim throughout most of his career. His writing style encompassed an easy-to-understand and straightforward method that never took the audience away from the story and characters. There’s a reason why Wilder was the first to win an Oscar as a producer, director, and writer for the same movie (The Apartment in 1960).

Nevertheless, below will examine the art of screenwriting in Billy Wilder. We’ll discuss the notion of simplicity over complexity, knowing where you’re going, subtility, third act problems, voice-overs, and much more. Be sure to view any of Wilder’s films if you haven’t already, so you can get a sense of his genius. Let’s take a look!

Photo credit: Sky

Simplicity Over Complexity

Wilder was on record stating that every writer should write the story they’re interested in. However, upon doing so, that story should be focused on getting through the story rather than overly complicating it. Many might disagree with Wilder’s opinion on the matter, but it’s how he approached scripts.

Regardless, as long as what you’re writing is done with heart and soul, audiences will be interested in what you have to say. It’s a matter of creating your vision but not getting too carried away where it just ends up confusing everyone. Some films are more abstract than others, but there is a fine line between the two.

Know Where You're Going

Wilder knew to thoroughly map out every plot point and character before diving into the actual script. Some filmmakers have a different approach, letting their minds wander with the story. Whatever your preference might be, Wilder’s method tends to be the most ideal, especially for beginners.

Wilder believed in mapping out the plot and characters, so you don’t accidentally cause your characters to wander off from their goals or clear lines of action. If the characters randomly forget their purpose, the audience will follow along. Every great Wilder film features characters that have goals and aspirations and sticks to them.

Subtle and Elegant

Wilder was a versatile filmmaker whose career took off with The Major and the Minor (1942) and the film noir Double Indemnity (1944). You can’t be more versatile writing scripts for a comedy and a noir only two years apart. Regardless of the genre Wilder worked on; all featured a subtle and elegant approach.

Wilder was a firm believer in making the plot points or twists extremely subtle. Although audiences should be aware of the rhythm of the plot, the notes in between should come as a surprise. It doesn’t necessarily need to be a ridiculous M. Night Shyamalan level twist, but a hint of surprise is worthwhile.

A Problem With The Third Act Requires You to Re-Do The First Act

Wilder was a firm believer that if a screenwriter has a problem in the third act, then it most likely has to do with an issue in the first act. The third act is imperative to the success of any script, especially in Wilder’s case.

A strong example of a great third act from a Billy Wilder script is in Double Indemnity when Keyes arrives unnoticed at the end and hears the truth, where Neff tells him he is fleeing to Mexico but collapses. Wilder’s plot and character mapping allowed him to know where the story was going and how to end it.

Voice-Overs Should Only Add to the Story

Many filmmakers disagree over the use of voice-overs. Some argue it spoon-feeds the audience and is an entire waste, while others believe they can add to the story in a significant capacity. Wilder went on record highlighting that voice-overs should only be done to a script if they add to the story.

Voice-overs can be done well if they move the plot forward. Voice-overs can describe characters’ emotional states, hint at events, and add the audience’s immersion. Wilder believed that voice-overs should never describe what the audience is seeing but rather add to it.

The Second-Act Triggers the Third

Wilder was a firm believer in having a structure in his scripts, no matter how avant-garde they might be. Most of Wilder’s scripts featured an explosive event in the second act. The high bit of conflict leads directly into the third, setting up the resolution and ending everyone seeks out while viewing the film.

Don’t Hang Around the Ending

Wilder believed in getting the film to the end and stopping. Wilder ended it rather than a post-credit or non-conflict scene to relax the audience once the resolution had been met. There aren’t many films that have multiple or non-distinct endings, highlighting how Wilder was a true wizard with how he went about his craft.

Best Films:

● The Apartment (1960)

● Some Like It Hot (1959)

● Sabrina (1954)

● Sunset Blvd (1950)

● Double Indemnity (1944)


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