How I came upon Billy Wilder's 12 tips for filmmakers was quite by accident. While driving to my parents' house this morning, I listened to The Directors: Take Four read by Jeff Hoyt (what a wonderful reader!). I got to the section on Cameron Crowe (one of my favorite directors - he wrote and directed Say Anything), he talked extensively on his admiration for Billy Wilder and his film The Apartment.
When your favorite director mentions his favorite director, you take note. So here are Mr. Wilder's 12 tips for screenwriters and storytellers (from Conversations with Wilder by Cameron Crowe).
1. The audience is fickle.
Write about something that you care deeply about, something personal. Only then, will the audience invest in it with you.
2. Grab 'em by the throat and never let 'em go.
Start the story with an opening the audience will never forget. Amelie, one of my favorite films, has a quirky, visually-intriguing beginning as it introduces the title character Amelie to the viewers. It literally had me at hello.
3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
Where is the main character going and why? What does he or she need to accomplish before time runs out? Let the story be so clear that it doesn't lose the audience - not even for a second.
4. Know where you're going.
As you write your script, outline your story and map out each act with note cards or whatever works best for you. Keep the readers engaged by making sure your characters don’t meander. They need to have a goal and a clear plan on how to achieve it.
5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
Don't be predictable. Keep surprising your audience and keep them on their toes and at the edge of their seats.
6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
Again, outline and map your story to the max. Structure, structure, structure.
7. A tip from Lubitsch: let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
The audience these days is extremely sophisticated and smart. They love to figure things out for themselves. The Sixth Sense was successful because it lets its audience piece together the twist.
8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
If you do voice-over, do it well. It has to add a layer to the movie that's not already there. Amelie ... again proof of why it's my favorite film ... has a great voice-over.
9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
Remember that things need to move along in an interesting way, especially in the second act. That's where many movies start to lose their viewers. Keep up the pace of your story.
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.
Know when to quit and leave them wanting more. Don’t end your movie a dozen times. Write one great ending that your audience will always remember. The last 30 pages of your script should turn the fastest as they wrap-up the story and leads presented in the beginning and giving the audience what they have been waiting for.
11. Don't be boring.
I think this is self-explanatory. Don't you?
12. The more complicated the story, the simpler the visuals.
The last thing you want to do is to lose the audience.