It's the Story, Stupid


Which Lie Did I Tell? More Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman, New York Pantheon Books, 485 pages, $26.95

Hollywood spends a lot of time trying to figure out The Formula—the way to tell a story guaranteed to entertain an audience. I don't know what the big deal is: The French playwright Eugene Scribe discovered it over 150 years ago. During an amazingly successful 50-year career, Scribe churned out 374 theatrical pieces, almost all of which followed the same storytelling rules. Basically, the hero should find himself in more and more difficult situations as the story unfolds. Near the end, there should be peripeteia (a reversal of fortune during which the hero hits his lowest point) followed by a scène à faire (the moment all the action has been leading up to, where the hero's luck changes and he triumphs over his enemy).

Unfortunately, this sort of formula fell into disrepute in the 20th century and these secrets were left to decay, with a few writers stumbling on them in each new generation. Top screenwriter William Goldman has discovered—and rediscovered—some of the rules of storytelling, and he spreads the gospel in his latest work, Which Lie Did I Tell? The book is wide-ranging but always returns to the main message, repeated on the last page: "After writing movies for thirty-five years I am more convinced than ever it's only about story." It's only about story: That slogan summarizes both the book's virtues and its one sizable flaw. While many of the best and most popular American films follow Goldman's precepts, he writes as if his narrow, big-budget Hollywood aesthetic is universal. This can cut out the high--a pause in the story for a moment of beauty, or a deeper look into a character—and the low—pure silliness, or an outrageous gag put in not because it fits but because it's fun. But the high-pressure, multimillion-dollar movie business is Goldman's milieu, and these hard-earned lessons have served him well there. They should probably serve others, too.

Of course, Goldman notes, there are two parts to getting a story on the screen. Writing well is only half the game. One must also get around the obstacles—fearful producers, power-mad directors, egotistical stars—who will either reject your script or change it beyond recognition. (Producers, directors, and stars, needless to say, have a different take on just who drags down quality, but this is a writer's book.) Therefore, Goldman spends as much time detailing phone calls and meetings and shoots as he does analyzing screenplays: If you want to succeed, you have to know about both.

But I'm getting ahead of myself (another well-worn writing trick—start in the middle and reveal the backstory as you go along). In 1983, Goldman put out a great book on his life and work in the movies, Adventures in the Screen Trade. Since then, publishing books on screenwriting has become an industry threatening to outgrow screenwriting itself. But one thing sets Goldman's book apart from most of the others: He has actually succeeded in the business, at the very highest level. For the past 35 years he's written a fair number of major Hollywood films, including The Hot Rock (1972), A Bridge Too Far (1977), The Princess Bride (1987), and Maverick (1994), as well as two Oscar winners, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) and All the President's Men (1976). Sometimes those who can, teach.

The first book had two messages, both simple, instructive, and liberating. First, and most celebrated: Nobody Knows Anything. Everyone claims after the fact that they were sure of each hit's success and each flop's failure, but no one really knows beforehand what will work. Every film ever made had someone—usually a bunch of someones—who thought it would succeed. Yet most fail.

The second message was less remembered but equally important: Screenplays Are Structure. Good screenwriters have to discover the spine of the story and stick to it. There's nothing wrong with spending hours finding the mot juste to cap off some dialogue, or writing a 50-page biography of every secondary character, but if the basic structure of the story is unsound, the movie won't work.

The new book expands on those two maxims. In other words, it's a sequel. Incidentally, here's what Goldman has to say about sequels: They're for "whores." I think he's being a little hard on himself—sometimes you simply have more to say.

Which Lie Did I Tell? picks up, chronologically, where the earlier book left off. After having eight scripts made into movies during the '70s—an incredible track record in an industry that buys 30 scripts for every one it actually films—Goldman hit a cold spell from 1980 to 1985, selling no screenplays and not even getting any job offers. (He did manage to write five novels, not to mention Adventures in the Screen Trade—we should all have such cold spells.) Knowing that this can happen even to a two-time Oscar winner is as instructive as anything else in the book.

Goldman, as you might expect, slings a good story. His style is very readable. Slangy, a bit profane, and chatty, filled with sentence fragments. You know. Like this. He's willing to name names—if he thinks Spielberg or Lucas are doing something just for the money, he'll say so. The one topic where he's mum is how much he's paid. Perhaps he's reticent because if we knew the huge sums he gets, it would be harder for him to pull off his regular-guy persona.

The book is full of great tales on how a script was written and filmed—or not filmed. For instance, after his years in the wilderness, Goldman was called in to adapt the popular novel Memoirs of an Invisible Man for director Ivan Reitman and star Chevy Chase. In the mid-'80s, both were white hot. Unfortunately, Reitman wanted a farce, while Chase wanted a film about the loneliness of invisibility. When two powerful people butt heads, those below often feel it the most, and soon enough Goldman was off the stalled project. (Chase ultimately got his way, and the film was released in 1992, directed by John Carpenter. It was a flop.)

In 1990, Goldman adapted Misery from Stephen King's bestseller. The moment in the novel that knocked him out is when the protagonist has his feet lopped off. He wrote it into his script, but director Rob Reiner changed it so the hero "merely" has his ankles broken with a sledgehammer. Goldman screamed, but Reiner wouldn't budge. Misery became a hit, and the hobbling scene was the most memorable thing in it. Goldman now admits he was mistaken—his scene did in fact go too far. Why didn't he know it then? Easy: Nobody Knows Anything.

Even some things Goldman claims to know now are uncertain. For example, he believes his lion-hunting film, The Ghost and the Darkness (1996), was ruined when star Michael Douglas demanded his part be rewritten. Goldman thinks giving Douglas' character a painful past took away from his mystery and made him more of a whiner. It's impossible to say for sure, but it's hard to believe this relatively minor modification was enough by itself to change the film from hit to failure.

Which Lie Did I Tell? is not all war stories. It also deals with topics ranging from Goldman's favorite scenes in other people's movies to his comments on how well various news stories would adapt into movies to other writers' comments on an uncompleted screenplay by Goldman himself. Holding it all together are several lessons. For one, a writer had better believe in a story before committing to it, because it takes a lot of work to craft a good screenplay. Second, a writer must be willing to take harsh criticism from friends—if they won't tell you the truth, don't expect any mercy from people you're hoping will pay you. And above all, never forget that it all starts with the writer; directors and stars may get more credit, money, and fame, but nothing can happen until someone puts word to page.

As central as the writer is to the film, so is the story to the writer. But if the book has a significant lapse, it's that Goldman has been writing big-budget pieces for so long that his idea of a story is a Hollywood story. There should be no wasted motion, no matter how entertaining—every line, every action, has to fit into the larger structure. And there's no room for ambiguity—everything should make the lead look good, because, in Goldman's words, "Stars do not—repeat—do not play heroes—stars play gods." And while you certainly want good characters, their main purpose is to function well in an entertaining plot.

Now there's good Hollywood and there's bad Hollywood, and Goldman wants good Hollywood, but I'm not sure there's room in his aesthetic for anything else. Goldman himself differentiates between Hollywood and independent films by saying the former "reassures" while the latter "unsettles." That's not necessarily wrong, but another difference may be more important: In a Hollywood movie, everything is there to serve the story. Independent films, on the other hand, often stop to explore a character or a moment without it needing to mean anything bigger.

There's nothing wrong with either ethos. When the interlocking parts of a Hollywood film fall into place in ways you didn't see coming, the movie sings. And when an independent film takes some time out from the demands of the plot, you can have beauty. But done poorly, the Hollywood film can seem mechanical, the independent film boring.

But Goldman doesn't even seem aware that a Hollywood filmmaker could go for anything other than what he prescribes. This is odd, since he started working in Hollywood in a period, the late '60s and early '70s, when many mainstream films were loosely structured, even experimental. It wasn't unusual then to start with interesting characters and let their natural interaction be the plot. Blockbusters like Star Wars (1977) changed how Hollywood does business, but Goldman, who feels such movies are cartoonish, would nevertheless limit films to basic and formulaic rules of his own.

How many times in a Hollywood film do we see something that seems like an interesting character touch only for it to become a mechanical plot point? If you're introduced to a character performing magic tricks for kids in the park, you may think it's a nice grace note, but by the third act, you can bet she's gonna use her talents to get out of a scrape. Even ideas that were once exciting or fun become clichés. If the cops have the bad guy's house surrounded and they're about to make a bust, check your watch. If it's only an hour into the film, either it's the wrong place or the bad guy has already gone and the house is booby-trapped. Or if the film is almost over, and a villain (but not the chief villain) has the hero at gunpoint, out of nowhere a shot will suddenly ring out. The hero's friend or girlfriend (whom we're supposed to have forgotten about) just saved the day. Often, the villain will obligingly fall out of frame so we can see this character, still aiming the smoking gun.

Goldman recognizes the hazard of predictability. As he puts it, a good story should be both satisfying and surprising. (Maybe all art should.) But what Goldman doesn't see is that putting in something beautiful or fun, without a larger purpose, can work. Films such as Pulp Fiction (1994), Trainspotting (1995), and Being John Malkovich (1999) break plenty of rules—characters aren't conventionally sympathetic, plot twists aren't "properly" prepared for—but they have such constant invention and lively dialogue that they're better than all but a handful of Hollywood products. On the other hand, countless action films have followed the template of Die Hard (1988) and have mostly been bad copies of a good formula.

While no one knows for sure what works, they know from experience that leading viewers down blind alleys, or losing story momentum, usually doesn't. But sometimes the rules can be broken and something new and exciting can emerge. If Goldman had discussed these anomalies—whether he likes them or not—he'd have presented a wider view of what screenplays can be about.

Still, the book is a worthy successor to Adventures in the Screen Trade. Ultimately, it does come down to story. It's just that any given formula can get you only so far. Eugene Scribe had a formula and wrote more hits than virtually any other playwright in history. Yet it is other writers who knew Scribe's style but used it to delve deep into the human soul, like Ibsen, or turned it on its head to mock conventional notions, like Shaw, who are remembered—and performed—today.

Steve Kurtz is a writer based in Los Angeles.