Learning From the Movies: The King’s Speech

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King’s Speech

Imagine a hungry young screenwriter getting invited to a pitch session on a studio lot.

“What’ve you got for me, kid?” the producer says.

“Okay,” the screenwriter says, “we have this guy, see, he’s a king, see, and he’s got to make a speech. Only the guy stutters.”

“What’s the rest of it?”

“The rest of what?”

“The movie!”

“That’s it. That’s the movie! And at the end, see, he makes the speech.”

“Security!”

And yet The King’s Speech (2010) won Oscars for Best Picture, Actor, Director, and Screenwriter. How did they pull that off?

Through the power of character bonding and the magic of story structure. You can do just about anything with your novel so long as you have a reader intensely and emotionally invested in your Lead and put him through the beats of a well-crafted tale.

Let’s talk about emotional investment first. In Plot & Structure I discuss various ways a writer can join reader and character in the bonds of holy storytelling. One of the strongest bonding agents is hardship—at the beginning we are introduced to a character who faces a physical or emotional challenge.

In The King’s Speech, the hardship is both physical and psychological. Prince Albert, the Duke of York (Colin Firth) has a severe stammer which not only prevents him from delivering a simple speech; it also keeps him locked in a prison of self-doubt.

As the movie opens we see Albert nervously stepping up to a microphone to speak to a crowd. His stuttering talk bombs. People look embarrassed and disappointed. Prince Albert’s hardship has caused him massive public humiliation.

We’ve all been embarrassed, though not on so grand a scale. So we have immediate sympathy.

But that’s not all. There’s another powerful bonding agent I call the Care Package. This is a relationship in place before the story begins, showing that the Lead is not merely self interested. If we see someone who cares about someone else, it gives us hope for his ultimate redemption.

Early in Act 1 there is a lovely scene that gets me every time. Prince Albert, all done up in a tux, comes to say good-night to his two daughters. They want a story! “Can’t I be a penguin instead?” he asks. Clearly, he doubts even his ability to tell his children a simple bedtime tale. But they insist!

And so, out of love and fatherly duty, he makes the attempt. He tells a story about two princesses whose papa was changed by a witch into a penguin. This made him sad, for a penguin does not have arms to embrace his children. Not only that, the witch banished him to the South Pole. It’s obvious he is talking, metaphorically, about himself. The story ends with a restored father hugging his daughters. We can’t help but wonder if Albert will be healed, too. By now we hope so, because we are firmly invested in him.

The Duchess (Helena Bonham Carter) arranges a meeting for Albert with an eccentric speech therapist named Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush). Here we get another structural beat: The Argument Against Transformation. Unconvinced Lionel can help him, Albert is about to leave when Lionel asks him to try something. He puts headphones on the prince and plays classical music while having the prince read the famous soliloquy from Hamlet. After a minute or so Albert rips off the headphones and shouts, “Hopeless!” Then: “Thank you, Doctor. I don’t…feel this is for me.”

This sets up the arc of transformation that pays off at the end. (In Casablanca, Rick argues against his ultimate transformation by saying, “I stick my neck out for nobody.” At the end, of course, he does that very thing.)

The First Doorway of No Return

In a movie we need to get into the death stakes of Act 2 by the 25% mark (for novels, I advise 20% at the latest). That happens when the Lead is forced—either physically or emotionally—through a doorway that slams shut behind him (meaning he can never go back to his ordinary world). In The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind, it’s physical (a tornado and the start of the Civil War, respectively). In Casablanca, it’s emotional (the arrival of Rick’s lost love, Ilsa).

In The King’s Speech, Albert is emotionally thrust through the doorway by his domineering father, King George V. Sitting his son down in front of microphones he says, “With your older brother shirking his duties, you’re going to have to do a lot more of this.”

Albert tries, but can’t get started. “Do it!” the king demands.

Later, in emotional torment over what he must be—and firmly believes he can never be—Albert puts on the recording Lionel made. And to his astonishment he’s read the soliloquy perfectly. Now he must place his trust in Lionel or “die” inside by letting down his entire country.

Mirror Moment

In the dead center of great stories the Lead is forced to look at himself, as if in a mirror (usually metaphorical, but it’s amazing how often there’s a physical mirror involved). Sometimes this is caused by another character forcing the issue.

That’s what happens in the middle of The King’s Speech. Albert is terrified at the prospect of being king (which will happen soon, for his brother is going to marry a divorcee). Lionel knows this fear is what’s holding Albert back as a speaker, a royal, and a person.

Lionel: I’m trying to get you to realize you needn’t be governed by fear.

Albert: I’ve had enough of this.

Lionel: What are you so afraid of?

Albert: Your poisonous words!

Lionel: Why did you come to me? You’re not some middle-class banker who wants elocution lessons so you can chitchat.

Albert: Don’t attempt to instruct me on my duties! I am the son of a … king.

And the brother of a king.

Albert: You’re the disappointing son of a brewer. A jumped-up jackeroo from the outback. You’re a nobody!

That last line is a knife through Lionel’s heart. In Casablanca, the same thing happens when Rick basically calls Ilsa a whore. Both Rick and Albert must now “look at themselves” and wonder, “Is this who I have become? Is this who I will always be?” (In film, these thoughts are rendered visually; in a novel, you can also use interior monologue.)

The Second Doorway

To get into Act 3, where the final battle takes place, we need another doorway. It’s going to be a clue or discovery, or a major crisis or setback—something that makes the ending possible and/or inevitable.

In The King’s Speech it’s a major crisis: Hitler invades Poland. A state of war exists. And Albert has just been crowned King George VI! Now it is his duty to address his kingdom, and in such a way as to inspire iron resolve for what is coming.

No pressure.

The Q Factor

Just before the climax, the Lead takes inspiration from an emotional jolt, giving him the courage to fight. I call this The Q Factor (named after the Bond character who sets up in Act 1 the gadgets Bond will need to escape in Act 3). In story structure, it’s an emotional connection that pays off by providing the last bit of courage the Lead needs. In Star Wars, for example, Luke hears the voice of his beloved mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobe, reminding him to “use The Force.”

In The King’s Speech, just as Albert steps to the microphone, Lionel tells him, “Say it to me, as a friend.” Not simply a teacher, a friend! That trust which began in Act 1 now enables the victory as Albert delivers an inspirational speech. The movie ends by proving the transformation: Albert—King George VI—steps out on the balcony with his wife and daughters and confidently waves to the adoring crowd.

Character bonding, the right structural beats (and great acting!)—that’s how a movie about a man who stutters became a huge, award-winning hit. (I discuss the fourteen super structure beats in my book of the same name. End of commercial!)

You can think about these beats before you write; you will develop a solid outline that way. Or you can think about them during revision as you try to figure out why your editor or beta readers aren’t as enthusiastic about your story as you are.

Either way, they are here to help. Because, after all, story and structure absolutely love each other!

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28 thoughts on “Learning From the Movies: The King’s Speech

  1. Words of wisdom, as always. As a “Planster” I generally look at this after the manuscript is finished, although it’s mostly for getting things closer to where they need to be. I (hope) I’ve developed a few story structure instincts over the years, but sometimes, the den and the kitchen have to be reversed.

    • It’s like anything else we do and repeat, Terry…we naturally develop instincts. That’s a great feeling. But it’s also nice to be able to figure out where to put the den when we know it’s “out of place.”

  2. Thanks for a great post. Just what I need as I begin the brainstorming phase for my next book.

    I’ve studied and studied story structure, but become convinced that I’m plopping characters onto the structure, instead of telling the story of the character while the structure is swirling around them. I like the way you explain what, where, and how to develop the character in relation to the story structure.

    Thanks for another great teaching moment.

    • The nice thing is that there’s no one way to approach this. I like the way you put it, Steve, the structure “swirls” around them. Plot is what tests character…indeed, it’s the only thing that reveals true character.

    • My most important moment of enlightenment on plot was when I read Ben Bova’s THE CRAFT OF WRITING SCIENCE FICTION THAT SELLS. (It’s been reprinted under a few different names and is more than worth the read even if you don’t write science fiction.) He says that plot and character development are THE SAME THING and explains how this works in crafting your story. My best stories have always followed his method.

      For a quick explanation, here’s a blog article where I use his ideas to create a plot.

      http://mbyerly.blogspot.com/2016/09/using-index-cards-to-plot-your-novel.html

  3. Great tips. Learning to lay out stories and create grabber characters has been an interesting journey for me, & it’s far from over. I’m grateful for all the writing instruction I’ve received on plotting, creating characters that a reader can root for, etc. But in the end, I’ve just had to go through a lot of trial and error to figure out what works for me.

    My first book I plotted fiercely before I wrote, & I adhered so rigidly to that outline without heeding necessary adaptations that revealed themselves during the writing that I created problems that were hard to fix.

    My 2nd book, other than knowing the beginning and a vague idea of the end, I winged it. Better, but still ended up with a lot of holes–holes created by absence of just those structural beats you are referring to.

    For my 3rd manuscript–I hope I’ve written enough to find a happy balance: an understanding of the importance of structure to guide me through the story, but the ability to change and adapt as needed to make the character someone the reader eagerly embraces & the story memorable. I’ll find out in the next several months! 😎

  4. I loved that movie. Your explanation of the story structure using it as an example is a huge help. Thank you.

    And, I have nabbed your book, Super Structure. I am sure I’ll find as many gems in it as I have in your other books. 🙂

    • I purchased Super Structure 2 years ago and it changed the way I write. It’s “formulaic” only so far as demonstrating the beats/signposts seen consistently in so many successful stories.

      When I received the book, I was surprised it was pretty thin. But it is packed solidly, cover to cover, with nothing but fantastic writing direction. A 300-page book squeezed into one much smaller.

      Good luck on your stories!

  5. Your discovery of the mirror moment was huge, Mr. Bell. It has taught me so much.

  6. I just cannot seem to reform my pantser ways. I’ve read several books on outlining and developed an outline for my WIP, but seriously it looks so dull. I seem to have to tell a story from the single premise ‘my stuttering prince was murdered’ and I have to place myself listening to my characters living their lives to tell me what to write next. It’s all so tedious. I just seem to have a severe case of pantserism that cannot be cured. Okay, I’ll stop whining and get back to the hotel suite where my characters are talking to each other.

    • Alec, your pantserism is common and perfectly fine. Many writers pants their way through a first draft. Structure is a set of tools you can use when you need them. If a beta readers says, “You story started to drag around page 35, but picked up again at page 100,” you can use structure to figure out—and fix—the problem.

    • The question is whether being a pantser works for you as a creator, and the books you create work for the reader. Some authors like Stephen King have such strong instincts about story and character that pantsing works for them. Others just vomit character actions on the page which just lay there or leads to plot starts and stops.

      As a writer and a writing teacher, I always suggest that pantsers who don’t have Stephen King plotting instincts should consider a method which combines both methods. The important plot points are planned, but the stuff around it are improvised. It’s kind of like having a line of plot point jewels in front of you and weaving the improvised structure to make a complete bracelet. That’s how I plotted my novels.

  7. I loved that movie.

    I fight the pantser vs plotter battle daily.

    For speeches, no problem.

    For novels and scripts – when I try to outline it feels as though the blood flow to my brain stops entirely and I can’t write at all.

    Pray for me.

    • Cynthia, don’t let it be a battle. How about a complex friendship? One of the reasons I use “signpost scenes” is that you can look ahead only to the next signpost, and have the fun and discovery of how to get there. Once there, repeat…the blood will still flow, and in the right direction!

  8. Thank you for such great information packaged in the context of a great movie!

    I found “Plot & Structure” soon after finishing the first draft of my first novel, and it drove me into a long period of thoughtful revision. I credit that book with transforming my novel into a finished product. My second novel is in first draft form now. I think I’ve got a good story, but I know there are some structural problems. I’m ready to dive into “Super Structure” to figure them out.

    I love your blog posts on the structure of good movies, so now I watch movies from that viewpoint. I’ll be on the treadmill this afternoon, so I think I’ll watch “The King’s Speech” again and try to reinforce the principles you taught here. I watched “The Great Escape” a week ago. I stopped the movie at the point where the prisoners are devastated when the nazis discover the tunnel. Right at the midpoint of the movie!

    • Thanks for the good word, Kay. I love it when I’m just caught up in a movie…then think about the structure afterward. But It’s hard to click off the brain.

      I was watching a movie on a plane once and dozed off about 10 minutes in. When I woke up I had no idea what time it was, but my internal clock was telling me we should be at the Doorway of No Return now. I started watching again and BOOM there it was, at the 25 minutes mark!

  9. Good illustration of how not to pitch the movie. But what is the pitch/elevator speech/concept that would sell the movie? I run into difficulty identify those for certain movies.

    E.g., in _Tender Mercies_: “Down and out country singer hits bottom and struggles to recover, inspired by a sweet widow and her son.”

    Yet that’s one of the few movies I’ve watched several times.

    “Security!”

    • Right you are, Eric, that there is a difference to pitching “high concept” (easy) and just concept. In that case, you emphasize the stakes for the characters.

      The movie poster had this tagline: When God couldn’t save the King, the Queen turned to someone who could.

      Here’s the book blurb from Amazon:

      It’s the eve of World War II, and King Edward VIII has abdicated the throne of England to marry the woman he loves. Never has the nation needed a leader more. But the new monarch, George VI–father of today’s Queen Elizabeth II–is painfully shy and cursed with a terrible stammer. How can he inspire confidence in his countrymen when he cannot even speak to them? Help arrives in speech therapist Lionel Logue, who not only is a commoner, but Australian to boot. Will he be able to give King George his voice?

  10. Speaking of movies, I saw THE MAN WHO INVENTED CHRISTMAS a few days ago. It’s about how Charles Dickens created A CHRISTMAS CAROL. It’s a perfect explanation to non-writers about how the creative process works.

  11. Thanks for yet another great post and timely teaching moment. I loved that movie also-anything to do with WWII and I’m there.

    I like to think of pantsing and plotting as two daughters, one good and one evil. I love them both equally and they each have a place in my heart and mind, and they each have something to teach me. (Ahem! No, not talking about flesh-and-blood offspring here…)

    I’m predominantly a pantser, but I do need to think ahead, at least to the next scene. I have to think about how to get my characters, sometimes kicking and screaming, to the end.

    The real plotting and structuring begins with the second draft. (That’s when I discover Granny sitting at the dining room table drinking tea when I killed her off three chapters prior…) 🙁

    I’ve started a trick I picked up somewhere…maybe here…

    I write the ending of the story first, then write to it. Sometimes the end changes before I get there (as in real life, I guess) and sometimes not. I’ve got at least two WIP started using that process. And I like it. It’s like a runner who focuses on the finish line, or a painter seeing the finished masterpiece in his mind’s eye. I like what someone once said, “If you don’t have a goal, you won’t get anywhere.”

    I’ve got a lot to learn. Thanks for always “learnin’ me”.

    • Deb, I do advocate writing toward an ending (which is subject to change without notice!) This is especially crucial, IMO, for mystery and thriller writers. Some famous “pantsers” have books with implausible, impossible, and/or ridiculous endings because they started with a grabber premise and just “trusted the process” after that. Sometimes it works, sort of like the blind squirrel…most of the time? I dunno….

  12. Loved your article. I’m a pantser. I agree with one of your replies, the plot points are planned everything else just comes as I write. Thanks to you and your Write Great Fiction Series, my writing foundation is strong.

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