What Writers Can Learn From Casablanca

by James Scott Bell

It’s about time we talked about Casablanca. This classic consistently shows up at the top of favorite movie lists. It has perhaps the most famous ending line of all time. And of course it’s got Bogart, Ingrid Bergman, Paul Henreid, and Claude Rains—not to mention Peter Lorre and Sydney Greenstreet and a host of great Warner Bros. character actors.

I’ve been teaching workshops for a quarter of a century, and back when I started I could assume that everyone had seen Casablanca, probably more than once.

In recent years, however, among the younger set, I can no longer make that assumption. It’s astonishing to me that anyone wanting to write commercial fiction would not have seen this movie. But I have to remember that when I grew up there were only twelve channels on TV, five of which got no reception. The local channels ran old movies. These were our cultural glue. Not so anymore, with a zillion streaming networks and five zillion series to binge on; and TikTok and YouTube vids to take up every waking moment. Who has time for settling in with an old movie anymore?

Well, if you want to be a good writer, settle in with Casablanca. If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you do so this afternoon!

The Plot

Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) is an American expatriate running a café-saloon-gambling hall in French Morocco during World War II. The local police captain, Louis Renault (Claude Rains), keeps tabs on Rick. He allows him to stay open because Rick refuses to take sides in the war, but mostly because Louis gets kickbacks in the gambling room and uses Rick’s Café to procure desperate wives to sleep with him in exchange for exit visas.

All is routine until Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman) walks into Rick’s with her husband, the resistance hero Victor Laszlo (Paul Henreid). This throws everything off, for Rick and Ilsa have a past…and it’s going to force everyone to take sides, especially when the Nazi major, Strasser (Conrad Veidt), determines to stop Laszlo for good.

Rick, who begins the film by declaring that he “sticks his neck out for nobody” will now have to decide whether to reclaim the woman he loves, or sacrifice all—including his life—for a greater cause.

The Anti-Hero

Rick is a classic anti-hero. While a hero represents the desires and values of the community, the anti-hero stands only for himself. He has withdrawn (literally or figuratively) from the community, either by choice or circumstance.

In an anti-hero story, the Lead is drawn back into the community to deal with a troubling situation. The question at the end is whether he will rejoin the community or return to his exile.

The key to a good anti-hero is “the code.” He has his own code to live by, usually in opposition to community standards.

For example, Dirty Harry is an anti-hero. His community (the police) has standards (little things, like following the 4th and 5th Amendments). Harry finds that too restrictive. At the end of the movie, his extra-judicial tactics have saved a busload of children from a psychopath. Will Harry return to his community? Nix. He throws his badge into the drink. (Studio executives, however, seeing the box office results, recovered the badge and put Harry right back on the force for four more movies.)

Rick has chosen to exile himself in Casablanca after being betrayed—he thinks—by the love of his life. His code is that he will treat his customers fairly but will not stick his neck out for any of them.

So why do we care about an anti-hero?

Because you give him someone to care about. Dirty Harry cares about his partner. Katniss Everdeen cares about her mother, little sister, and a cat.

In Rick’s case, he cares about the ragtag staff in his café, especially his one friend, Sam the piano player (Dooley Wilson). By showing us this aspect of the anti-hero, we hope for his redemption. That’s why we keep watching, or reading, the story.

Structural Beats

Opening disturbance. The first time we see Rick he’s playing chess…by himself! How’s that for an anti-hero visual? He’s interrupted by the smarmy hustler Ugarte (Peter Lorre) who informs Rick that he is in possession of the most valuable items in all Morocco—two Letters of Transit, which will allow the holders to get out of Casablanca, no questions asked. He is going to sell them that very night. This spells potential trouble for Rick, for if the police find out about it his place will get shut down and he’ll no doubt be arrested.

Here I must include one of my favorite movie lines of all time, perfect in defining Rick’s character:

UGARTE: You despise me, don’t you?
RICK: If I gave you any thought I probably would.

In a novel, get your disturbance in the first line, first paragraph, or first half-page at the latest.

Doorway of No Return. At the one-quarter mark we get the event that forces Rick out of his relatively trouble-free existence in Act 1 into the death-stakes conflict of Act 2: Ilsa walks into Rick’s Café with her husband, Victor Laszlo. This forces Rick to deal with his conflicting feelings for Ilsa (love and hate) and how those feelings complicate his isolation. Death is on the line for Laszlo, and perhaps for Rick himself. Indeed, possible death overhangs all the refugees in Casablanca. It’s a closed city, and the Nazis are watching.

Your novel’s main conflict does not begin until the Lead is forced through this doorway. Further, it needs to be before the 1/5 mark, or the story starts to drag.

Mirror Moment. I started to formulate my theory of the mirror moment by watching Casablanca. I moved the DVD to the very middle of the film, and here’s what I found.

Rick is dealing with Ilsa’s presence by doing what any red-blooded American man of the time would do—get drunk. It’s after hours at the café, and as Rick drowns his sorrows we get the flashback that explains the backstory of his falling in love with Ilsa in Paris, and their plans to flee and get married. When she sends him a note to say she can’t go with him, for undisclosed reasons, he takes it as a complete betrayal.

We return to his drinking…when Ilsa slips in through the back door. She has come to explain to Rick why she stayed behind. She found out her husband, Laszlo, whom she had thought dead, was still alive. She pours her heart out to Rick. The besotted Rick answers by accusing her of being a whore. Tears streaming down her face, Ilsa leaves.

And Rick, full of self-loathing, drops his head in his hands.

Visually what we see is Rick having to take a hard look at himself, as if in a mirror. Is this what he has become? Is this the kind of person he will remain?

Bogart does it with acting. In a book, you can include interior thoughts. The point is that the mirror moment tells us what the story is really all about—here, it’s about whether Rick will recover his humanity.

Be ye plotter or pantser, very early brainstorm possible mirror moments for your Lead. Come up with four or five or more possibilities. Plumb the depths of your subconscious. Inevitably, one of these choices will jump out and announce, This is it! You’ll be wonderfully pleased at how organic your writing becomes after that.

Dialogue. The script is full of great lines and exchanges. One of the most famous is this:

I’ve always said that dialogue is the fastest way to improve any manuscript. There are techniques you can learn. You’ll find them here.

Proving the Transformation

At the end of Act 3, we finally get the answer to the question raised by the mirror moment. Rick gives up the woman he loves for the greater good. He signs his death warrant by killing Major Strasser so Ilsa and Laszlo can escape on the plane to Lisbon.

The source material—the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s—ends a bit differently. At the beginning of the play and movie Rick bets Louis ten thousand francs that Laszlo will escape. At the end of the play, Rick holds a gun on Strasser until the plane leaves. But then he says, “I have never killed a man” and gives up the gun. He’s immediately placed under arrest by Strasser and marched off to his execution. Just before he exits Louis asks him, “Why did you do it, Rick?”

Rick says, “For the folding money, Louis, for the folding money. You owe me ten thousand francs.” Curtain.

That’s a pretty good ending, with Rick the anti-hero refusing to plead for his life, content with his sacrificial act.

In the movie, of course, there’s a reversal. Rick kills Strasser, but when the French police show up Louis tells them to “round up he usual suspects.” Because the conniving Louis has watched Rick operate throughout, he is finally inspired to recover his own humanity. As they begin to walk away…oh, heck, let’s see it again:

There is nothing so satisfying to a reader as an ending scene that proves the hero’s transformation.

Many a successful writer has written their endings first. Try it. You’ll know what it should feel like if you know your mirror moment. Now write a scene with all the emotional power of a Casablanca. Here’s the thing: even if you change the scene later on, the emotion you create in yourself as you write toward the ending will add power and direction to all your scenes.

Whew! That’s enough for today. Talk it up. I’m traveling today, so my comments may be limited. I’ll try to catch up when my feet are firmly back on terra firma.

16 thoughts on “What Writers Can Learn From Casablanca

  1. Superb example of some of the key moments, Jim. I’m at a point in my WIP where I could benefit by writing my ending first. I know where the story’s headed (of course; I’m a planner) but I haven’t worked out all I want to accomplish with the ending. Thanks for the reminder!

  2. Thank you, James Scott Bell!! Very interesting and informative! My novel is in it’s final stages of editing with the publisher and I can think of several places to make changes after reading this.
    Fond memories at Mount Hermon.
    Best regards,
    Sandra Schoger Foster

  3. I enjoyed a three-day trip through Casablanca with Robert McKee many years ago. He took us scene by scene, adding commentary on the visual use of character placement and juxtaposition, clothing colors and patterns, but also, more writerly, dialogue beats, scene pacing, and of course character arc.

    Each time I watch the movie is a return to that classroom, defining every nuance of story structure. Having had that experience, I’ve become more critical of books and movies since (and less forgiving) for the reasons you point out here. If you don’t learn from the greats, you’re just pretending.

    One thing McKee pointed out about the Mirror Moment was how Bogie got so wrapped up in Rick’s remorse that he almost lost it on camera. A powerful, fleeting two seconds, and it’s gone if you don’t look for it. Seems maybe a younger JSB had the same takeaway.

  4. Terrific breakdown of a true movie masterpiece. I’ve seen in multiple times over the years and it never fails to draw me and hold me until the finish of that last, iconic scene as Rick and Louis walk off together to begin their own service in the great cause.

    I was fortunate to see it in the theater a few years ago, the Hollywood, here in Portland, which opened in 1926 and is still going strong, having had some wonderful restoration work done. Seeing as part of a rapt audience in a classic movie theater showed the power of the movie writ large on the big screen.

    Your example of the mirror moment in “Casablanca” you used in “Write Your Novel From the Middle” powerfully illustrated that concept for me when I read the book shortly after you published it.

    There’s so much this movie does brilliantly, like the sharp dialogue, as you pointed out, the characterization, the way scenes unfold, the way Rick’s story progresses etc. Definitely time for another rewatch.

    Thanks so much for today’s post. Safe travels!

  5. For its 80th anniversary earlier this year, I saw Casablanca on the big screen for the first time, after watching it on TV many times. As great as it was on the small screen, the theater experience amplified it even more.

    Jim, thanks for this excellent analysis that every writer should study.

    Safe journey!

  6. Another Sunday morning master class in writing – excellent.
    Additionally I believe in your compelling concept of “cultural glue” and mourn its decline. I had not seen that observation stated previously.
    Hope you enjoyed Bouchercon and my home city.
    Thank you.

  7. Thanks for another Sunday School Writing Lesson, James!

    I’m not proud to say that I’ve never seen Casablanca in its entirety…I must rectify that deplorable situation soon.


  8. Thanks much, Mr. Bell! A good start to Sunday.

    In a novel, get your disturbance in the first line, first paragraph, or first half-page at the latest.

    About 40% of the way down my WIP’s first page:

    As blackness engulfed him, Sheriff Singletary fell to the gritty, bare wooden floor, dead before the last shard dropped from the window pane.

    The mirror moment, Page 75:

    Coffee pulled an application form out of his pocket.

    Lucie wasn’t sure. In fact, the more she thought about it, the more the faint suspicion grew that her father’s shooting and Sheriff Del’s might be related. Maybe, she thought. Maybe my dad’s killer was from Ichekaw. I want that sucker; I want him bad. The trail he left then was cold, now, but the new one might lead right to him.

    Three years ago, a couple invited me to go to dinner with them and watch Casablanca. Despite my age (older than Casablanca), I’d never seen the entire movie. I’d watched parts of it about four times, but there had always been an interruption. I accepted their kind invitation, looking forward to seeing all of it at one sitting.

    The event was a benefit, it turned out, so dinner was on me. Still, the cuisine was good, authentic, North African fare, very apropos. We watched about 1/2 of the movie, and one of my hosts said he was bored. We left. Once again, foiled by cinemus interruptus.

  9. I read an interesting article about how certain cultural things like songs, stories, and, much later, plays and media create a generation defined by cultural memory, not age. A hundred years ago, a cultural generation was over 50 years. The first half of the 20th century, this started to shrink to around 20 years until the Sixties. Now, the generations can barely last 5 years because of the massive amount of cultural change and the shift to demographic content. I’m glad that CASABLANCA isn’t totally lost in the morass of change.

    • Don’t know that you’ll ever see this, Marilynn, as I’m a day late, but I’d love to know what that article was!

  10. Great analysis. Two quick points:

    When I was working on my stand alone “She’s Not There” my anti-hero has his own man in the mirror moment quite literally — he is in a dive bar in Fort Lauderdale and staring at himself in the mirror beyond the bottles. He realizes he has come to a crucial crossroads in his amoral life. I had Rick and Casablanca in mind when I wrote this scene!

    Second point: I had never heard this device called the Man in the Mirror until James explained it one day in a post long ago.

    And this is one time, I think, when the movie is superior to the source material. The ending of Casablanca is pitch perfect. I has long inspired my own love of unhappy but inevitable endings. (Now, Voyager is also great in this way).

Comments are closed.