What Writers Can Learn From L.A. Confidential

by James Scott Bell

I love my home town (although the relationship is strained these days). I love classic film noir shot on location in the City of Angels. A lot of detectives went in and out of City Hall, where the department was headquartered until 1955. Edmund O’Brien stormed into the homicide division in the famous opening tracking shot of D.O.A. (1949). “I want to report a murder,” he said. “Who was murdered?” they ask. “I was,” he says…and off we go.

The only movie in recent memory to capture the look and feel of 50s L.A. is L.A. Confidential (1997), directed by Curtis Hanson from the novel by James Ellroy. The sunny climes and palm trees during the day are juxtaposed against the corruption and vice of night. Good cops and bad cops. And some who are a little of both.

The film garnered critical praise and was Oscar nominated for Picture, Director, Screenplay, and Cinematography. Kim Basinger took home the statuette for Best Supporting Actress.

The plot centers around a mass slaying at a diner called The Nite Owl. The movie is a lesson in how to handle shifting POV as we follow the case through the eyes of three Lead characters.

Bud White (Russell Crowe) is known for violent, sometimes out-of-control behavior. But his rage is in the service of his sense of justice. He’s driven by a compulsion to save vulnerable women from abuse. (There’s a backstory reason for this that is revealed in Act 2).

The movie opens with an off-duty Bud White watching a home where a man is beating his wife. Bud pulls down the Christmas lights on the house, the man comes out and tries to clock Bud. Bud beats him up and handcuffs him to the stair railing. He gives the wife some cash and makes sure she has a place to go.

Thus we are drawn to Bud’s motive, but a little unsure about his methods.

This cross-current of emotion is a key to our wanting to watch Bud’s story. He’s not all good. He has a flaw which could be his undoing. This emotion intensifies in Act 2, when he is given a secret duty by his captain—beating up out-of-town mobsters trying to move in on L.A. territory. Here Bud is no longer a cop; he’s a thug, albeit on the “right” side.

Lesson: Memorable heroes should have strength, but also a flaw that could become fatal. That makes us interested to know which side will prevail.

Edmund Exley (Guy Pearce) is the opposite of Bud. Slender, thoughtful, smart, political. He goes “by the book,” which does not endear him to his fellow cops, because it means he does not look away when some of them bend the rules.

So why should we watch him? First, because he’s an underdog in his community. We like underdog stories (e.g., Rudy, Rocky). Second, because he’s good at his job. We like to see characters being competent in their work. This comes out as Exley questions three suspects in the Nite Owl shooting, getting admissions with skill, not violence (IOW, the opposite of Bud).

Lesson: A good Lead should have a skill or power that can be his deliverance at a critical point.

Jack Vincennes (Kevin Spacey) is slick, a charmer. He knows how to skirt the system and rake in a little illicit dough on the side. He takes money from the slimy Sid Hudgeons (Danny DeVito) to bust the victims of Sid’s amorous setups to feed his scandal magazine Hush Hush. But Jack’s favorite side hustle is as the technical advisor on the TV show “Badge of Honor” (i.e., “Dragnet”).

Lesson: A Lead who skates along the dark side should have some charm. We like lovable rogues.

Mirror Moments

Each one of these Leads goes through a personal and positive transformation. As I watched the movie again, I naturally wondered if there would be any mirror moments.

Turns out there’s three of them.

Not only that, two of them involve actual mirrors! (I love it when that happens).

For Bud White, it’s when he’s at the abandoned motel with his captain and some other strong-arm cops. They’re beating up another out-of-town gangster. Bud goes into the bathroom to splash some water on his face. And looks at himself in the mirror. He’s thinking: “Is this who I am? Is this what it means to be a cop?”

Jack Vincennes has just taken another fifty-dollar-bill to show up at a motel where Sid has engineered his biggest scoop yet—the District Attorney of Los Angeles in bed with a handsome young actor (Simon Baker). Sid has paid the kid to seduce the D.A., but also enlisted Jack to promise him a nice part on an episode of “Badge of Honor.” A promise Jack never intends to keep.

While waiting for the appointed hour, Jack sits in a bar and looks at himself in the bar mirror. He’s disgusted. “Is this who I am? Is this what it means to be a cop? Do I really care nothing about lying to an innocent kid who just wants to make it in this town?”

He lays the fifty down on his unfinished drink and leaves to go warn the kid to get out of the room….but instead finds him slain. The consequences of this will lead to one of the great shock twists in cinema (you’ll have to watch the movie to find out, and please, if you know what I’m talking about, do NOT spoil it in the comments).

The mirror moment for Edmund Exley comes when he is awarded the Medal of Valor for his part in slaying the suspects in the Nite Owl murders. In the script he tells his Captain, Dudley Smith (James Cromwell) something feels wrong about the case. Smith tells the new hero, “Keep it inside. Between you and you.”

The very definition of a mirror moment! Exley considers his medal. The script says, “It’s an appealing thing.” He can stay a hero by keeping quiet. But at the cost of justice. Which way will he go?

That’s the question a mirror moment asks.

Lesson: Done skillfully, the mirror moment subconsciously deepens the viewing—and reading—experience.


Period slang and cop jargon are sprinkled throughout, though not so much that it’s distracting. A good lesson there when your write a period piece. A little slang goes a long way. You’re not going for total authenticity (you never are when you write dialogue). You’re trying to create an effect for the reader. Don’t let jargon get in the way of the story.

Speaking of which, my views on the ol’ F bomb are well known, and while this is a James Ellroy, I think the film would’ve been helped with more restraint in this area.

And with that, I turn it over to you.

Have you written a novel with more than one POV? How’d it work for you?

Have you written about your home town—or a fictional place just like it—in a book?

Thumbs up or thumbs down on L.A. Confidential?

What Writers Can Learn From Sunset Boulevard

by James Scott Bell

I had a tough decision to make for this installment of JSB at the Movies. It came down to a choice between How to Stuff a Wild Bikini and Sunset Boulevard. After a night of tossing and turning, I chose the latter. I had to give the nod to Gloria Swanson over Annette Funicello.

Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1951) is an undisputed classic of the film noir era. It stars William Holden as a struggling screenwriter, and Gloria Swanson as what she actually was—an aging star from silent films. Her performance is one of the most iconic in movie history. Indeed, she was the favorite to take home the Oscar, and she should have.

But in a quirk of fate, she was up against another all-time performance—Bette Davis as Margot Channing in All About Eve. In a further quirk, those two probably split the vote, giving the prize to Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday. Holliday is quite good, and in any other year would have deserved the gold statuette. But not over Davis, and especially not Swanson’s Norma Desmond!

Wilder originally wanted Mae West for Norma and Montgomery Clift for the screenwriter Joe Gillis. But Miss West, a true diva, wanted to change a lot of the dialogue. Billy Wilder would not stand for that, and a good thing, too.

Wilder also considered Greta Garbo (who was not interested in returning to the screen), Pola Negri, a great silent film actress (but whose Polish accent was troublesome), and the “It Girl” Clara Bow. But Bow turned it down, having considered her unsuccessful transition to sound and ill-treatment by the industry reasons to stay retired.

The director George Cukor suggested Swanson to Wilder, and how perfect she was. She had been one of the great “faces” of silents, and was the right age—50—for Norma. That’s when Wilder got the brilliant idea of using Cecil B. DeMille as himself, for he had famously worked with Swanson in the silent era and was still directing movies. Swanson would essentially be playing a version of herself.

Clift withdrew for one reason or another (there are a few theories) and William Holden was offered the role, which he gladly accepted. Another brilliant move. It’s hard now to think of the cynical, hardboiled voiceover narration in any voice but Holden’s.

Two other bits of casting brilliance. One is Erich von Stroheim as Max, Norma’s butler. He had been one of the most famous—or infamous, from the studio heads’ perspective—silent film directors and, like Swanson, had fallen into obscurity. The film Norma privately screens is Queen Kelly, which Stroheim directed in 1928.

Then there are Norma’s bridge partners, each a faded star from the silent era. Joe calls them her “waxworks”—Buster Keaton, Anna Q. Nilsson, and H. B. Warner (who played Jesus in DeMille’s silent version of King of Kings, and Mr. Gower, the druggist, in Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life).

Frame Story

This is a frame story. We begin in the present, then the movie unfolds in the past; the last scene returns us to the present. It’s a fine technique, used numerous times in various genres. Stephen King’s The Green Mile is an example.

Only this opening frame was unique: it is narrated by a dead man! Joe Gillis is floating face down in a pool. The cops are on the scene. What happened? Joe will tell us from beyond…

Lesson: Using a frame is a solid choice, but only if you make it compelling in and of itself. Don’t just toss one in! Take the time to make it fresh and even bold.

Death Stakes

Joe is an out of work screenwriter desperately in need of a job. He’s behind in his rent and his car is about to be repossessed. He makes the rounds of his studio contacts, but can’t find anything—not even a quick rewrite assignment. When he confronts his agent on a golf course, he gets a kiss off. The stakes here are professional. If he doesn’t get work he’ll have to head back to Dayton, Ohio with his tail between his legs.

Driving back to his dismal apartment, he spots the repo men. The chase is on. Joe pulls into a driveway on Sunset Boulevard to escape.

Turns out the house is a decrepit mansion from the crazy 1920s. Inside he meets the faded silent screen star, Norma Desmond. Seems she’s been holed up inside for twenty years, living off past dreams with the help of her somewhat creepy servant, Max. Norma has been working on a screenplay for her comeback, a turgid scenario about Salome, a part she is clearly too old for. Joe hatches a plan. He’ll work on her screenplay to make some quick dough.

Lesson: If the death stakes are professional, make sure the reader understands how important it is to the character. Most of Act 1 is showing Joe Gillis in various stages of desperation for dough.

Doorway of No Return

But Norma has a plan of her own—while Joe spends the night in a little room over the garage, Max moves Joe’s things out of his apartment and into the room. Joe is furious. Then the repo men show up and take away Joe’s car, making him a virtual prisoner.

Lesson: Act 2 doesn’t start until the Lead is forced into the confrontation…and can’t go back to the way things were in Act 1.

Pet the Dog

When the Lead takes time from his death stakes struggle to help someone else, we become more invested in him. Joe helps a young studio reader, Betty (Nancy Olson) with a script idea. This relationship becomes more complicated as Joe and Betty fall in love, though she is engaged to Joe’s friend Artie (Jack Webb. Yes, that Jack Webb, whose personality in this film is the exact opposite of cop Joe Friday from Dragnet).

Tip: A love interest subplot should intersect with the main plot in a way that causes more trouble for the Lead. Boy, is that ever true here, as it leads, ultimately, to Joe’s death.

Mirror Moment

In the dead center of the film we get Joe Gillis’s life-altering look at himself. Norma has attempted suicide because Joe has rejected her. Now, in her bedroom, we see on his face the choice: should he finally make a break, or stay on as her lover? The former choice would lead to his redemption, the latter to the loss of his individuality.

He stays. The rest of the movie will be about the price of that decision.

Lesson: The Mirror Moment sees all, knows all.

Sharp Dialogue

The dialogue in this movie is priceless. William Holden has the perfect voice and delivery for some of the best lines in all of noir. My favorite is when Norma is describing a scene from her mammoth and atrocious screenplay about Salome.

Lesson: Dialogue is the fastest way to improve any manuscript. Show an agent, editor or browser, on your first pages, that yours has zing and you are halfway home to getting the whole book read. May I modestly suggest a book to help you in that regard?

If you’ve never seen Sunset Boulevard, I urge you to settle in with a bowl of popcorn and watch it. The adage “They don’t make ’em like they used to” certainly applies to this classic. (And don’t look at the clip below. Watch it in the movie!)

What better way to end this post than with one of the most famous closing images in cinema history:


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.

What Writers Can Learn From The Godfather

by James Scott Bell

We lost James Caan this past week. It seems an apt time to take a look at the movie that made him a star, Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather (1972) from the novel by Mario Puzo. I’ll be concentrating on the movie, but a good exercise is to compare a book to its film version. Usually people end up saying a book is “better” than the film. In this case, however, it’s the other way around.

The Godfather is currently listed by AFI as the second-greatest movie of all time (behind Citizen Kane). It’s a graduate course in acting. Caan holds his own alongside Brando, Pacino, and Robert Duvall. He proved that the acting chops he showed in the TV movie Brian’s Song (1971) were legit. Brando won the Oscar as Best Actor. Caan, Pacino, and Duvall all got Supporting Actor nods (the winner was Joel Grey in Cabaret).

Caan went on to a long and successful career. And what writer escaped the chills—or maybe a few nightmares—when Caan was “cared for” by his “number one fan” in Misery? (Please don’t ever use the word hobbling around me. Thanks.)

James Caan as Sonny Corleone

Back to The Godfather. The story lessons from this movie could fill a book. Since this is a blog, I’ll limit myself to a few I find particularly instructive.

The Plot

When the aging don of the Corleone crime family refuses to give aid to a new narcotics business, his enemy seeks to kill him. His son Michael, a war hero, avenges the attempted assassination by killing a mobster and a corrupt police captain. In the crime wars that follow, Michael rises to become the most ruthless godfather of all.

Lesson: Be able to summarize your plots in three sentences (known as the Elevator Pitch). This applies as much to epic fantasy as it does category romance. My formula for the Elevator Pitch is as follows (using The Insider by Reece Hirsch as an example):

  1. (Character name) is a (vocation) who (immediate goal or desire)

Will Connelly is a lawyer on the verge of realizing his dream of becoming a partner at a prestigious San Francisco firm.

  1. But when (doorway of no return), (Character) is (main confrontation)

But when Will celebrates by picking up a Russian woman at a club, he finds himself at the mercy of a ring of small-time Russian mobsters with designs on a top-secret NSA computer chip Will’s client has created.

  1. Now (Character) must (main objective)

Now, with the Russians mob, the SEC and the Department of Justice all after him, Will has to find a way to save his professional life and his own skin before everything blows up around him.

Argument Against Transformation

A simple and elegant tool for character arcs is what I call “The Argument Against Transformation.”

Usually, at the end of a classic Hero’s Journey, the Lead is transformed into a “better self” than at the beginning. Rick in Casablanca becomes a hero willing to sacrifice his personal happiness for a greater good. He puts his true love, Ilsa, on the plane with her husband, Victor Lazlo, because he knows it’s best for everyone and even the war effort.

But what’s his philosophy early in Act 1? It’s his argument against such a transformation. “I stick my neck out for nobody,” he says.

This gives the audience an early hook, a hint at what the story is really about.

In The Godfather, we have a negative arc, a transformation that goes the other way.

During the wedding scene at the beginning of the film, Michael (who will turn out to be the main protagonist) is a war hero. He’s sitting with his girl, Kay, when she spots a “scary man.” Michael explains that is Luca Brasi, who is a “friend” of his father’s. He tells her about an incident where Vito and Luca paid a visit to a band leader who was unwilling release singer Johnny Fontaine from a long-term contract. Luca, Michael explains, put a gun to the band leader’s head as Vito tells him to sign the release, or his brains will end up all over it.

Kay is duly shocked. But Michael assures her, “That’s my family, Kay. It’s not me.” That’s his argument against his (negative) transformation.

Proving the Transformation

At the end of a film or novel, we must see something that proves the transformation. Usually this is the last scene or chapter. In Casablanca, Rick proves he is a sacrificial hero by literally putting his life on the line to save Ilsa and Lazlo.

In the last scene of The Godfather, Michael’s sister, Connie, screams hysterically at Michael for ordering the hit on her husband, Carlo. Kay hears it all, and when she is alone with Michael she asks him if it’s true. “Don’t ask me about my business, Kay,” he says. She is insistent. “Enough!” he says. Then accedes: “This one time I’ll let you ask me about my affairs.”

Kay asks again, and in a most sincere voice Michael looks into the eyes of his wife and says, “No.”

There’s the transformation. Michael has forfeited his soul to become the new don. He can lie to his wife’s face without a single qualm.

See for yourself, and note the memorable visual at the very end:

Lesson: Look at what your Lead character has become at the end of your novel. Give the Lead a line of dialogue in Act 1 that expresses the opposite view. At the end, show us in a scene how the Lead has changed, thus proving the transformation.

Mirror Moment

In the dead center of the movie is the Mirror Moment for the protagonist, Michael. (For a full treatment of this beat, see my book Write Your Novel From the Middle).

In brief, the Lead has a moment within a scene where he has to metaphorically look at himself, as if in a mirror (though it’s funny how often in a movie there’s a literal mirror in the scene). The character has to take personal stock right in the middle of the “death stakes” of Act II. This moment is the linchpin between the argument against transformation at the beginning, and proving the transformation at the end.

After Michael thwarts another attempt on his father’s life, at the hospital, he’s confronted by the corrupt police captain, McCluskey, who proceeds to break Michael’s face.

In a family meeting that follows, Sonny is ready to go to war. Tom Hagen counsels against it.

Michael, sitting there virtually ignored, suggests a plan—they’ll set up a meeting with Sollozzo and McCluskey, where Michael (who is considered by the enemies to be neutral) will get his hands on a gun and kill them both.

The meeting is set at a little restaurant in the Bronx. Offscreen, the caporegime Clemenza plants a gun in the bathroom. The plan is for Michael to ask to use the john, get the gun, come out and immediately shoot both men, then drop the gun and walk out.

Michael has a mirror moment before the shooting. That moment in the book is rendered:

Sollozzo began talking again in Italian, but Michael couldn’t understand a word. He wasn’t listening. All he could hear was the sound of his heart, the thunder of blood between his ears.

Al Pacino as Michael Corleone

It is more pronounced in the movie. Michael does not follow Clemenza’s instructions coming out of the bathroom. Instead of shooting the men, he sits back down at the table. Sollozzo talks, but the camera stays on Michael’s face. He’s clearly contemplating what’s about to happen. Once he kills a New York police captain, his life will never be the same. No more honored war hero. No more avoiding “the family business.”

He shoots them.

The rest of the movie revolves around the question of whether Michael will return to his “former self” and guide the family to legitimacy, or continue his trajectory toward ruthless mafia don.

Lesson: Whether you plan or “pants” or something in between, at some point brainstorm possible mirror moments for your Lead. Since I started doing this myself, I’ve found that the fourth or fifth idea on my list is usually the one that jumps out at me and announces, “This is what your book is really all about, pal!”

Orchestrating the Cast

The principle of orchestration is so important. It simply means giving your characters distinct and contrasting personalities, tags, quirks. The more skillfully you do that, the more possibilities for conflict, in scenes and dialogue. That holds true not only for adversaries, but allies as well.

In The Godfather we have the three sons of Vito Corleone. Sonny is a bloodthirsty hothead; Fredo is weak and insecure; Michael is the smart one, and cool under pressure. While they are ostensibly on “the same side,” they also have conflict with one another.

Tom Hagen is the German-Irish lawyer among all the Sicilians. Thus he and Sonny get into some heated arguments. At one point Sonny screams at him, “If I had a war-time consiglieri, a Sicilian, I wouldn’t be in this shape!”

The two caporegimes, Tessio and Clemenza, are different in both physical form and personality. The jolly Clemenza shows Michael his “trick” for cooking for twenty guys. Sonny tells him to knock it off.

Among the secondary characters is the scary Luca Brasi. He is a stone-cold hit man. Just looking at him gives you the chills. But when he goes in to see Don Corleone on the day of Connie’s wedding, he is like a little boy, barely able to talk.

Lesson: Give all your characters, even the minor ones, physical and personality differences—and quirks. Do that, and the plotting of a novel almost takes care of itself.

Whew. That’s enough for today. If you’ve never seen The Godfather or The Godfather, Part II, you’re in for a treat. The acting is brilliant throughout. Of coruse, Brando dominates. My first “real” job was ushering in movie theater the summer of Godfather I. So I must have seen the movie, in bits and pieces, about twenty times. I watched Brando through a microscope, trying to “catch” him acting. Never did. He may just be the greatest actor of all time.

Comments welcome.

What Writers Can Learn From It’s a Wonderful Life

by James Scott Bell

Today I begin an occasional feature—JSB at the Movies. I’m a lifelong movie fan, my B.A. is in Film Studies, and I often use movie clips in my craft workshops. The crossover between screen and page storytelling is substantial.

So let’s start with one of the best.

Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life was not always a beloved Christmas classic. That’s because it was rarely seen after its initial run in 1947. When movies started showing up on TV in the 50s, Wonderful Life was tangled up in issues over ownership and copyright. That cloud did not begin to dissipate until 1974, while I was a film student at U.C. Santa Barbara. That year the copyright owner, Republic Pictures, failed to renew (probably due to a clerical error) and the film fell into public domain. That’s when it started showing up on TV for new generations to embrace.

To celebrate the movie’s new life our film department arranged for a showing, with a special guest—Frank Capra himself.

Capra is one of my all-time favorite directors. So I wangled and cajoled my way into being named his chauffeur for the evening.

Not that it was a glamorous ride—it was in my scruffy, three-on-the tree Ford Maverick. But the greatest populist director, the champion of “the common man,” did not seem to mind at all getting ferried to the campus in a rattletrap student automobile.

Along the way I told him my two favorite movies of his were It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I added that my dad was an extra in Mr. Smith. Capra told me of the cold reception that film received when it was shown in D.C. Apparently the senators did not take kindly to the way their chamber was depicted. (Sheesh, what would a Capra film do to them today?)

Campbell Hall, our big auditorium, was packed. I got to do the introduction. Mr. Capra made some opening remarks, and then we watched the movie.

It knocked me out. And, I daresay, had the same effect on most of the audience. We had just been gifted the magic of what critics called “the Capra Touch.”

A Frame Story

Wonderful Life begins and ends on the same Christmas Eve, in a town called Bedford Falls. It opens with shots of the snowy town, and the voices of various townspeople praying for a man named George Bailey. The last voice is the one we’ll come to know as Zuzu (George’s youngest child) pleading, “Please bring Daddy back!”

We then switch to the heavens, where angels (in the form of twinkling stars) talk about what do to answer these prayers. The assignment is give to an angel named Clarence who hopes to earn his wings.

The film switches to the linear story of George, from boyhood to the present. He’s a man with hopes and dreams who comes to think of himself as a failure; indeed, that it would be better for everyone if he were dead.

This is when Clarence the angel intervenes.

This film ends by returning to the frame—Christmas Eve—and George’s redemption. A bell on the Christmas tree rings. Zuzu announces, “Teacher says every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.”

George winks at the sky. “Attaboy, Clarence.”

Lesson: A frame-story can add another level of emotion if you make it entertaining in its own right. A frame-story can add another level of emotion if you make it compelling in its own right. Other movie examples using this device are The Princess Bride and Titanic. Novels with a frame include The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman, The Notebook by Nicholas Sparks, and The Green Mile by Stephen King.

The Imperfect Lead 

Heroes who are perfect are uninteresting. Deep down we don’t really buy it. That’s why your Lead should have flaws and foibles just like all of us.

George Bailey (James Stewart) is a good man, a solid citizen, but is far from perfect. He’s not above leering at the attractive derrière of Violet Bick (Gloria Grahame) as she shimmies down the street. He loses his temper and becomes abusive. He verbally destroys the simple-minded Uncle Billy when the latter loses a crucial bank deposit. On Christmas Eve, his life at its lowest ebb, he screams over the phone at his child’s teacher, then yells at his children, bringing them to tears. (Stewart’s acting is brilliant throughout. He was suitably nominated for Best Actor, losing only because the equally brilliant Frederic March in The Best Years of Our Lives.)

Lesson: The imperfect Lead creates empathy. The key, however, is that he is aware of his flaws, and wants to overcome them, as George does.

Strong Supporting Characters 

Every one of the secondary characters in Wonderful Life is well-drawn and engaging in their own right. Clarence the Angel (Henry Travers); Bert the cop (Ward Bond); Ernie the cab driver (Frank Faylen); the tragic Mr. Gower (H. B. Warner); all the way down to Zuzu (Karolyn Grimes, who is still with us). Old Man Potter (Lionel Barrymore) is a classic villain, and even his nonspeaking servant has an eerie presence.

Lesson: Give each of your supporting characters, even the minor ones, their own unique quirks and tags. These add “spice” to your stories, increasing reader enjoyment.

A Rocky Romance

At the heart of the film is the love story of George and Mary (Donna Reed). When George’s brother, Harry, returns to town, married, George learns he’s been offered a great job by his father-in-law. Harry tells George he’ll keep his end of the bargain by running the Building and Loan so George can travel, but George knows the job is best for his brother and sister-in-law, and tells Harry to take it.

Which doesn’t help George’s frustration about staying in town. That evening he finds himself walking by Mary Hatch’s house. Mary, back in town from school, has been waiting for this moment. She has on her best dress and has set up the parlor to reveal a picture of a romantic moment from their high school days—when George said he would “lasso the moon” for Mary.

But that was then.

Now, as Mary does everything she can to rekindle the romance, George shoots her down at every turn. Finally Mary has had enough. She smashes the phonograph record of “Buffalo Gals” just as she receives a phone call from her suitor, Sam Wainwright. Sam asks to speak to George. He proceeds to offer George a “ground floor” position at his new plastics firm.


George’s turmoil explodes to the surface. He grabs Mary by the shoulders, shakes her. “Now you listen to me! I don’t want any plastics! I don’t want any ground floors, and I don’t want to get married – ever – to anyone! You understand that? I want to do what I want to do. And you’re…you’re…”

George pulls Mary to him in a fierce embrace. Love has conquered his rage.

Lesson: Readers love to read about love. But be it a romance plot or a romance subplot, the path of love must have obstacles. In a scene of high intensity, find a competing emotion that fights for supremacy inside the character.

The Mirror Moment

There’s a perfect mirror moment in the middle of the film. George is forced to look at himself and choose what kind of man he’s going to be.

Old man Potter has been trying to take over—or ruin—the Bailey Building and Loan Company, so his firm will be the only one building homes for the community. But George has frustrated those plans. And while he’s now married with children, George is not rolling in dough like his friend Sam Wainwright (see above) who made a killing in plastics during the war.

Knowing this, Potter calls George in for a meeting and hands him a big, fat cigar. He starts with the flattery, then offers George a job—at ten times George’s current take-home!

“You wouldn’t mind living in the nicest house in town,” Potter says, “buying your wife a lot of fine clothes, a couple of business trips to New York a year, maybe once in a while Europe. You wouldn’t mind that, would you, George?”

George is stunned. And tempted! To travel like that has been his dream. To have money to lavish on his wife, who has had to make the best of his meager salary, has always been his desire. He’s considering the offer when he asks what will become of the Building and Loan.

“Confound it, man, are you afraid of success?” Potter says. “I’m offering you a three-year contract at twenty-thousand dollars a year, starting today. Is it a deal or isn’t it?”

We read the conflict in George’s eyes. Who am I? he is thinking. What will happen if I take this offer?

He asks Potter for a day to think it over. Potter consents, tells George to go talk it over with his wife and meanwhile he’ll draw up the papers. He offers his hand.

The script describes what happens next: As they shake hands, George feels a physical revulsion. Potter’s hand feels like a cold mackerel to him. In that moment of physical contact he knows he could never be associated with this man. George drops his hand with a shudder. He peers intently into Potter’s face.

George says: “No…no…no…no, now wait a minute here! I don’t have to talk to anybody. I know right now, and the answer is no. NO! Doggone it!”

George has decided who he must be, but will that be enough to sustain him? That’s what the rest of the movie is about.

Lesson: At some point in your writing—the planning stage or at any point along the pantsing highway—brainstorm five possible deep questions your Lead can ask about himself. What is the central inner issue at this point in the story? You’ll often find that the third, fourth or fifth idea is the one that jumps out at you as original and on point. And that’s when you know what your story is really all about.


At the end of every great story is a transformation of the Lead. In this case, George is transformed from a bitter and discouraged man to one who has realized that his gift to the world has been right there in his little hometown. Because of his sacrifices and generosity, Bedford Falls is a lovely place to live, as opposed to the Pottersville of the alternate world (where George had never been born).

Note that this transformation is an answer to the question raised by the mirror moment.

And here’s a little technique that will add depth to all this: the argument against transformation.

That’s a beat early in Act 1 where the Lead makes a case for the opposite of the transformation. For example, Rick in Casablanca is transformed into a self-sacrificing hero at the end. So what does he say early on? “I stick my neck out for nobody.”

In Wonderful Life, George’s realization about his town’s love is argued against in Act 1. That’s when the young George Bailey tells the two girls, Mary and Violet, the following:

You don’t like coconuts! Say, brainless, don’t you know where coconuts come from. Lookit here – from Tahiti – Fiji Islands, the Coral Sea!
MARY: A new magazine! I never saw it before.
GEORGE: Of course you never. Only us explorers can get it. I’ve been nominated for membership in the National Geographic Society. I’m going out exploring some day, you watch. And I’m going to have a couple of harems, and maybe three or four wives. Wait and see.

Lesson: Once you know the transformation, give your Lead a line or two in Act 1 that is expressing the opposite view. The readers will experience a most satisfying character arc that way.

And that is why It’s a Wonderful Life is a classic of its time—and for all time.

This is JSB at the Movies, signing off.

The End.