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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Ten Penalties All Writers Must Avoid

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 10.56.26 AM

Forgive my second sports-related post in a row, but come on! It’s Super Bowl Sunday! Across America––and indeed the world––fans will gather around big screens in homes and bars to watch the most exciting spectacle of the viewing year: funny commercials!

Oh yes, and a football game.

This one has drama. On the one side we have the Denver Broncos and their quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning is without question one of the greatest QBs of all time, a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer. But injuries and Father Time have taken their toll. Thus, this will likely be Manning’s final game and his last chance to win one more Super Bowl ring.

On the other side is the new kid, the immensely talented Cam Newton. This guy is huge––6’5”, 260, with a cannon of an arm and legs that can go. He led his Carolina Panthers to an amazing 17-1 season. And now he makes his Super Bowl debut.

I will be with friends noshing sausages, pulled pork, chili, and items from the other essential food groups–the salted nut group, the nacho group, and of course the chocolate-covered anything group.

I hope the game is a good one. I’d love to see it go down to the final minutes. I’ll also be very happy if a kicker does not miss a last-second field goal and thus suffer from nightmares the rest of his life.

And let us hope the game is not marred by a lot of penalties! Hate to see those yellow flags all over the field.

It occurred to me there are some penalty flags that are thrown on writers. So in the interest of helping you write your best, here are some violations you must avoid lest you lose yardage (which, for writers, is measured in pages) and, much more important, readers.

  1. False start

Are you warming up your engines at the beginning of your novel? Do you spend too much time with exposition and backstory? Do you go several pages without a disturbance? Are you giving us “Happy People in Happy Land”? That’s a false start. Penalty: five pages.

  1. Illegal use of the adverbs

Are you using too many adverbs to prop up weak verbs? Worse, are you using adverbs to prop up dialogue? Are you writing things like:

“Get out of here, you louse!” Sheila yelled angrily.

Or

“I’m gonna cut your heart out and feed it to the family dog,” he said threateningly.

If you do, you’ll be penalized, and it’s a big one: fifteen pages.

  1. Passage interference

Also known as the illegal flashback. This is where you stop a narrative in its tracks to give us a long look backward at some scene from the past. Unless there is a dang good reason for this, you will get a yellow flag and docked ten pages.

  1. Encroachment

Also known as author intrusion, this is when you try to sneak in some exposition that does not sound natural to the voice of the character (this penalty is explained more fully in the book VOICE: The Secret Power of Great Writing).

The skilled referee usually finds this in dialogue. The author wants to slip information to the reader through the characters’ words, but they are words the character would never use. Such as:

“Listen, Martha, you’re my lovely wife of twenty-eight years, and I wouldn’t be the head of surgery at Johns Hopkins without you. Especially after suffering that head injury in college when I foolishly went out for the rugby team. But dammit, you can’t dwell on your past as a stripper in a Nevada roadhouse when you were known as Cling Peaches. Please try to relax, like your sister Mary, who is two years younger than you, so we can go enjoy dinner in our hometown of Denver, Colorado.”

Encroachment is an automatic five pages, and loss of down.

  1. Delay of plot

Have you pushed your protagonist through the Doorway of No Return by the 20% mark of your novel? No? Then here’s a hard truth: it’s starting to drag. It doesn’t matter how quirky your characters. They have overstayed their welcome if they are not, by this time, into the struggle of Act II. Penalty: ten pages.

  1. Ineligible character downfield

Do you introduce a major character after the midpoint? Near the end, do you have a minor character show up out of nowhere to solve a plot problem? If you do, you need to go back to the first half and plant these characters. Five pages.

  1. Roughing the villain

League rules are protecting the antagonist more than ever. What do I mean by that? Simply this: if you have an antagonist who is evil, you must give him his due. You can’t just make him pure evil or insane. Boring! Every villain feels justified, and you the author must “make his case” in the book. Far from excusing his evil, this deepens the emotional currents in the reader and, ironically, makes the evil all the more scary. Fifteen page penalty for this one, plus the league may order you go to some rehab, like right here.

  1. Intentional sounding

Have you fallen in love with your sentences? There’s a reason the axiom “kill your darlings” exists. I should explain that this doesn’t mean cut every sentence you like. You’re allowed to delight in your own good writing. But you have to make sure it works for your story, and is true to character and context. Ten pages if, in the judgment of the officials, your pretty prose is more showing off than storytelling.

  1. Illegal motion

Does your story feel unfocused during that long struggle through Act II? Are there scenes that meander? Have you lost narrative vitality? While this penalty is only five pages, enough of these violations will keep you backed up on your own goal line. One place to look for help is the “mirror moment.” This tells you what your novel is really all about so you can write scenes with organic unity and powerful forward drive.

  1. Unauthorlike conduct

Do you head out to social media without a plan and a brand? Do you fly off the handle when you tweet? Do you slip into unethical sockpuppetry in order to slam your perceived competition? This penalty is severe: you might get thrown out of the game. Worse, the league office may suspend you indefinitely.

A good football team knows how to move the ball. A great football team knows how to correct weaknesses. A championship football team does all that, and avoids the penalties that kill scoring drives.

May you write like a champion.

And enjoy the game! I know I will, even though I am completely impartial.

***(COUGH)GoPeyton(COUGH)***

Has your writing been penalty free lately?

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