In Cameron Crowe's book 'Conversations with Wilder' Billy Wilder spells out his 10 Tips for writers:
1. The audience is fickle.
2. Grab ‘em by the throat and never let ‘em go.
3. Develop a clean line of action for your leading character.
4. Know where you’re going.
5. The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.
6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they’re seeing.
9. The event that occurs at the second act curtain triggers the end of the movie.
10. The third act must build, build, build in tempo and action until the last event, and then - that’s it. Don’t hang around.
When working with new writers I find that the third rule is difficult to grasp. The second and the fourth rule are tied inextricably to the third and by default, they often give trouble to the novice writer.
Grab 'em by the throat is commonly called 'the inciting incident.' This is where the goal of the hero is established. A simple example is Orson Welles' 'Touch of Evil'. A bomb is planted in the trunk of a car and explodes a short time later. All of the characters are brought together in search of the culprit and the story is established. In 'The Godfather' Don Corleone is shot and Michael, who has refused to be a part of the family, must protect his father. His journey has started. It's Wilder's rule of 'never let 'em go' that is the hard part.
'Develop a clean line of action for your character'. The inciting incident has occurred and now the hero should have a goal. In Wilder's 'Double Indemnity' Walter Neff conspires to murder his lover's husband. The goal is simple, get away with it, but life isn't that easy (thus the story). In 'The Lord of the Rings' Frodo is the only one who can carry the burden of the Ring and thus his goal is simple, throw the Ring into the fire. That is the movie. Once the Ring is destroyed the story is over. With that clean line of action we are given over twelve hours of story. I quite like Frodo as the unlikely hero. His success is mostly based on courage and dedication and a degree of luck. He is not the superhero his companions seem to be.
In the Bourne films Jason Bourne has a simple goal, "I want to find out who I am". Three movies and six hours later we find out. It is the specific story beats of the films that make the plot complicated while keeping the goal of the hero simple and easily defined. In 'The Fugitive' Harrison Ford's character wants to prove his innocence and, better yet, find the man who killed his wife. 'Silence of the Lambs'? Find Buffalo Bill before he kills again (the ante is raised by the capture of the Senators daughter). 'Apocalypse Now'? Find Kurtz and kill him "with extreme prejudice". 'Raiders of the Lost Ark' - find the Ark before the Nazis. 'Blade Runner' - terminate the replicants. 'Terminator' - keep Sarah Connor alive. 'Star Wars' - save the princess. 'Some Like it Hot' - escape the mob. 'Citizen Kane' - try to uncover the real Charles Foster Kane.
This clean line of action gives the audience a sense of where the story is going (tied into rule four) and the audience will emotionally invest in that character's journey. They want them to succeed, even Walter Neff. The goal of the writer is to surprise the audience on that journey. Eventually you get to rule ten where you build build build to what Mamet refers to as the surprising and inevitable conclusion. Many of my students shoot themselves in the foot right off the top by not setting up their story well. If the audience loses interest then it doesn't matter if you have crafted a surprise twenty minutes into the film - the audience doesn't care (they are gasping for air in a great big yawn).
Are there exceptions to the rule? Of course there are. The French New Wave played around with these rules at will. Does Kubrick's '2001' or 'Full Metal Jacket' plug into this formula? Not very well. It is usually personal filmmakers that veer off the path because they have a different agenda. This goes back to my post on theme. Often these films are interested more in the theme or character and less in the plot and they will break these rules. Charles Laughton's 'Night of the Hunter' is a great example of a film that starts off as a thriller/horror picture and then takes a turn into a morbid fairy tale. His interest in the film is his theme. Having said that, his clean line of action is still there, stop the preacher from getting the money.
'The Conversation' is an interesting film because it follows the clean line of action in the arc of the story but sometimes neglects plot in getting to the ending (the scene with Teri Garr for example). Harry Caul wants a clean recording for his client and he wants to hand it over and get paid. Clean and simple. What stops Harry is Harry. It's his own guilt that stops him from playing a part in another murder. Bertolluci's great film 'The Conformist' falls into this category as well. The clean line of action is for the protagonist (not much of a hero) to find his old University Professor in exile and murder him. Like 'The Conversation' the 'plot' of the film meanders forward to the inevitable end with many diversions that explore character more than they fulfill story and plot.
These filmmakers made conscious decisions and have a very clear understanding of how they want their films to unfold. I like these films and would not criticize any of them for not following Wilder's rules. Wilder does provide some interesting thoughts on Kubrick:
Wilder: "I love all of his movies...but sometimes...Barry Lyndon"
Crowe: "What about it?"
Wilder: "He worked six months trying to find a way to photograph somebody by candlelight...And nobody really gives a shit whether it is by candlelight or not. What are the jokes? What is the story? I did not like it. That's the only picture I did not like...The first half of Full Metal Jacket was the best picture I ever saw. Where the guy sits on the toilet and blows his head off? Terrific. Then he lost himself with the girl guerrilla. The second half, down a little. It's still a wonderful picture...Every picture he trumps the trump...you forget that this is your profession. You just get lost in the picture."
That is the goal of any filmmaker... make the audience get lost in the picture. Never let 'em go.