Hiding Plot Points
Billy Wilder was nominated for the Best Screenplay Oscar® eight times and won the award three times. He was a top screenwriter in his native home of Germany until he fled to the United States after the Nazi’s came to power … and ended up sleeping on Peter Lorre’s sofa while he learned English. Maybe it was because he was unsure of writing American dialogue, but Wilder soon became famous for his visual storytelling. Paramount had a script that was too long and hired Wilder to trim it. The original writer had a brilliant 10-page dialogue scene where a husband and wife discussed how the thrill was gone in their marriage … how they were just going through the motions. It was a great scene … but Wilder replaced it with a half page that gave the audience the same information visually. The husband and wife are on an elevator, standing on opposite sides of the car as if they don’t know each other. They are silent. The woman carries her purse; the man has his hat on. The elevator stops and a pretty girl gets on. The man takes off his hat and smiles at her. The wife looks away.
Ten pages distilled to half a page that shows us how the thrill has gone from their relationship. All of this was done through actions – characters “doing things” that exposes character. No long-winded dialogue scenes, no talking heads; we witness an action first-hand, rather than hear about it later through dialogue. Actions are more immediate than words … and more subtle than words.
Billy Wilder said, “The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.” So, let’s look at sneaking in plot points in a way that doesn’t need all kinds of exposition.
If you haven’t seen The Apartment (1960), shame on you! The film only won five Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay — and was nominated for five more! It’s the story of office worker C.C. Baxter (Jack Lemmon) who has a nice rent-controlled apartment not that far from the huge office building he works in for Consolidated Life Insurance Company. Baxter dreams of moving upstairs someday, but how does one of hundreds of employees at the company get a promotion? Well, Baxter does favors for several executives by loaning them his apartment for their extramarital affairs with secretaries and women they meet in bars. While the executive is getting lucky and drinking Baxter’s booze and eating his snack crackers, Baxter is often standing around outside in the rain waiting for them to leave so he can go home. All of these mid-level executives keep telling him that they are putting in a good word for him, but he’s still working in that pit on a lower floor.
Then he gets a call to see Mr. Sheldrake (Fred MacMurray) way up on one of the top floors! His promotion? He tells the sweet elevator operator he flirts with every day, Fran Kubelik (Shirley MacLaine), that this is his big day; he’s getting a promotion!
But Sheldrake just hints at some future promotion. Like everyone else, he wants to use Baxter’s apartment for his affair. In addition, he wants Baxter to make him a key (for the others, he just left his key under the door mat). Sheldrake wants to use the apartment tonight, even though Baxter is suffering from a cold and just wants to get to bed early. However, Sheldrake offers an incentive: two tickets to the hottest show on Broadway!
On the elevator ride down, Baxter asks Fran if she’d like to see that hit Broadway show with him tonight. These are “Grade A” tickets, best seats in the house! Fran says she has to see someone first, but she could meet him at the theater. It’s a date!
But Fran never shows.
Baxter sees the show alone.
The next day, Baxter goes to see Mr. Sheldrake. It seems the woman Sheldrake was with in his apartment the night before left her compact. The mirror in the compact is broken, but Baxter says it wasn’t his fault, he found it that way. Sheldrake explains that the woman “threw it at him” the night before, which is why it’s broken. They had a little disagreement, but now everything is okay. They put the apartment to good use.
Yes, this is a film from 1960. We never see people having sex, but we know that’s what they are using the apartment for. In fact, those other executives have some pretty overtly sexy lady friends and Baxter has found things far more suggestive than a compact in the apartment.
At the office Christmas Party, Fran apologizes for standing him up. What she thought was going to be just one drink with a friend took a little longer than expected. Baxter completely forgives her (he’s in love with her) and offers to show her his new office. Really just a walled corner cubicle with its own door, but so much better than being in that pit with hundreds of other employees. It’s quiet in his new office. He also shows her his new hat, an executive bowler. He tries it on for her, but there’s no mirror in the office so he doesn’t know what he looks like. So he takes out her compact, pops it open so that he can look in the mirror …
And that mirror is broken.
What does this tell us?
There is no dialogue that gives us any of this information, just that broken mirror. But the audience knows exactly what is going on — how this broken mirror has complicated everything and created a massive problem for Baxter. The woman he loves is sleeping with his boss; and he’s not only heartbroken, he can’t think of any way to solve this problem. He wants to get ahead in the business but one of the reasons he wants to get ahead is so that he can afford to take out Fran. Sheldrake might give him more great Broadway theater tickets, but he can never use them to take out Fran.
SHOW DON’T TELL
Baxter goes out to a bar and gets really drunk. How can we tell he’s really drunk? Well, he makes a complicated design with his martini olives … and there are a lot of martini olives! The audience can do the math: If each of those olives is from a martini, this guy is probably too drunk to walk.
He’s definitely too drunk to notice the woman at the end of the bar trying to get his attention. She keeps blowing straw wrappers at him, and they bounce off him without him even feeling them. Soon he is covered in straw wrappers, but still hasn’t noticed the woman at the end of the bar. She gets off her stool and wobbles over to introduce herself. She’s married, but her husband is spending Christmas Eve in jail and she would like some holiday company. Baxter is on the rebound, and decides to take this married woman back to his apartment … when the bar closes. Hey, lots of married people have had sex in his apartment, why not join the fun?
Meanwhile, Fran and Sheldrake are using Baxter’s apartment.
Fran has a Christmas present for Sheldrake: a record album from the musician at the night club they go to before coming to Baxter’s apartment. Sheldrake says he has a gift for Fran … and opens his wallet and pulls out a $100 bill.
So, how does that make Fran feel?
Doesn’t even have to be said, does it?
Then Sheldrake makes it worse by saying he’s got to get home to his wife and children. This is Christmas Eve. “Time to be with the family.” And he leaves.
And Fran is alone in this stranger’s apartment.
She goes into the bathroom to splash cold water on her face and sees something reflected in the shaving mirror — a bottle of prescription sleeping pills on the shelf. She takes the bottle of sleeping pills down from the shelf and looks at them, including the overdose warning, then replaces them. She reaches into her purse, and that $100 bill almost falls out. She grabs it, and then looks at the sleeping pill bottle again.
No dialogue, no monologue but you know what she’s thinking, right? And you even know what happens next. The great thing about this scene is that she is contemplating suicide. She puts the bottle back, right? Then that damned $100 bill makes her feel used and abused again, and she reaches for the pill bottle.
Do we need dialogue for that?
Then Baxter comes back to the apartment with the drunk married woman whose husband is in jail, tells her to wait outside in the hallway for a moment while he tidies up, and enters to find all of the remnants of Sheldrake and Fran’s affair (one unpleasant reminder of an item at a time) and eventually spots Fran in his bed.
Great moment: He probably fantasized about having Fran in his bed a hundred times, and now here she is — his boss’s mistress — on a night when Baxter has a rebound woman waiting to share that bed with him. So, he must kick Fran out of his bed.
Except he can’t get Fran to wake up.
And then he spots the empty bottle of sleeping pills and a sealed envelope on his night stand addressed to Sheldrake.
Okay, do we need any dialogue for this? Can the audience figure out what has happened on their own? And how does this make the audience feel?
That broken compact and this suicide attempt are big plot points in the story. Major, major turning points in Baxter’s life. Nevertheless, none of them has any neon lights or fingers pointing at them or even any dialogue. It’s all done through the actions of the characters — what happens as a natural result of who they are and what situation they are in.
By the way, if you think this is all very dark — it is! Moreover, it’s even darker because this film is a comedy! It’s about how Baxter is trying to get ahead in business by loaning out his apartment to cheaters — and all of the funny things that come with that. When Baxter runs from overdosed Fran, past the drunken woman in the hall, to the apartment next door where a doctor and his wife live and begins pounding on the door in the middle of the night on Christmas Eve, the doctor (Jack Kruschen) grabs his bag and wonders how Baxter managed to get two women on Christmas Eve. The doctor and his wife are a running gag, because they live next door and hear sex from the apartment every single night! And with different women! The doctor wants to know if Baxter will donate his body to science after he dies, because this guy has something that is getting all of these women to sleep with him. So, all of these misconceptions are funny! And Jack Lemmon is a light comedy lead who does things like strain spaghetti with a tennis racquet. Of course, Wilder and his writing partner I.A.L. Diamond are satirizing the whole Madison Avenue big business world of the 1960s — that world from Mad Men. If you haven’t seen it, I won’t spoil what happens after this suicide attempt. But you can see how all of these plot points can be made “invisible” with no one sledgehammering in “what this means” with dialogue. The audience figures it out on their own.
Which brings us to another piece of screenwriting advice from Billy Wilder: “A tip from [Ernst] Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.”
William C. Martell
William C. Martell has written 19 films that were carelessly slapped onto celluloid: 3 for HBO, 2 for Showtime, 2 for USA Net, and a whole bunch of CineMax Originals (which is what happens when an HBO movie goes really, really wrong). He has been on some film festival juries, including Raindance in London (five times – serving with Mike Figgis, Saffron Burrows, Lennie James, Edgar Wright and in 2013 with Julian Assange). The late Roger Ebert discussed his work with Gene Siskel on his 1997 “If We Picked The Winners” Oscar show. He’s quoted a few times in Bordwell’s great book The Way Hollywood Tells It. His USA Net flick Hard Evidence was released on video the same day as the Julia Roberts’ film Something To Talk About and out-rented it in the USA. A few years back he had two films released on DVD on the same day and both made the top-10 rentals. Recently wrote the remake of a hit 1980s horror flick, and later this year should have both a family film shooting. He’s the author of Secrets of Action Screenwriting, Hitchcock: Experiments In Terror, and the Blue Book series.