What Classic Hollywood Can Teach Us About Writing

writing, how to, books, novels, plotting, plot, romance, Regency, research, film, movies, Hollywood, screenwriting, cinema, old movies, classic film, Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell


We live in an age when anything can and usually does end up on screen. Characters have no problem discussing the most intimate topics or being placed in compromising situations, but this wasn’t always the case in Hollywood. In the mid 1930s, the Hays Code was introduced and film producers faced strict rules about what could and could not be said or portrayed on film. Working under these restrictions, filmmakers and screenwriters became very creative when dealing with adult subjects. It is this creativity that writers can learn from to bring depth and subtext to their own writing.

writing, how to, books, novels, plotting, plot, romance, Regency, research, film, movies, Hollywood, screenwriting, cinema, old movies, classic film, Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, tyrone power, the razor's edgeA great example of using subtext is the classic Tyrone Powers, Gene Tierney film The Razor’s Edge. In one scene, the heroine wants to get pregnant by her fiancĂ© so he won’t leave her. In 1946 when the film was made, the heroine couldn’t simply come out and admit her scheme. She and the hero had to dance around the subject yet, listening to the dialogue, it is obvious what is being discussed in the scene. It’s an excellent example of how characters can say everything while saying nothing.

writing, how to, books, novels, plotting, plot, romance, Regency, research, film, movies, Hollywood, screenwriting, cinema, old movies, classic film, Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell, his girl fridayClassic Hollywood films can also provide a great lesson in how to pepper in backstory through dialogue. His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant is a great example of how to use witty dialogue for both characterization and backstory. In the film, Russell and Grant play a divorced couple who work in the newspaper business. Most of the film takes place in the office of Grant’s newspaper, but there is no voice over telling us what happened to make Grant and Russell get a divorce. Instead, their past relationship is revealed in their verbal exchanges with the characters providing just enough information so the viewer knows what happened, but not so much that the action of the story stops for an info dump. The Philadelphia Story is another great film, staring Cary Grant, James Stewart and Katherine Hepburn where dialogue is successfully used to reveal backstory. The best example is with the character Liz, who is Stewart’s camerawoman, and the way she reveals her previous marriage. There are only about 3 lines where the ex-husband is mentioned but each paints a vivid picture of who he was and why the marriage didn’t last.

His Girl Friday is also a great film to watch if you are looking to add zing to your dialogue. At Times, Grant and Russell speak so fast that they practically step over each other’s lines. However, the way each of them speaks reveals their character and gives the viewer a sense of the fast paced life of a 1940’s newsroom.

writing, how to, books, novels, plotting, plot, romance, Regency, research, film, movies, Hollywood, screenwriting, cinema, old movies, classic film, Cary Grant, Rosalind Russell
So, if you're having trouble with dialogue, subtext and dropping in backstory, and you need some examples of how it’s done well, check out one of these great classic films. And, if you get a chance, please check out my novel Studio Relations. Set in 1935 Hollywood, it is the story of a vivacious female director and a handsome studio executive who must overcome their professional differences to find love during Hollywood’s golden age. 

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9 comments:

Linda Roy said...

I like this analogy a lot. Classic Hollywood had a lot of stories to tell that resonate even today. Thanks so much for linking at IDLM!

Keri Roberts said...

I love "His Girl Friday" and "The Philadelphia Story"!!! Two really fantastic movies! Thanks for sharing this information about classic Hollywood movies. I'll have to go back and watch them again to pick up on the different ways they said things without saying them.

Katrin@kreativk.net said...

I must admit, I don't know any of the movies above but now I'd love to see them! Thanks for all the info about them! And Thanks so much for sharing at Sweet Inspiration #2! Have a great week!

Carrie Bowers said...

I love older movies, but have not heard of these! I might need to check them out! Sometimes I think movies, cars, etc. from decades ago are so much better than now! Thanks for linking up with us at Blogger's Spotlight and please come back next week!

Gaye Christmus said...

Thanks so much for sharing with the Let's Get Real party.

Art From My Table said...

I went through a time when I watched old movies. It's been a long time, but you've inspired me. Love how you show by these examples that you can say everything without saying anything! Thanks for sharing at FTAF! Pinned.

Leah Ballard said...

Ah, classic films are so well-written! This makes me want to break out a few. I loved the way things often happened just 'off-camera,' as well, like the kiss on the ship in An Affair to Remember. Nice to know others can appreciate these classics and use them to learn about how to write in a clever way while keeping the reader's attention. Thanks for linking up at Welcome Home Wednesdays! Glad I found you there!

Raising Samuels said...

I think it was so much nicer back then when there was little to no profanity, or any of this harsh and scary elements that are in movies today. Thanks for sharing with #SocialButterflySunday! Hope to see you link up again this week :)

Rachel Newcomb said...

These are some of my favorite movies and you are right they have great dialogue and character interactions. Thanks for sharing at Mom-to-Mom Mondays.