You can learn a lot from your favourite books and movies. Here are five lessons I picked up from my favourite film of all time, The Princess Bride, written by the incredible William Goldman. (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, All the President’s Men, and many others.)
- SURPRISE YOURSELF
You’ve heard others say you should kill your darlings when you write. No passage is so precious it can’t be scrapped if it fails to add to the whole. Goldman, though, went one step further: he killed his main character right in the middle of the book.
What’s extraordinary about this is that Westley’s death was completely unplanned. Goldman reports when he saw what he’d written he was utterly shocked, even though they were his own words. In his excellent book What Lies did I Tell? He gives a graphic account of how it happened:
“Westley lay dead by the machine…
You killed him, I thought. You killed Westley. How could you do such a thing?
I stared at the words some more, and then I lost it, began to cry. I was alone, you see, no one could help me get out of where I was and I was helpless. Even now, more than twenty years after, I can still truly feel the shocking heat of my tears. I pushed away from my desk, made it to the bathroom and ran water on my face. I looked up and there in the mirror this red-faced and wracked person was staring back at me, wondering who in the world were we and how were we going to survive.”
From Which Lie did I tell? by William Goldman: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Which-Lie-Did-I-Tell/dp/0747553173
Robert Frost is often quoted as saying, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader; no surprise for the writer, no surprise for the reader.” It’s obvious Goldman took that advice to heart.
While I can understand the need to have an outline, a template to follow as your write your book, you can’t be bound to it so completely that you lose all spontaneity. OK, killing your main character in the middle of the book is probably not the wisest course of action. Unless it reveals to you he wasn’t really your main character after all…
- CUT THE BORING BITS.
Goldman says when he was writing the novel of The Princess Bride there were some scenes that came easily: Fizzik’s rhymes. The swordfight on the Cliffs of Insanity. Inigo’s quest to find the six-fingered man. But he wasn’t sure how to link them up.
Eventually, he came up with the idea of writing a novel that was the abridged version of another book by S. Morgenstern. Morgenstern was a total invention, by the way, but the conceit gave Goldman a backdoor entry into the story. By writing the ‘edited’ version, the author was able to just keep the ‘good bits.’ Now there’s advice that’s wonderful because it’s true. If we all wrote books that were just the good bits how happier we and our readers would be.
The only difficulty is recognising those boring bits in the first place.
- YOU CAN’T FAKE TONE.
When William Goldman tells you something scares him you’d better pay attention. “Tone scares me,” he says. Why? “Because when it goes wrong it just sucks out loud.”
Think of the tone of The Princess Bride. Self-mocking, knowing, disrespectful in the best possible way. Imagine if the story was written in a very earnest manner. If Westley was pure of heart and utterly virtuous. But virtuous people rarely, if ever, wear masks. As a rule they avoid becoming pirates. They don’t skedaddle off to sea for years and let their true love think they’re dead. For shame. But if Westley was that good and pure the novel wouldn’t be The Princess Bride. And it wouldn’t as much fun either.
Tone matters. It tells the reader what sort of a book they’ve got. “Is this a kissing book?” the grandson asks his father. Well, yes and no…
The Princess Bride is a hodgepodge of styles. Which makes for fun reading but a nightmare of marketing. Is it a comedy? Romance? Action tale? All and none.
One of the things that lies comfortably in the tone of The Princess Bride is the type of characters it offers. We have a hero, in the form of Westley, but an anti-hero (who’s much more hero than anti) in the form of Inigo too. There’s the sidekick, Fizzik, and a courageous, beautiful heroine. The villains are really wicked and the ineffectual others are really ineffectual.
But they all, villains and heroes alike, reveal themselves through their wit. “I suppose you think you’re brave, Highness?” Vizzini asks Buttercup. She replies, “Only compared to some.” She doesn’t deny her courage, but she doesn’t make it into a banner to wave over the heads of others either.
“Unless I’m wrong—and I’m never wrong…” Humperdink says as he tracks the Man in Black into the fireswamp. Telling us everything we need to know about his arrogance.
The whole novel (and film) is full of quotes but the one people remember best is Inigo’s mantra: “Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
I love this. It’s as deadly as Inigo’s sword. It tells you he’s polite. He has a strong sense of self. That he has something to accuse the Six-fingered man of. And he spells out the consequences. And, since he’s a gentleman, he even gives his foe a chance to prepare for the inevitable. Even when it looks hopeless, when Inigo has been terribly wounded by the evil Count Rugen, he continues to say this phrase. Over. And over. And over. Eventually it unsettles the Six-fingered man and Inigo triumphs.
I think you can tell a lot about someone’s personality by who their favourite Princess Bride character is. For me, it’s Inigo. I love that he’s so loyal to the father Rugen killed. That he has done nothing but study swordfighting so when he faces his enemy he will not fail. That he faces death bravely, Kill me quickly. That he fought left-handed for most of his fight against Westley in order to give him a sporting chance. And, OK, that he looks like a young Mandy Patinkin doesn’t hurt… But of all the characters in the book—and this is a book all about the characters—and all ones Goldman has given us over the years, even including Butch Cassidy (who looked like a dazzling Paul Newman) for me Inigo is his greatest creation.
4. THE EASIEST THING ON EARTH TO DO IS NOT WRITE
Have a schedule, Goldman says. Eventually you’ll accept this is your writing time and you’ll get on with it. Remember, nobody made you be a writer.
It’s great advice, yes, yet I have to wonder how closely Goldman himself follows it.
Going back to his discussion about writing The Princess Bride, he says, “I remember doing the first chapter about how Buttercup became the most beautiful woman in the world…
But then I went dry.
The nightmare of all of us who put words on paper. I stormed around the city, wild with ineptitude, because, you see, all these moments had already happened in my head…”
We’ve all been there. Well, OK, I can’t speak for you, but I know I have. Even with his frantic wanderings, Goldman continued to fuss and fret over the novel and eventually he cracked it.
Imagine if he hadn’t done that. If there was a world without Buttercup and Fizzik and the awful Humperdink and heroic Inigo… It’s too awful to contemplate.
5. ENDINGS ARE A BITCH
Stories can’t just stop, they have to end.
Goldman is notoriously unhappy with his own endings and it’s true, they do seem to fizzle out a lot of the time. Marathon Man just sort of grinds to a halt. Butch and Sundance are frozen in at the last moment before they almost-certainly die. To my mind, it’s a fabulous idea really. The ending keeps them alive forever, but some people hate it. (I’m told there are people who also hate The Princess Bride, but I think that’s just an urban myth.)
To my mind, nothing will ever beat the conclusion of that novel when the Grandfather closes the book and turns to leave. The grandson, having finally realised the old man is pretty great really (come on, he’s Peter Falk!) asks if he’ll come back and read it again the next day. The grandfather says, “As you wish,” which, as we have learned, really means, “I love you.”
What happens to Humperdink afterwards? Did he swear revenge and send his four fastest ships out to look for Westley and Buttercup? Or, bereft of his right hand man, Count Ruger, did he just fade into fear and obscurity? Did Inigo become a Dread Pirate Roberts? He and Fizzik know something about boats so it’s possible.
The thing is, we don’t need Goldman to tell us. We know these characters so well, we can supply our own endings. Perhaps on some level Goldman knows that and that’s why he’s never been able to write the sequel.
Write me a book like that, why don’t you?
I hate waiting.