For my birthday, my wife took me out for a night on the town that included a screening of Sunset Boulevard at the ImaginOn playhouse. It was part of a series entitled “Hollywood Shoots Itself: 11 Movies About Movies.” I saw Sunset Boulevard decades ago while working as a projectionist at a small television station, and was amazed at what I could remember — AND at what I’d forgotten.
Joe Gillis, played by William Holden, is an ambitious writer in 1949 Hollywood, but hasn’t sold a script in months. In typical writerly fashion, he wonders if just maybe his scripts are “too original” for Hollywood. (Hey, I’ve been guilty of that. How about you?) Anyway, Gillis finally snags an appointment with a producer, and makes his best elevator speech about a script for a movie with the working title Bases Loaded:
All right, Gillis. You’ve got
five minutes. What’s your story
It’s about a ball player, a rookie
shortstop that’s batting 347. The
poor kid was once mixed up in a hold-
up. But he’s trying to go straight —
except there’s a bunch of gamblers
who won’t let him.
So they tell the kid to throw the
World Series, or else, huh?
More or less. Only for the end
I’ve got a gimmick that’s real good.
Lesson for Writers Number 1: Your story has to stand out. Not only must the stakes be high, but you have to have a concept that’ll intrigue and entertain. It’s too easy to resort to stale formulas and hope YOUR version of a plot that’s been done to death will be different because YOU are the writer. News flash: It’ll take more than good writing or, worse, some kind of gimmick to get readers’ attention. Writers have to offer both a theme that readers will identify with as well as an interesting new twist on that theme. Gillis just doesn’t get it.
But he runs into someone who does when Sheldrake summons Betty, one of his readers, played by a businesslike but adorable Nancy Olson:
Hello, Mr. Sheldrake. On that Bases
Loaded. I covered it with a 2-page
(She holds it out)
But I wouldn’t bother.
What’s wrong with it?
Just a rehash of something that
wasn’t very good to begin with.
Ouch. But Betty’s right about Gillis’ script. In fact, everyone can see it’s a stale muffin except Gillis. Betty and Gillis gradually forget their awkward first meeting and couple up, but guess what? Even after Betty falls in love with Gillis, she still thinks Bases Loaded is a turkey.
That brings us to Lesson for Writers Number 2: Don’t take criticism personally. When you hear your wip doesn’t have what it takes, it doesn’t mean your readers don’t like you. Consider that the problems come from your manuscript rather than the debased natures of the philistines who don’t swoon over your work.
If you haven’t seen Sunset Boulevard, or haven’t seen it in a while, check it out. It’s a treasure chest of hilarious, sad, embarrassing, and educational scenes for all writers.