Screenwriting

Writing Screenplays – Everything You Need to Know You Can Learn from City Lights

Okay, that’s a bald overstatement. You can’t learn everything you need to know about writing screenplays from City Lights, but you can get pretty close if you pay close attention to one scene in the film.

You’ve probably seen it—Charlie Chaplin meets the blind flower vendor—but I recommend that you screen it again. Several times, if you can. The scene is only two and a half minutes long. Here’s the scene, summarized:

The Little Tramp (Chaplin) sees a policeman and avoids him by ducking into a parked car and stepping out the other side onto a sidewalk where a young woman (Virginia Cherrill) is selling flowers. She hears the car door slam, assumes he’s rich (or affluent enough to own an automobile), and asks him to purchase a flower. It’s a silent film and there’s no dialogue card for these lines, but you can read her lips, “Flower sir? Buy a flower?” A moustache-twitching moment of deliberating. He’s torn. Poor. “Would you buy a flower, sir?” He decides that he will. She holds up two flowers. He points to the one in her right hand. She offers the other. A little impatient, he touches her right hand. When the flower accidentally falls on the sidewalk, he picks it up. She stoops to get it but when she can’t find it, she says in a second dialogue card, “Did you pick it up, sir?” He gives her an “oh, come on” look, holds out the flower, but she doesn’t see it. He moves the flower in front of her face and realizes she’s blind.

Deeply moved, he tips his hat and gently puts the flower in her hand. She pins it to his lapel and waits for her money. He digs in his pocket for what may be his last coin, looks longingly at it, and puts it into her hand. She curtsies and backs up toward her change box on the cement wall. The Little Tramp takes her hand and helps her sit down. As she starts to make change, the rich man returns to his car, slams the door, and drives away. She calls to him and a second dialogue card appears, “Wait for your change, sir.” In a lovely form = content shot, the camera pans back and forth from the car to the flower vendor as the Little Tramp puts it together: She thinks he’s rich. Deciding he’d like to keep it that way, he tiptoes around the corner out of sight. But off-screen he decides that he wants to see her again, so he sneaks back around the corner and sits by the fountain and watches her adoringly as she walks to the fountain and rinses her water bucket. Unaware that he’s there, she chucks the dirty water right in his face. He tiptoes past her out of the frame.

What can you learn from this scene? Five easy lessons:

First, dialogue is not essential to creating a pattern of human change in a screenplay. Film is visual. Volumes of speech are conveyed by the actors. As my former colleague Charlie Boyd said, “Thoughts register on film.”

Don’t get me wrong, I’m a great fan of talk—if it’s highly entertaining and/or illuminates or moves the pattern of human change forward. Pulp Fiction—one of the talkiest films in the world—does this better than most. So I don’t buy that old saw that talk in screenplays is bad. Bad talk is bad. Dialogue that doesn’t move the story forward (more on this later), that’s too familiar, too clichéd, or too on the nose can be deadly.

Second, this scene from City Lights shows us that significant human change can occur in a very short time. In this case, two and a half minutes. As he humors the flower vendor by buying a flower, the Little Tramp is profoundly changed.

So third, this scene is a wonderful illustration of external events forcing internal change. There’s a clear surface action (buying a flower) and deep action (falling in love). And, I would argue, gaining compassion. Falling in love/gaining compassion is the Little Tramp’s character arc. I find it useful to draw the character arc, and, using my sophisticated screenplay notation, it looks something like this:

In two and a half minutes, because of external events, the Little Tramp’s internal landscape is altered forever (or, at least, for the rest of this film).

Amazing.

Fourth, this excerpt shows that a rich and resonant scene often has more than one moment of change. It’s an oyster with numerous pearls. Let’s look at the scene one more time, this time looking for discoveries and decisions that the Little Tramp makes:

The Little Tramp (Chaplin) sees a policeman (discovery) and avoids him by ducking into a parked car (decision) and stepping out the other side onto a sidewalk where a young woman (Virginia Cherrill) is selling flowers. She hears the car door slam, assumes he’s rich (or affluent enough to own an automobile—a false discovery), and asks him to purchase a flower (a discovery for him). It’s a silent film and there’s no dialogue card for these lines, but you can read her lips, “Flower sir? Buy a flower?” A moustache-twitching moment of deliberating. He’s torn. Poor. “Would you buy a flower, sir?”

He decides that he will (decision).

She holds up two flowers. He points to the one in her right hand (decision). She offers the other. A little impatient, he touches her right hand. When the flower accidentally falls on the sidewalk, he picks it up. She stoops to get it but when she can’t find it, she says in a second dialogue card, “Did you pick it up, sir?” He gives her an “oh, come on” look, holds out the flower, but she doesn’t see it. He moves the flower in front of her face and realizes she’s blind (discovery).

Deeply moved, he tips his hat and gently puts the flower in her hand. She pins it to his lapel and waits for her money. He digs in his pocket for what may be his last coin, looks longingly at it, and puts it into her hand (decision). She curtsies and backs up toward her change box on the cement wall. The Little Tramp takes her hand and helps her sit down.

As she starts to make change, the rich man returns to his car, slams the door, and drives away. She calls to him and a second dialogue card appears, “Wait for your change, sir.” In a lovely form = content shot, the camera pans back and forth from the car to the flower vendor as the Little Tramp puts it together: She thinks he’s rich (discovery). Deciding he’d like to keep it that way (decision), he tiptoes around the corner out of sight.

But, off-screen, he decides (decision) that he wants to see her again, so he sneaks back around the corner and sits by the fountain and watches her adoringly as she walks to the fountain and rinses her water bucket. Unaware that he’s there, she chucks the dirty water right in his face (a discovery for him). He tiptoes past her out of the frame (decision).

Thirteen moments of change in two and a half minutes. Six discoveries, seven decisions. You might find more. Each moment of change shifts the direction of the scene’s energy and emotional flow. That means the scene has tiny reversals. These give it richness and texture. “Every scene is made up of the texture of the minor reverses a character encounters trying to get his or her way,” Ben Brady and Lance Lee write in The Understructure of Writing for Film and Television.

If you diagrammed this City Lights scene, those reverses would look something like this:

In Making Shapely Fiction, Jerry Stern calls this “zigzagging.” “Microplotting.” “Creating fluctuations of feeling to maintain a high degree of attention.” But more important than keeping your audience’s attention, Stern says, is psychological truth:

Zigzagging reflects psychological reality, the way hopes and fears alternate, how in our desperation we leap at solutions that we quickly reject, how human situations can change drastically from one moment to the next. And for readers [or audiences] zigzagging makes each scene electric with suspense.5

I like to call zigzagging a scene’s EKG. But a scene without change (unless, as previously noted, it provides important mood, atmosphere, or time with the character) looks more like this:

And what have you got? A dead scene.

Fifth, the City Lights scene illustrates emotional flow. The Little Tramp comes into the scene concerned about the police who were angry at him in scene one after he was discovered under the tarp at the statue’s unveiling (if you haven’t seen the whole film, you’ll have to take my word for this). So now, when he sees the policeman, he ducks into the car. After meeting the flower vendor and falling in love, he leaves the scene with new emotion, and that will flow to the next scene he’s in, the invisible thread connecting the scenes.

Of course there’s much more to learn from this scene; I learn something new each time I watch it. Like the brilliant use of surprise: Just as the scene’s getting sappy, the Little Tramp gets a bucket of water smack in the face. What a great comic instinct. As Billy Crystal once said, describing what good comedy does, “Take ’em one way, then take ’em another.”

And that’s the screenwriter’s job. Taking the story one way, then taking it another. Making change. Knowing your story’s moments of change, why they make a difference to your character, and writing them so well they matter to us. Crafting a credible, compelling pattern of human change out of discoveries and decision and the action and emotions that flow in between. Narrating them in screenplay form. Which brings us to format, something that throws a whole lot of people the first time they see it.

“To this day I remember staring at the page in shock,” William Goldman writes in Adventures in the Screen Trade. “I didn’t know what it was exactly I was looking at, but I knew I could never write in that form, in that language.”

What he was looking at wasn’t a screenplay, it was a shooting script, full of numbered slug lines and medium shots and close-ups and medium long shots. He didn’t know that, so he invented his own screenplay form, an extreme and highly creative reaction, to say the least, but then, this is William Goldman we’re talking about.

Screenplay format is really quite simple. It’s the easy part of screenwriting, once you understand it. And though I don’t recommend reinventing the wheel, there’s still plenty of room for invention.

Image by Rob Nguyen via Flickr

Excerpt from Crafting Short Screenplays That Connect, 4th Edition by Claudia H Johnson © 2015 Taylor and Francis Group. All Rights Reserved.

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