Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Writing Lessons from Casablanca
Sharon Dunn
I spent an afternoon watching Casablanca, a movie I have seen a dozen times. Only this time, I watched it not as a viewer, but as a writer. Movies contain some of the same elements as fiction writing (character development, story structure and theme) and are always a fun and short hand way to learn how to write better. 

What makes Casablanca such a timeless story and how could those same elements be applied to my own books? Although I am sure there are many things to be learned by studying Casablanca, I found three things to think about.

Lesson No. 1

A great story offers a little picture within a larger picture. The little picture is the character’s personal stories. The little picture in Casablanca is the love triangle between Rick, Ilsa and Victor. Ilsa loves both Victor and Rick and she must choose between them, a typical romance. But the bigger picture of the love story taking place during war time causes the movie to address much deeper issue of the human condition beyond romantic love. Themes like sacrifice, patriotism and morality and survival in war time are all touched on. There is tension between the small circumstances and the larger issues. As Ilsa puts it “with the whole world crumbling, we picked this time to fall in love.” Also the circumstances of the bigger story create the conflict within the smaller story. In a romance, hero and heroine are brought together and torn apart. Ilsa becomes involved with Rick because she believes that Victor had been killed in a concentration camp. The occupation of Paris instigates the separation between Rick and Ilsa. Victor and Ilsa’s need to escape to the U.S. sends them to Casablanca where Rick runs his night club.

Lesson No 2

Great stories have complex and seemingly contradictory characters. While all the characters in Casablanca are multi-faceted, Rick is one of the most intriguing. Twice in the early scenes, Rick asserts that he “sticks his neck out for no one” indicating he is not a man who gets involved with causes or helps other people. Yet other characters offer a different picture of who Rick used to be. In the past, Rick ran guns to the Ethiopians, fought against the fascists in Spain and generally took the side of the underdog. Scenes with Ilsa imply that she hurt him so deeply that he didn’t want to risk sticking his neck out again. More mystery about his character is presented through Rick’s actions. The fact that Rick doesn’t sell black market visas may be because he doesn’t want to get involved and it may reveal his integrity. Rick’s true character rises to the surface when he helps a young Bulgarian couple win at roulette so they will have money for visas and so the wife doesn’t have to continue to sell her body to get the money. Tension rises from the contradictions within a character. Rick changes over the course of the movie and is once again willing to stick his neck out to help Ilsa and Victor escape. Contradiction and change create an interesting character. 

Lesson No. 3

A great story has a twist ending that is both a surprise and makes perfect sense. If you are one of the three people in American who has not seen Casablanca you might want to stop reading. I am about to give away the ending. Up until the last few minutes of the film, it looks as though Rick and Ilsa will fly off into the sunset. At the last second, Rick tells Ilsa to get on the plane with Victor, his plan all along. This is one of the places where the big picture affects the little picture. Victor has been established as a man who not only shows his love for his wife by risking his own life, but has also risked his life for the war effort. His escape will make a difference in the outcome of the war. The twist here is that Rick doesn’t end up with the girl, yet he is still heroic because he has sacrificed his own desire for Ilsa (little picture) for a greater moral good (big picture). Though the choice is a surprise, the groundwork for it to be believable is laid when Rick helps the Bulgarian couple.   

Casablanca is a classic movie that can be watched time and again because of the complexity of the storyline and characters. Rick might assert that the “problems of three little people don’t amount to hill of beans in this world” but they certainly amount to a timeless story that we as writers could learn much from. Casablanca is so well written, so compelling every time I watch it, I find myself thinking that this will be the time that Rick actually gets on the plane. I invite you to sit down with this classic movie and a bowl of popcorn and discover ways to improve your own storytelling.   


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