Last week, the world of screenwriting lost a legend. William Goldman, who won two Oscars for BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, died on 16 November at the age of 87. Now, WriteMovies takes a look at his legacy and what we can learn from it…
If there’s one thing that it’s easy to agree on, it’s that William Goldman was a phenomenal writer. His incredible wit made his films infinitely quotable, and no more so than THE PRINCESS BRIDE, which was based upon his own book of the same name. In fact, his talent with words was so great that one of the most memorable lines in the film is a single word: “Inconceivable!” (Although, immediately followed by the remark: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”)
But wit alone isn’t enough to make a great story. Throughout his career, William Goldman showed a profound understanding of what stories are really about; THE PRINCESS BRIDE gives us everything we could possibly want from an adventure film, with romance, action, dashing heroes, evil villains, and daring feats of bravery. Yet it also defies our expectations enough to give us something new. It feels simultaneously like something very familiar and like something we’ve never seen before.
This is a kind of balance that it’s hard to pull off, but you can see it again in BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID. When the script was first written, only one studio showed any interest, and even then they wanted it changed so that the main characters wouldn’t flee to South America. After all, the heroes in Westerns at the time didn’t flee – no matter what the real Butch and Sundance did! In the end, it survived in the script, as did plenty of other genre-defying elements, most notably the famous bicycle-riding scene set to the song “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head“.
William Goldman wasn’t just great with words, he was great with stories too. He understood structure, character, pacing, tone, and all the other things that keep an audience captivated – and then he strung them all together with wit and charm. In his own words:
“Screenplays are structure, and that’s all they are. The quality of writing—which is crucial in almost every other form of literature—is not what makes a screenplay work. Structure isn’t anything else but telling the story, starting as late as possible, starting each scene as late as possible. You don’t want to begin with “Once upon a time,” because the audience gets antsy.”
The stories that William Goldman gave us will probably last as long as film itself. His book “Adventures in the Screen Trade” is a fantastic way to learn from the master himself – and after all, what could be a better tribute to him than giving it a read?
The world of film lost another great last week with the death of comic book legend Stan Lee. You can read our tribute to him by clicking here.