Casablanca: Three good scenes, no bad ones

That was Warner Brothers producer Hal Wallis’s definition of a great movie—at least three good scenes and no bad ones—according to Roger Ebert’s audio commentary on TYG’s special edition of Casablanca.
I think it’s a good standard for a successful story: Have three good things and no bad ones (the number is arbitrary—I’m not suggesting this as some binding rule). Or at least not bad enough to sink your story.
It’s not necessarily scenes. It could be say, vivid descriptions, a good plot and a memorable character. A horrifying monster, good writing and a clever ending. Throw in any good stuff and don’t have any obvious problems.
Casablanca, as Ebert points out, does have problems. It isn’t perfect. The plot hinges on the letters of transit Rick (Humphrey Bogart) has hidden, yet when the time comes to leave Casablanca, there’s no security checkpoint to pass and nobody to show them to. The letters are a McGuffin because nobody holding them can be stopped while in French territory, but Rick admits to Louie (Claude Rains) that the Nazis won’t let legalities stop them from holding someone.
Despite that it works because of the strong characters, strong actors, great dialogue and the good scenes (I’d nominate the flashback to Paris, the Marsellaise and the climax at the airport as the best, but there are several others). But I don’t think that’s a sign print writers can get away with the same.
It’s not so much the shift in media, though that matters (as Orson Scott Card, no amount of describing a character can give them the presence of Bogart or the beauty of Ingrid Bergman). It’s that I always assume Murphy’s Law is in operation. The fact that I’ve seen published novels with flat characters, cliched plots, draggy talky sequences doesn’t mean I can get away with any of that. Much as I’d like to ignore a couple of the problems my beta-readers brought up going over Impossible Takes a Little Longer (the hard-to-fix ones, of course), if it bothers them—even though they gave the book as a whole thumbs up—it needs to be fixed (problems I honestly don’t think are problems may be another matter, but that’s another topic). I want it to have several good things and no seriously flawed ones.
Here’s looking at you, kid.

5 Comments

Filed under Movies, Story Problems, Writing

5 responses to “Casablanca: Three good scenes, no bad ones

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