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Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Writer Wednesday: What Classic Hollywood Can Teach Us About Writing

We live in an age when anything can and usually does end up on screen. Characters have no problem discussing the most intimate topics or being placed in compromising situations, but this wasn’t always the case in Hollywood. In the mid 1930s, the Hays Code was introduced and film producers faced strict rules about what could and could not be said or portrayed on film. Working under these restrictions, filmmakers and screenwriters became very creative when dealing with adult subjects. It is this creativity that writers can learn from to bring depth and subtext to their own writing.

A great example of using subtext is the classic Tyrone Powers, Gene Tierney film The Razor’s Edge. In one scene, the heroine wants to get pregnant by her fiancĂ© so he won’t leave her. In 1946 when the film was made, the heroine couldn’t simply come out and admit her scheme. She and the hero had to dance around the subject yet, listening to the dialogue, it is obvious what is being discussed in the scene. It’s an excellent example of how characters can say everything while saying nothing.

Classic Hollywood films can also provide a great lesson in how to pepper in backstory through dialogue. His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell and Cary Grant is a great example of how to use witty dialogue for both characterization and backstory. In the film, Russell and Grant play a divorced couple who work in the newspaper business. Most of the film takes place in the office of Grant’s newspaper, but there is no voice over telling us what happened to make Grant and Russell get a divorce. Instead, their past relationship is revealed in their verbal exchanges with the characters providing just enough information so the viewer knows what happened, but not so much that the action of the story stops for an info dump. The Philadelphia Story is another great film, staring Cary Grant, James Stewart and Katherine Hepburn where dialogue is successfully used to reveal backstory. The best example is with the character Liz, who is Stewart’s camerawoman, and the way she reveals her previous marriage. There are only about 3 lines where the ex-husband is mentioned but each paints a vivid picture of who he was and why the marriage didn’t last.

His Girl Friday is also a great film to watch if you are looking to add zing to your dialogue. At Times, Grant and Russell speak so fast that they practically step over each other’s lines. However, the way each of them speaks reveals their character and gives the viewer a sense of the fast paced life of a 1940’s newsroom.

So, if you are having trouble with dialogue, subtext and dropping in backstory, and you need some examples of how it’s done well, check out one of these great classic films. And, if you get a chance, please check out my newest release, Studio Relations. Set in 1935, it is the story of a vivacious female director and a handsome studio executive who must overcome their professional differences to find love during Hollywood’s golden age. It is available in both ebook and paperback from Montlake Romance

by Georgie Lee

Vivien Howard hasn’t forgiven Weston Holmes for almost derailing her career five years ago. Female directors in 1930s Hollywood are few and far between, and a man who coasts by on his good looks and family connections can’t possibly appreciate what it took for her to get to where she is. But when the studio head puts Weston in charge of overseeing Vivien’s ambitious Civil War film, she realizes she has a choice: make nice with her charismatic new boss or watch a replacement director destroy her dream.

Weston Holmes doesn’t know much about making movies, but he knows plenty about money. And thanks to the Depression, ticket sales are dangerously low. The studio can’t afford a flop—or bad press, which is exactly what threatens to unfold when an innocent encounter between Weston and Vivien is misconstrued by the gossip rags. The only solution? A marriage of convenience that will force the bickering duo into an unlikely alliance—and guide them to their own happy Hollywood ending. 

BIO: A dedicated history and film buff, Georgie Lee loves combining her passion for Hollywood, history and storytelling through romantic fiction. She began writing professionally at a small TV station in San Diego before moving to Los Angeles to work in the interesting but strange world of the entertainment industry.

Her traditional Regency, Lady’s Wager and her contemporary novella Rock ‘n’ Roll Reunion are both available from Ellora’s Cave Blush. Labor Relations, a contemporary romance of Hollywood is currently available from Montlake Romance. Mask of the Gladiator, a novella of ancient Rome is now available from Carina Press.

When not writing, Georgie enjoys reading non-fiction history and watching any movie with a costume and an accent. Please visit www.georgie-lee.com for more information about Georgie and her novels.



  1. Interesting Post. I'm a big fan of the golden age of Hollywood. Now, I'm going to have to go back and watch some of my favorite movies and watch them not to enjoy a great movie, but for technique. Thanks for passing on some great information.

  2. Great post! I love Cary Grant and I love His Girl Friday! Thanks for sharing!!