My wife and I watched the 1942 classic Casablancaa few nights ago. It had been over a dozen years since I had seen it, and it was the first time for my wife. All I have to say is that the movie is classic for a reason, and that it gets better with each viewing.
And what struck me were the lessons this movie provides about novel writing. Sure, it’s a different art than screenwriting, but several techniques translate very well across the mediums. Here are the ones that struck me.
I won’t give away the plot here, since this isn’t a movie review per se, and because I want you to watch it in a pristine, unspoiled state. But there may be mild spoilers, so don’t get mad at me if you keep reading! Setting. Rick’s cafe seems like a place you’d want to hang out in, gambling and drinking and listening to Sam and his band play jazz. But it was also a dangerous place, always under the eye of the authorities and the setting for some violent confrontations.
The city of Casablanca is likewise unique: An exotic, officially neutral North African town filled with refugees trying to escape to Lisbon and then America, fortune seekers, and constant tension between the Free French, Vichy French, Nazis, and Allies.
Lesson: A living, breathing setting acts as another character, and can inspire ideas and plot points you may not have thought of before. It can be a city, a house, a cave, a country, or a planet. By putting the effort into setting, you create another tool for adding drama, comedy, and everything in between.
Atmosphere. There is a pervasive sense of danger and dread in Casablanca, as though time is running out, not just for the characters, whether in love or trying to escape the Nazis, but for the world itself. It gives everything a heightened sense of urgency that even the revelry at Rick’s can’t cover up. Indeed, the parting of Rick’s guests is tragic, laughter in the face of inevitable evil. Remember, this movie was made when it still looked like the Nazis were unstoppable.
Lesson: A sense of urgency, of time running out, will give your story more emotional and visceral heft, make your characters’ actions more compelling, and make the reader want to keep reading to find out what will happen next.
Dialogue. Much of this movie’s classic lines were written on the fly, or improvised (“Here’s lookin’ at you, kid.”). But what stands out to be is how each character in Casablanca speaks in a unique way, and there is not a wasted line of dialogue.
Every word uttered in this movie had to be spoken. The dialogue is snappy without sounding forced, particularly Bogart’s lines and his delivery. The responses characters give sound unique without seeming too clever.
Lesson: Trim the fat. Sometimes us writers try to make things sound more “realistic” with “Well” and “so” and “um” and lots of ellipses. But it doesn’t work in movies, and it doesn’t work in print.
And think through how your characters speak: Do they have certain verbal tendencies? Say very little? Offer quips or asides? Everyone should sound different without sounding written. It’s difficult, but watching Casablanca, you can get an idea of how it’s done.
Subtle implication. After the scene with the Bulgarian refugees seeking help from Rick, my wife said, “So Renault was making women sleep with him in order to get exit papers?”
That is, of course, exactly what was happening. But the words “sleep with” and “sex” and anything explicit were never said. This is due in large part to the Motion Picture Production Code, which was in effect from 1930 to 1968. But note how the intended message still gets across.
Lesson: Don’t always be on the nose. In real life, people very rarely say exactly what’s on their mind. Sometimes they even lie. Your characters shouldn’t always be super-literal and honest. Likewise for situations. Do you need an explicit sex scene, or gory violence? Sometimes it works. But other times it can be more effective to imply things than show them. An old English teacher of mine used to critique writing with the abbreviation “HMOTHWAS,” which translates to “Hit me over the head with a sledgehammer.” As in, don’t do it.
Contrasting types. Rick is a jaded, selfish cynic who sticks his neck out for no one. Laszlo is a pure, noble, concentration-camp surviving thorn in the Nazis’ who will never stop fighting. Renault is a petty, venal authority figure whose politics blow with the wind. Ilsa is a conflicted soul who knows she has made a mistake but can’t help how she feels. Sam is a loyal friend of Rick’s, and often the voice of reason, telling Rick what he needs to hear. Need I go on?
Lesson: Friction and conflict make for interesting stories. If everyone is the same and agrees with each other all the time, you have the makings of a snoozer. Each character in Casablanca, when paired with another, will provide a wildly different conversation and set of circumstances. Use this to your advantage in your own writing.
Tough choices. I’ve written about this before, and Casablanca exemplifies this: It sets up a situation where, no matter what Rick does, he will be unhappy. But what is the right thing for Rick to do? And is he good enough to do it, despite the personal costs to him?
Ah, but that’s why we care enough to keep watching.
Lesson: What writer Misha Burnett calls “a sense of moral peril” is what will really give your story emotional heft. Forcing choose the proverbial lesser of two evils, or to do the right thing even if it will harm them, or to make a decision against their nature will always make for interesting situations that’ll keep readers turning the page because they just have to find out what happens next, dammit! Use this to your advantage. You see how much more impact Rick’s choice has given that Laszlo is such a good man?
So there you have it: A movie that is over three-quarters of century old doubles a master-class in writing. If you’ve never seen Casablanca, I highly recommend you watch it. If you have seen Casablanca, watch it again. All of those “best movie ever” accolades are well-deserved…even though Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman reportedly didn’t like the movie and wanted out.