Silent Movie Bookshelf: Photoplay Writing by William Lord Wright

Another day, another book from the New York Institute of Photography’s correspondence course for all would-be participants in the silent film industry. This 1922 book explains how to write for the movies.

I got my copy online and it was actually fairly cheap. You can still get vintage copies for a decent price if you are a smart shopper. And if you are feeling a bit stingy, the book is in the public domain so you can read it for free online.

A little background: Every generation, it seems, has a job that is supposed to make people a ton of money from home with no formal education. In the ‘teens and ‘twenties, there were tales of people getting thousands of dollars for a few lines of writing that got turned into movies. So this book is best enjoyed with that background in mind.

What is it?: A book that will teach you how to write for the silent motion picture. There are chapters on writing two-reel, five or six-reel, and serial motion pictures. Like previously-reviewed acting volume in this series, the introduction is less than encouraging. It’s like these books were written by Eeyore. Come to think of it, that’s probably healthy.

We hear that just anybody, in a few moments that they have to spare, can write a scenario and get a lot of money for it — that the motion picture companies are wild for stories and can’t find them fast enough.

Now this not true. There have been a very few people who could, without previous training or experience, write a story that would screen well, and that would sell. In the early days of the motion picture industry, such cases were more common than they are now, but even then they were few and far between.

Pictures: Like the acting volume, this book has some nice glossy photo plates. Just remember that if you buy the public domain reprint you may not get the photos.

Favorite Advice: Be sure to know your stars:

When remembering various stars’ peculiarities don’t forget that Gladys Walton always shows her knees.

Cover those kneecaps at your peril, kids!

And what of your serial script? Were you thinking of adding masked bandits and stolen gems? Think again!

No masked men, criminal conspirators, etc. will be countenanced in the serial market. Neither does the editor wish stories concerning diamonds which have been plucked from the eye of an idol and chased through a succession of serial episodes. Wilkie Collins’ “The Moonstone” has furnished material for countless stories, but that day has passed. Detective stories are also taboo, because the detective must have crime in order to detect it, and premeditated crime is barred by the censors.

As above stated, clean stories of adventure, full of romance and devoid of crime are what are wanted for the present day serial picture.

To Monty Python, you’re no fun anymore. And why is premeditated crime banned? The censors want us to only see maniacs who kill in a sudden fit of rage? That’s somehow healthier? What odd people these censors must have been. Incidentally, all the things they warn against can be found in silent serials.

And, finally, what of your intertitles? Well, you can’t write those. You’re not smart enough. Neither, apparently, is your intended audience.

There are opportunities for the free-lance writer to become a movie title writer. The profession is well paid, but a long course of studio training is essential. No outsider can succeed in writing movie titles unless he has knowledge of studio conditions and has the opportunity to work alongside the director and the film editor. The title editor is becoming more and more recognized as a vitally important cog in the machinery of motion-picture production, and he has finally received the credit so long denied him.

Expressive and rather “fine” writing is essential for motion-picture titles…

…The writer of film titles must ever bear in mind that the audiences who pay to see the production he titles are “mixed” audiences. By this we mean that both the educated and uneducated throng the movie theatres and the task of the title writer is to strike a happy medium — to present titles that will be readily understood and appreciated by the washerwoman as well as by the college graduate. To do this, honest English is required, and the shorter the adjectives the better.

Poor title writers. Just when they were getting somewhere, poof! sound movies. Good thing Star Wars showed up, amiright? (That was a joke.) But seriously, this is good advice for anyone making a modern silent film because more than one has been ruined by highfalutin language that the filmmakers seemed to think was old-fashioned. Applesauce! Pithy, witty cards are far more authentic unless you’re going for a William S. Hart thing in which case… carry on.

Fans of silent movies, anyone interested in filmmaking and even casual fans will find a lot to enjoy here.


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