Victorians' Secrets: A Nineteenth-Century Guide to Screenwriting, or How the Victorians Invented the Screenplay by Michael Halperin

This article posted with permission from The Writers Store. (

It may seem peculiar in the 21st century to discuss screenwriting in the same breath as anything that had to do with the 19th century. What does one have to do with the other? After all, the only visual representation that remotely resembled a motion picture was Muybridge’s zoopraxiscope: a revolving device consisting of a series of still shots photographed in sequence that appeared to move when viewed through a narrow viewing port. It had no story, only the novelty of movement. The imagination of the viewer filled in the rest.

Once motion pictures began telling stories, filmmakers looked to familiar models on which to build screenplays. The modern novel born in the 19th century gave them the model they needed.

In order to understand how Victorian fiction created the basic structure of motion pictures, we have to examine the times in which those novels were written. The years between the mid-19th century and the early teens of the 20th century resonate with us into the 21st century. Parallels exist between our time and an age that we have romanticized out of all proportion to the truth.

The so-called Victorian Era was rife with upheaval. The Industrial Revolution roared into Western civilization much the same way as the Technological Revolution roared into our own lives. It brought with it a disruption of social values. Middle class entrepreneurs found themselves swimming in money. Think dot-commers. Greed and wealth went hand-in-hand. Think Enron.

Aside from money, society also saw changing values in many other ways. While we look on Victorians as sexually corseted, diaries and newspapers of the time reported increases in violent sex crimes. A plague of sexually transmitted diseases—notably syphilis—affected every strata of society. Consider that HIV-AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are with us today.

Victorian-era writers reacted to their world in a number of ways. Jane Austen surveyed the scene with a deep sense of irony—an irony that finds itself at its height with ‘Emma.’ The theme of the novel is so modern that it became the source for a contemporary motion picture, ‘Clueless,’ written and directed by Amy Heckerling, as well as a film written and directed by Douglas McGrath that takes place within its own time.

Edith Wharton’s ‘Age of Innocence’ examines New York society in 1870 with a satiric eye, but it could be New York or Los Angeles, 2002. Success necessitates that an attorney marry a trophy wife. But he has a wandering eye and searches for the seductiveness of an illicit love affair with an exotic woman who has a checkered past.

The great Victorian writer, Charles Dickens, examined every aspect of life during those times: From the grimiest London cesspool to the heights of courage and daring. Although ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ takes place during the French Revolution of 1775, it reflects the mores and values of his time. Dickens constantly searched for soul in an age gone mad. So, too have we searched for soul within the confines of Vietnam or the Gulf War or Bosnia-Herzogovina or in the Middle East. In the same way that Dickens reverted to an earlier time where heroism could be accepted, in our time, we turn back to ‘Saving Private Ryan’ or ‘Band of Brothers’ where we can espouse simpler truths even if the veil of time obscures the terrible details of war’s horrors.

With his novels of the first decade of the twentieth-century, E. M. Forster predicted enormous changes in society. Pretense, Forster believed, was the mask behind which polite society hid its prejudices against the poor, against ethnic minorities, against all those ‘others’ who didn’t fit within the framework of the ‘haves.’ His stories peeled away pretense and echo our own times in which prejudice still raises its ugly head. We continue, as they did in 1910, to claim that the ‘other’ will destroy our society. Today, France votes for a Fascist in reaction to its minority population. Italy votes for a radical right wing government with its attendant bigotry.

Most novels of the era have an episodic structure. Almost every chapter ends with a hook to get the reader back into the story much the same way that screenwriters use hooks, large and small, to lead viewers from one scene to another.

Scenes carefully lay out with precision descriptions of the environment and carefully delineate characters who drive the story forward rather than go along for the ride. It’s as if the writers understood that visual elements of stories are as important as their literary qualities.

And why not? Museum art and calendar art or daguerreotypes and tintype photos were the only visuals available. Perhaps some people had a stereopticon. But storytelling was the main source of entertainment.

Even if a person couldn’t read, someone could read to them. Therefore, it became necessary to conjure up wonderful images of places and people who occupied those spaces. And since one did not read a novel all at once, it had to have cliffhangers so that the listener yearned to come back for more.

Writers such as Charles Dickens first published their novels a chapter at a time in weekly newspapers. The object was to make sure readers always bought the next installment. Something interesting had to happen at the end of each chapter. Since most writers were paid by the word, Dickens made sure he wrote enough to cover his bills.

How cinematic was Dickens? He understood one of the main conventions of a motion picture. He understood the ‘inciting incident’ necessary to start the action. The inciting incident produces the central core of the story—the reason for the story’s existence. As a result of this incident, the main character or characters must fight or claw toward the resolution that appears in the third act.

Most of us, who were forced to read ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ when we were in high school or college, only remember the opening of the novel: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Despair, it was the season of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going straight to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way’’

And the end with Sidney Carton’s heroic, melodramatic speech as he approached the guillotine in place of the romantic lead: ‘It is a far, far better thing that I do, then I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest I go to than I have ever known.’

But what starts it all? Above all things, the theme of ‘Tale’ is that of rape. Real and metaphoric rape creates the dynamics of the story. An evil aristocracy entombs Dr. Manette in the Bastille when he discovers they have raped and murdered a young peasant woman. Everyone becomes victim of the rape: Manette’s daughter, Lucy, married to Charles Darnay, a son of the aristocrats who is condemned to death by the French Tribunal, and, lastly, Sidney Carton who takes Darnay’s place. Metaphorically, the book describes in vivid detail the rape of a nation gone made with bloodlust.

Dickens writes the book in classic three-act structure. Book One titled ‘Recalled to Life’ sets up the conflict to come. Book Two, ‘The Golden Thread,’ the longest section, presents the conflict and tension. Book Three, ‘The Track of the Storm’ brings the romantic, heroic, melodramatic resolution to a close.

W. P. Lipscomb and S. N. Behrman, the screenwriters of the 1935 version of ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ follow the book almost word for word, image for image. It’s as if the novel was a detailed treatment, including the dialogue.

Dickens used dramatic hooks or dramatic dialogue to draw us from one chapter to another—or from one scene to another.

At the end of Chapter Three, Book One, Dr. Manette, now rescued and riding in the Dover Mail stage, raves about his burial in the Bastille. A disturbed passenger blurts out: ‘Eighteen years’Gracious Creator of the day! To be buried alive for eighteen years!’

The last paragraph of Book Two that leads us into the third act has Charles Darnay shipping out from Dover to France in order to save the life of a servant accused of being a monarchist because he served Darney’s family. Darnay, convicted in absentia by the Revolutionary Tribunal, places his life in jeopardy for a noble cause.

Edith Wharton’s novel ‘Age of Innocence,’ written during the Edwardian period, maintains many of the Victorian forms. To capture how Wharton and other writers of the period wrote cinematically, all we have to do is read a scene from the book and then take a look at how Jay Cocks and Martin Scorsese translated it to the screen. Very little changes. The screenwriters make a few juxtapositions and deletions because they deal with a different medium, and it requires its own language—the language of cinema.

Wharton carefully peels back layer upon layer of each character until they become revealed or exposed. Surprises arise, but always based on a careful foreshadowing of events. The author explores character as if she held an advanced degree in psychology. She isn’t alone. Austen, Dickens, Forster and others in the pantheon of writers of 100 or 120 years ago exhibited the same insight.

In ‘Howards End,’ E.M. Forster introduces a modern woman—Margaret—who makes the first advance against the wealthy tradesman, Wilcox. The author sets the scene with the Schlegel sisters, Margaret and Helen. Margaret will eventually marry the newly rich and widowed tradesman Henry Wilcox, setting off a chain of events that will change views on class and attitudes toward society.

Cinematically, Forster often opens each chapter with a piece of action or dialogue that grabs the reader immediately. He doesn’t tiptoe around and wait for something to happen. He engages the reader immediately. A lesson that screenwriters use over and over again to keep the action moving.

In one chapter, he begins with a shocking statement: ‘We are not concerned with the very poor. They are unthinkable, and only to be approached by the statistician or the poet.’ The screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, restates the prose as dialogue: ‘A word of advice. Don’t take up a sentimental attitude over the poor. The poor are poor. One is sorry for them, and there it is.’

The line expresses everything there is to know about Henry Wilcox, one of the newly wealthy merchants of England who, having amassed wealth, now takes his place in the House of Parliament. ‘Howards End’ explores the breaking down of a rigid class system.

Another chapter begins with ‘Leonard accepted the invitation to tea next Saturday. But he was right; the visit proved a conspicuous failure.’ The reader is set up for the coming storm in which Leonard feels used by Margaret and Helen Schlegel. The storm that bursts forth eventually changes Henry Wilcox who comes to accept, through Margaret, that the poor are poor, but are not necessarily doomed to perpetual poverty. He also comes to accept that women have capabilities beyond that of mothers and wives.

Those wishing to write screenplays would do well to study these writers and others from the period to understand structure, character and story development. How-to books have their uses—certainly as references—but nothing can take the place of reading novels by writers who understand and explore the human condition.

To understand both text and subtext in a story, you have to read these authors along with Emily Bront’, whose ‘Wuthering Heights’ and ‘Jane Eyre’ have been reborn again and again in film and television. You should study Joseph Conrad whose ‘Heart of Darkness’ was reincarnated by John Milius and Frances Ford Coppola as ‘Apocalypse Now.’ Digest Mary Shelley, who wrote one of the definitive horror novels/social commentaries with “Frankenstein.’ Discover the melodramatic, gothic George du Maurier, not as well known, but who gave us a character film and TV writers use over and over again: ‘Svengali’ from his book, ‘Trilby.’

Without them, cinema might not exist in its present form. Filmmakers in the nascent years of the industry had only those references for making motion pictures. That alone might be the reason so many early films were loaded with melodramatic devices. Unfortunately, the lessons learned from reading the books—or just hearing about them—only touched the surface of the material rather than delving deep into the subject matter.

Part of the reason came from a distrust of the audience. Filmmakers, no matter if they made dramas or pie-in-the-face comedies, felt that their audiences wouldn’t sit still for thought-provoking cinema. They presented ‘amusements’ rather than subtext. It took Griffiths in the United States, Lang in Germany, Abel in France and other great storytellers to understand that the great novels they read contained lessons they could use in the creation of a new language of cinema. Those lessons became the mainstay of motion pictures into the sound era where screenwriters extracted methodologies with which we have become familiar from storytelling of the previous 30 to 50 years.

We might have discovered all this without the modern novel that began in the 19th century. Or it may have taken a different direction. Certainly, the three-act structure has been with us since humans started telling stories around the smoking embers of campfires. However, the way in which we develop characters, the way in which we create dramatic devices to draw viewers deeper into the story, was the result of novels written for a public anxious to read about class struggle and struggles within class or who wanted to smile with the author’s satiric or ironic view of the world.

Therefore, while not immediately apparent, writers of the Victorian era initiated the language of cinematic style within their prose.

Author, playwright and screenwriter Michael Halperin teaches screenwriting and broadcasting at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles as well as a writing seminar at the American Film Institute and screenwriting seminars at UCLA’s Writers Program. He has written for popular television programs, among them ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation,’ ‘Falcon Crest,’ ‘Quincy’ and the animated series ‘Masters of the Universe.’ He is the author of three books on writing (see below) and co-author of the best-selling novel for children, ‘Jacob’s Rescue.’

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