Read and Learn from the 'It's a Wonderful Life' Screenplay
Holiday movies can feel generic and boring, but It's a Wonderful Life is one of the rare instances where the story stands alone as a great film too. Learn why!
If you're a fan of film history, you probably know that when It's a Wonderful Life came out it was a flop. The movie didn't find its audience until it was played over and over again when the copyright ran out.
And since that time, it has been a perennial favorite in homes across America.
This Frank Capra classic contains multitudes, from wonderful characterizations to brilliant plotting and even incredible pacing, the movie has it all.
Today, I want to look at some of the lessons inside this spectacular film. Download the It's a Wonderful Life script here!
Lessons from the It's a Wonderful Life screenplay
Truth be told, this is one of my favorite movies of all time. It's about values that never age and contains a timeless message. Capra made the movie after returning home from World War II. He was acutely aware of the struggles people were going through after the depression a decade earlier and how the men who fought in the war and stayed home dealt with the strife.
Let's see how he was able to get this all into the screenplay with help from Frances Goodrich, Albert Hackett, and Jo Swerling.
1. George Bailey is one of the best characters of all time
George contains multitudes. He loves his family, cares about his community, never throws the guilty party under the bus, and he has God on his side!
You've heard of Save the Cat, well it seems like in this movie George is the cat who needs to be saved.
This clever narrative structure keeps us on George's side, even when he's contemplating suicide and acting like a jerk.
We want the world to get better for George.
When you sit to write, think about how you can stack the cards against your characters. Don't let up on them.
Things are AWFUL for George, and because of that pressure, we get a story of someone who realizes he cannot do it alone.
2. Motivations aplenty
Along with George's excellent characterization, he's motivated all the time. And those motivations naturally change as we go. It keeps him human and gives importance to every scene. His main goal is to leave town.
George wants an adventure.
But a series of unfortunate life events holds him back. His father passes, the war starts, the depression hits, and George's Building and Loan loses all their money. Fucking Uncle Billy!
George is dying to leave, dying for money, and possibly dying for his family.
But no matter what, his emotions are raw and unflinching. And we understand them every step of the way.
Much like the biblical story of Job, life dumps on George, but that just makes his motivations more clear.
When you're writing, ask yourself if you know what's driving your characters. What motivates them?
3. Secondary characters matter
One of the lessons I feel like I repeat over and over again when analyzing the best screenplays is that all characters matter. Your secondary characters make or break the story.
And It's a Wonderful Life has some of the best and most memorable secondary characters of all time.
Sam Wainwright, Bert and Ernie, Annie, Uncle Billy, Mr. Martini, Violet, Mr. Gower, and every other inhabitant of Bedford Falls creates a remarkable world.
These people often are there to push George, tempt him, try his patience, and create conflict after conflict.
Even the characters on George's side, like Uncle Billy, make him work over and over. I mean, again I say fuck Uncle Billy. The guy is an idiot and should have been fired.
But you get what I mean.
how do your secondary characters support the main story?
Do they have their own arcs and consequences?
4. Distract your characters
Here's a trick Capra actually uses in a lot of his films. It's one I love to try to steal. He has characters enter scenes where two other people are already talking. One character wants the other's attention, but their attention is already devoted to another.
This is something you can definitely do on your own. And it;'s not like it;'s hard - just plan to distract your characters. You can get a ton of conflict and exposition in these scenes and hide it fairly well.
Merry Christmas and happy holidays to all...except Uncle Billy because fuck that dude over and over.
What's next? Read the Marriage Story script!
Read and download the Marriage Story screenplay if you want to spend 153 pages in the fetal position hoping that love is real and it finds you.
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