Casablanca's Lessons for Writers


Over at Amatopia, the Daytime Renegade discovers the invaluable lessons that the classic film Casablanca has to teach writers.
My wife and I watched the 1942 classic Casablanca 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.
The DR is quite astute. Not only is Casablanca rightly considered a classic. It's also recognized as the origin of the industry standard formula for screenwriting. And yes, you can easily adapt the Hollywood Formula to writing novels, as I explained in a previous post.
Screenwriting teacher Dan Decker identified the Hollywood Formula to help his students maximize the emotional impact of their movie scripts. It was widely adopted by film makers following the success of Casablanca; where, Decker speculates, the creative team stumbled upon the formula by accident.
The Hollywood Formula utilizes three archetypal characters whose interrelationships drive the story across three acts.
  • The Protagonist — the character whose pursuit of a goal drives the story. The goal must be concrete, definable, and achievable. Not "I want to be happy" or "I want to be rich", but rather, "I want him to fall in love with me so that I will be happy." "I want to win the game show that I'm going to be on so that I will be rich."
  • The Antagonist — the person who places obstacles between the protagonist and his goal. The antagonist is not necessarily a villain. The antagonist's goals may be diametrically opposed to, or even the same as, the protagonist's.
  • The Relationship Character — accompanies the protagonist on his journey. Typically a more experienced character who has wisdom to share with the protagonist, which the protagonist rejects at first. The theme of the story, what the protagonist needs to understand in order to succeed, is expressed either by or to this character. In many cases, this happens as part of an actual conversation. At the end of the story, this conversation or expression of the theme will be revisited, and the protagonist and this character will reconcile with each other.
The story ends when the protagonist achieves or relinquishes his goal, defeats or is defeated by the antagonist, and reconciles with the relationship character. The closer together these things happen, the more emotional impact the story will have.
Unlike Dent's model, which divides a story by word count, The Hollywood Formula indicates which events should occur at various percentages of the way through the story.
  • First Act: beginning at 0% of the way through the story; Introduces the characters and their goals. At 10%-15%, the protagonist faces a fateful decision, a choice, and how he answers determines whether or not there is a story.
  • Second Act: begins after 25% of the story has been told. Starts piling on the problems. At about 50%, the story has been raising questions. It begins to answer them.
  • Third Act: begins after 75% of the story has been told. The beginning of the third act is the low point—the furthest the protagonist can possibly get from the goal. At Climax the protagonist confronts the antagonist, reconciles with the relationship character, and claims success or failure in his goal. Then we have Denouement; loose ends are wrapped up and the story reaches its conclusion.
The writing utility of Casablanca's structure is well-trodden ground. DR takes us further by highlighting some other storytelling elements the movie got right.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
There's plenty more in DR's original post. You should definitely check it out. I want to leave you with his lesson about dialogue, because it's one of the top pieces of editorial advice I give to my author clients. Novel dialogue shouldn't emulate real-world speech. It should be the best of real speech. Keeping that tip in mind will help make your dialogue pop.

If you'd like additional help polishing your writing to a pro-level shine, I'm currently offering editing services. Get a professional pair of eyeballs on your manuscript to spot problems your beta readers missed. Plus, you can say your novel was edited by a Dragon Award winner. Just send me an email.

Of course, talk is cheap. For an example of my own advice in action, pick up my thrilling Soul Cycle adventure/horror series, starting with the breakout Lovecraft-Firefly mashup Nethereal.

Nethereal - Brian Niemeier


  1. Brian,

    Isn't the Hollywood formula the application of Aristotle's 3 acts found in Poetics?
    Re: dialogue. How do newbie writers avoid the pitfalls of writing 'real life' and excessively lyrical dialogue and achieve the happy medium?

    1. Read widely in your genre and practice diligently. It also helps to read what you've written aloud to hear how it sounds.

    2. Thanks!

    3. Previous discussions of the Hollywood formula that I've seen have focused solely on the relationships and characters independent of the Three Act structure.

    4. That makes more sense from a novel writing perspective.

  2. What are some other films that show this formula off? I love Casablanca, it's worth a rewatch, but I would appreciate suggestions of other good films.

    1. Almost everything after Casablanca.

      Casablanca's production team stumbled upon the formula, and everybody scrambled to replicate its success.

      Notable movies that provide good examples of the Hollywood Formula in action are Star Wars (which also uses the Hero's Journey) and The Dark Knight.