Veteran screenwriter Jeremy Leven shows how to lay the groundwork for writing the reveal without giving it away or making the audience feel they are being toyed with.
There is an apocryphal story, which, considering those involved, is most likely less apocryphal than assumed, about Jack Warner’s hiring Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond to write a screenplay for him. He sets them up in an office down the hall from his, complete with two sofas, two desks and two Royal typewriters, with enough paper and carbons to retype Moby Dick triple-spaced. But weeks go by, and Warner can’t help but notice that each time he passes their office, there is no clack-clackclack of the Royal portable coming from within. Finally, unable to take it any longer, Warner bursts into the office and finds Wilder stretched out on one sofa, Diamond across the room on the other, puffing on cigars, conversing congenially. “What the hell is going on here?” Warner asks, using words somewhat more colorful, one suspects. “We’re writing a movie,” Wilder responds calmly. “The rest is typing.”
As a screenwriter, this is the essential tale. Figuring out a compelling story, developing engaging characters from which the story emerges and determining the plot points and act breaks, the right tone and where the tension, humor and emotion is to be found is the primary (and most difficult) work. It is also, strangely, the work that most studios expect a writer to have done on a script of theirs needing revision prior to hiring the writer to revise it. In other words, the studio would like the writer to, in the example above, rewrite the screenplay prior to paying him to write it.
I bring up this anomaly because all this would lead one to believe that, when given a book to adapt, the “writing” has already been done. Often the book is a best-seller, meaning it is already laden with elements that an audience would find appealing and entertaining. It has fully fleshed-out characters, a story and a beginning, a middle and an end. If it is not 700 pages, and not primarily the internal lives and thought processes of those in it, reason might suggest that—after a reading and some outlining—a few weeks of typing and all will be done. Of course, such is never the case.
In Nicholas Sparks’ The Notebook, the story broke down easily.
Act I: Allie, our heroine, falls in love with Noah, our hero, during an intense summer romance, broken up by Allie’s well-to-do parents as summer comes to an end.
Act II: Allie, still longing for Noah but not hearing a word from him and believing he has moved on, meets Lon, the well-to-do young attorney with whom she falls in love and to whom she agrees to be married. But Allie runs into Noah, falls back in love with him and must decide between Noah or Lon, knowing she will hurt one or the other. Will she go with her head or her heart?
Act III: Allie goes with her heart.
Piece of cake for the writer. Were it not that ...
There is another story going on, as the tale above is being read from a notebook to an elderly Alzheimer’s patient, a woman also named Allie, by an elderly man named Duke. The audience, they is smart sonsabitches (see Commandment Three in the infographic) so they know that if we just needed a narrator, we probably wouldn’t have chosen a woman from the memory unit of a nursing home with the same name as our heroine. At some point there will be a reveal. This is a problem.
The writer would like to lay in the groundwork for the reveal without either giving it away or making the audience feel they are being toyed with. But, this is not the only reveal because, as it turns out, Noah did not forget about Allie. He wrote her letters twice a week for a year after they parted that glorious summer. Allie’s mother intercepted them, a fact still unknown to Allie and Noah. There will be a second reveal.
It turns out that neither the pilfered letters nor the true identities of Allie and Duke is the real reveal. The real reveal is the notebook.
Under ideal conditions the reveal should not only be a pivotal point in the storytelling, but should launch the audience into an emotional moment—if the stars line up properly, the emotional moment. So, stogie in hand and sofa at the ready, I reclined to begin my writing.
What would be the moment that propels the characters into a new emotional direction? I had never been entirely satisfied with what would make Allie, being an essentially good person, have a sexual relationship with Noah less than a week before her wedding to someone else, a very nice guy, too. In the novel, this union came out of an extremely erotic moment in which Noah sees the rain-drenched Allie, her dress clinging to every curve and crevice, and cannot resist her, as she cannot resist him. With all due credit to Mr. Sparks, this scene follows a highly charged and erotic sequence. But, still better, it seemed to me, would be to have this be the moment of a reveal. Allie, erotically charged and longing for Noah, fights her desires and asks him why he never wrote to her after that summer, the implication being that, if he had, they might be in each other’s arms right then. When he tells her that he did write, 100 letters in a year, and she realizes that it was not she, but her mother who has put her in this situation, all bets are off. She can go at it with Noah, and does she ever, making up for lost time.
Why didn’t you write to me, Noah?
I was waiting for you to write to me.
Fin said it was over. Was it over?
Is that why you didn’t write?
Noah looks at Allie, stunned. He says nothing as they glide into the shore.
EXT. NOAH’S DOCK. (DAY)
Noah is pulling the canoe up on to the shore. He talks to Allie without looking up.
I wrote twice a week for
over a year. I mailed
more than a hundred letters.
It wasn’t over.
It still isn’t over. Noah looks up at Allie waiting for him a short distance away in the rain, and he nearly stops breathing. She is incredibly beautiful and unforgivably erotic with her wet dress clinging to every curve and crevice of her body. On Allie’s face is the recognition of what has happened, the deception, the pain that it has caused her over so many years, and a release of that pain, as though, because of it, a door has opened allowing her to do whatever she now wants totally without blame.
For a moment, they stand facing each other, saying nothing, then slowly Noah walks up to Allie and stands in front of her. He fights with himself not to be drawn to a place where he knows only heartbreak lies -- but, instinctively, he finds himself running his fingers lightly down Allie’s cheeks.
You mailed me over a
You never got a single one?
Allie shakes her head slowly, and then she kisses Noah with a tremendous release of passion.
As for the reveal of the true identity of Duke, who reads to Old Allie every day hoping for a “miracle,” there were many discussions between the extremely astute executive on the project, Lynn Harris, and me regarding how much to hide that Duke is in fact Noah, retelling the story of his love of Allie each day. Difficult as it was, the decision was made to hide the reveal as long as possible.
But who else could Duke be, if he were not Noah? It was necessary to create a diversion in order to keep the question open of whether Duke was really Noah or Lon or neither. In one version of the script in a scene, sadly no longer with us, I had one of the nurses turn to Duke and point out an elderly man with an elderly woman. “He’s loved her forever,” the nurse explains. “He waited 50 years for her husband to die, and then came here to court her.” Duke responded, “I’m not courting Allie. I’m reading to her.” This opens the question of whether Allie could have married Lon —and now Duke (Noah) is courting her, sadly after she has lost her memory—or Duke could, in fact, be the Noah who Allie married. Or he could even be Lon, now that Noah is gone.
Not an insignificant amount of fancy footwork was required so that the very first time the audience knew that Duke was, in fact, Noah, was not until Duke had finished the story he was reading to her. Then, for a fleeting few moments, Allie recognizes Duke as Noah the great love of her life, to whom she returned and was married and with whom she raised a family. It is this reveal that must be the penultimate emotional moment of the film, handled simply. It’s a real tear-jerker and must be played for that.
INT. NEW BERN NURSING HOME / OLD ALLIE’S ROOM. (NIGHT)
Old Allie, her moist eyes reflecting the candlelight, smiles.
And they lived happily
Yes, they did. It wasn’t
always easy, but they did.
Old Allie smiles, glowing with life. There is something very different about her. The distant look that has filled her eyes up to now seems to be gone. Duke sees it and his heart leaps with excitement. He knows what has happened.
You’re so beautiful tonight.
Old Allie reaches out and takes Duke’s hand.
You’re a wonderful man, Noah.
A truly inspiring man.
And there it is, with the single word “Noah,” Allie is back. Duke’s eyes fill with tears through his smile.
Oh, Allie -- I love you so much.
I hope you know that.
Duke puts Old Allie’s hand to his mouth and kisses it.
Noah ... My sweet,
sweet Noah ...
The final reveal of the purpose of the notebook must come, then, at the very end of the film and be equally as poignant. It is Allie who has written the notebook, telling Noah to read this story of their love to her, and she “will come back” to him if she possibly can.
The porch door opens and Old Allie comes out, holding the notebook. She sits beside Duke in silence for a moment.
I have something for you.
It’s a notebook in which I’ve written
the story of our love -- how we met,
and how we parted, and how
we found each other again.
In a few years, I won’t remember
any of it. When that happens,
I want you to read it to me, Noah.
Wherever I am, whatever state
of mind I’m in, no matter how
far away or how lost I seem,
you must read it to me --
and I will come back to
you if I possibly can.
Old Allie hands Duke the notebook. Duke looks up at her.
Promise me that, Noah.
Old Allie reaches out and takes Duke’s hand and their fingers intertwine.
However, having three reveals created another problem. If these reveals were placed well and had the effect intended, there would be nothing left for the end. Everything would now just kind of sag to a conclusion. One final reveal, not in the book, would be needed to wrap everything up. But what could top the reveal of a love so powerful that it could bring a woman back from the depths of Alzheimer’s?
We knew from the book that Noah had a heart condition. What if he had a coronary, abandoning Allie while he was in the hospital, and when he returned, both he and she realized that there is only one thing worse than being in the desperate void of Alzheimer’s, and that is being without each other. What will happen to her if he succumbs to his heart condition, to him if she can’t come back to him, even for a few seconds. The answer to this would be the final reveal.
It’s okay, Noah. I understand.
But I’m frightened.
I kept thinking, what if
he never comes back?
What will I do?
I’ll always find a way.
And what if some day
I can’t come back to
you, not even for a
minute or two, what will you do?
I’ll still be here with you.
Old Allie continues to run her hand down Duke’s cheek.
I don’t want to end up all alone,
strapped to a bed, being fed
by strange people.
Duke and Old Allie look at each other in silence for a moment.
I need to talk to you, Noah.
What is it?
Our love can create miracles.
Yes, it can.
It’s what brings me back
Yes, it is.
Do you think our love
can take us away together?
Duke looks into Old Allie’s eyes for a moment, and then he starts to smile.
I think our love can do
anything we want it to, Allie.
Old Allie smiles back and kisses Duke on the lips. For a moment, they trade kisses, and then Duke lies down next to Old Allie and slowly their fingers intertwine.
Good night, Noah.
I love you.
And I love you, Allie.
Good night. I’ll be seeing you.
They press their bodies against each other, fingers entwined.
Old Allie and Duke’s eyes close and they go to sleep, forever.
There are some “tricks” to working with reveals. I would almost say rules, but, as we all know, especially writers, rules are made to be broken, including those listed in the infographic. However, these have worked for me.
In the same way that all third-act problems are first-act problems, all dialogue problems regarding reveals (if he says this, we’ll know who he is), seem to be scene structure problems. The moment a character has to speak in a way that is awkward in order to avoid revealing something, the scene has to be re-thought in order to avoid placing him in the situation where he has to respond with the reveal.
I avoid, if at all possible, “leading up” to the reveal. I attempt to establish the circumstances to which the reveal will apply as early as possible, and then forget it. There is no “foreshadowing.” In the instance of this film, the notebook is never questioned—it is just there, being read. Once Duke gives his name, no more questions about his name or who he is are asked. Once Noah writes the letters to Allie, they are never mentioned again until Allie asks why he didn’t write. And so on. I tend to lay it in early and simply, and then forget it.
Finally, I never lead up to the reveal, add to it or embellish it. The reveal never has more importance attached to it than what its importance is at the moment it is revealed.
Originally published in Script magazine May/ June 2004
JEREMY LEVEN was born in South Bend, Indiana and grew up in Rye, New York. He has an undergraduate degree from St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland, and a graduate degree from Harvard University. He has been a member of the faculty of Harvard and a fellow at the Yale University School of Medicine’s Child Study Center. In 1968 Leven founded The Proposition, a political-satirical revue which ran in Cambridge for 10 years and Off- Broadway in New York. After Harvard, he was a psychologist, a mental health center director and director of drug treatment programs in Western Massachusetts, finally going into the Neurosciences. He has written the novels Creator (Putnam) and Satan: His Psychotherapy and Cure by the Unfortunate Dr. Kassler, J.S.P.S. (Knopf), and the screenplays for Creator, Playing for Keeps, The Legend of Bagger Vance, Crazy as Hell, Alex and Emma, The Notebook and Don Juan DeMarco, which he also directed. Leven lives in Paris and Connecticut with his wife, Roberta Danza, a psychotherapist. They have five children, all grown.
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