What Casablanca Can Teach A Writer

Casablanca is widely considered to be one of the best American movies ever made, and certainly it’s one of most enduringly popular films in history. There are a lot of reasons for this, critics will argue—the simple elegance of the plot; the crisp, memorable dialogue; the theme of love, sacrifice and redemption; the perfect casting. No argument from me there! But I would say that what lifts the movie to another realm is this: during the filming, the actors didn’t know how the story would end.

Because neither did the screenwriters. When filming began, the script still wasn’t finished. As Harlan Lebo reports in his book Casablanca: Behind the Scenes, “The crush of deadlines would weigh so heavily that revised material would often reach the Casablanca set mere hours before those scenes were shot.”

This uncertainty created some unusual hurdles for the actors, especially Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman. Hollywood Lost and Found tells us that “Ingrid Bergman had no idea who her character would end up with until later in production, so she didn’t know how to portray her emotions in the scenes filmed early on. ‘Play it in between,’ she was told.”

What an excellent opportunity for an actor! Not knowing one’s fate is exactly what everyone on the planet faces each day, with no available script handy to settle one’s narrative arc in advance. Roger Ebert, in his review/essay on the movie, sums up nicely how such ignorance can enrich a performance: “Bergman played the whole movie without knowing how it would end, and this had the subtle effect of making all of her scenes more emotionally convincing; she could not tilt in the direction she knew the wind was blowing.” I’d never thought of this before, but every actor, before filming starts, knows the beginning, middle and end of his or her character’s story, and part of the challenge in acting, aside from expressing whatever subtleties of personality are available, is having to pretend that one doesn’t know what comes next.

Recently I’ve been happily working my way through The Selected Stories of Merce Rodoreda, and last night this sentence jumped out at me, from “Happiness”: “Movies are lovely because if the ones in love are miserable then you suffer a bit but you think everything will turn out for the best, but when I’m miserable I never know if things will end well.” Indeed. Even with 20/20 vision we remain blind to the future. The indeterminacy of our lives is reflected in the energy of Bergman and Bogart’s performances, and viewers sense this, sense the richness of the narrative blindness the actors are struggling with.

Fiction writers struggle with this same narrative blindness when we begin writing a story or novel. We work our way through darkness with curiosity, hunches and inspiration. The novelist Celia Gittleson, interviewed years ago by Poets & Writers Magazine for the article “Writers on Revision: Is Perfection the Death of Energy?” described her process of writing a novel: “At the end, when I finally know what I’ve been writing about and have discovered all the things wrong with it, I rewrite the whole thing.”

This quote almost always surprises introductory writing students. How can a writer not know where he or she is going? Well, like life, we don’t know where we’re headed, and yet this narrative darkness can be an enriching darkness, if we manage to improvise our way through it. The comedian Steve Carell, in a recent profile in The New Yorker, explains his process of acting, which sounds to me an awful lot like what writers attempt on the page: “I look at improvising as a prolonged game of chess. There’s an opening gambit with your pawn in a complex game I have with one character, and lots of side games with other characters, and another game with myself—and in each game you have to make all these tiny, tiny moves that get you to the endgame.”

I’m currently working on the manuscript of a novel ripe with ghosts, titled Invisible Country. The setting for the book is an afterlife that, though set in America, resembles the afterlife of the Beng people, who I’ve lived among in Ivory Coast for years; in their afterlife ghosts exist as a parallel—and invisible—social community among the living. One of the characters I initially envisioned was a fundamentalist Christian who finds his come-uppance in an afterlife he clearly hadn’t been expecting.

Predictably enough, this particular character went nowhere on the page, perhaps because he had first been imagined so that he could be punished. I needed to develop some empathy for the fellow, but how? Eventually I thought I’d try to imagine the source of his religious belief—perhaps a miraculous experience of some sort? So I thought back to the moments of the uncanny that have come my way, and decided to give him a version of an odd encounter I’d had when a freshman in college.

Late that fall semester, I headed for the music building on campus to study for a test I felt certain I’d fail. The professor was at least a decade past his retirement due date, and his primary remaining area of expertise was traveling back and forth in time within each sentence he spoke. We all sat there in class amazed at the unpredictable temporal roller coaster of his lectures, understanding nothing.

Anyway, as I approached with dread the music building, I noticed an odd little turn in the air of a leaf falling from a nearby tree. Some updraft had stopped its fall and pushed it upward. As it fell again, again it twisted up in the air several feet, and then fell, and then rose.

I stopped, increasingly entranced by this aerobatic display that seemingly defied the laws of gravity. I kept waiting for it to finally, definitively fall, and it kept not doing so. Minutes passed, and the uncanny repetition of this unlikely performance finally unnerved me—I reached out to the leaf, touched it, and it fell to the ground. Then of course I reproached myself for disrupting something like magic.

So I gave a version of this memory to my character, Edward, but still the chapter wouldn’t move further, I still didn’t know him enough, not until I altered the memory to suit him. Edward thinks the twists and turns of the leaf before him are assuming some sort of repeated shape, and soon enough he thinks he sees the face of Jesus in that pattern. It shocks him into the ranks of the devout, yet he worries the memory: did he really see what he thought he saw, and if so, what does it mean, what message must he follow? For the rest of his life he is torn by his indecision, and by this point I found myself on Edward’s side, inspired by his gnawing doubt to be able to imagine more of his life.

Like Bogart and Bergman in Casablanca, it’s better not to know the way at first. When we start to write it’s better to bumble our way forward, our uncertainty its own drama, the energy of which can transfer to our characters’ inner lives and their unpredictable fates. Readers will recognize the richness of possibility and its echo of their—and our own—inability to see much past the present moment.

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    1. Sion Dayson says:

      I love this – thank you. I think this is the biggest lesson I took away from my MFA program – to accept that the not knowing is part of the process. Ellen Lesser told me to “inch forward in the dark.” Clint McCown assured me he didn’t know what was going to happen in the next paragraph. And more confirmation here (VCFA has the best advisors!) It is a scary, but thrilling place to be, the dark, and it gives energy to the world we’re creating on the page.

      I may have just about figured out what the heck is going on in the novel I’ve been working on. Bumbling, stumbling through with no idea of the plot or why these characters were occupying (taking over) my brain. Now I kind of do….OH! It’s so interesting going back now and using this new knowledge to revise. Really to amplify what was in fact there the entire time, I just couldn’t name. Not sure if I’m ready to rewrite the whole thing a la Gittleson, though!

      How do you strike the balance between using the knowledge you’ve gained by finally understanding the whole story while also maintaining the energy of that initial discovery? The characters *are* on a journey, after all, and it’d be nice to retain that flavor of uncertainty for them.

      Thanks for a great post.

    2. Shelagh says:

      Philip, I loved this post. I found it by way of Vivian Dorsel, who found it via Numero Cinq. Vivian and I have just returned from the VCFA post-grad conference, where Dave Jauss gave a wonderful lecture about many things to do with character, including how much one should know about character ahead of time. (Spoiler alert: not much.) I loved this line in your essay: “The professor was at least a decade past his retirement due date, and his primary remaining area of expertise was traveling back and forth in time within each sentence he spoke.” Not because it summed up everything neatly, but because it made me laugh out loud. So thanks for that. And for the full piece–a pleasure to read, full of good ideas to consider. ~ Shelagh

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    4. Peony says:

      This was absolutely wonderful! I am re-reading a book called Providence Lost by Australian philosopher G. Lloyd–recommend it to you! Cheers!

    5. admin says:

      Thank you! And I greatly enjoyed your 3quarksdaily finalist post. For some reason, the announcement of the new Leonardo discovery escaped me at the time. You spin an engaging history out of it all.

      And the uncanny transparency of that glass ball!

    6. Peony says:

      …. the uncanny transparency of that ball that is the world! Your post has not been out of my mind since I read it. This idea of being “thrown” in the world as perhaps being our greatest treasure is maybe something going by the wayside? According to Genevieve Lloyd in the book I mentioned above, she suggests that the “providence lost” of modern people is in fact a curse –for if everything comes down to free will and personal freedom (as expressed in one’s free will) then the responsibility and heaviness of that is really unbearable? I totally agreed too about what you said about inprovization in writing! And taking it one step forward… that too can speak to a kind of “virtuosity” of living life–? I really loved this–of course, Casablanca is one of my favorites too–bravo! bravo!

    7. bULLETHOLES says:

      Cool post. I did not know that about Casablanca. Very cool.

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