The Last Tycoon’s great advice for fiction writers and screenwriters

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s unfinished novel “The Last Tycoon” could have been his greatest had he not died after 60,000 words, but it does have one scene between Hollywood mogul, Monroe Stahr (based on Irving Thalberg, the boy genius of MGM) and a novelist and would be screenwriter named Boxley. Here is the scene from the novel that worked so beautifully in the movie directed by Elia Kazan with Robert DeNiro as Stahr.

Stahr is talking.

“Suppose you’re in your office. You’ve been fighting duels or writing all day and you’re too tired to fight or write any more. You’re sitting there staring— dull, like we all get sometimes. A pretty stenographer that you’ve seen before comes into the room and you watch her— idly. She doesn’t see you though you’re very close to her. She takes off her gloves, opens her purse and dumps it out on a table -” Stahr stood up, tossing his key-ring on his desk. “She has two dimes and a nickel— and a cardboard match box. She leaves the nickel on the desk, puts the two dimes back into her purse and takes her black gloves to the stove, opens it and puts them inside. There is one match in the match box and she starts to light it kneeling by the stove.

You notice that there’s a stiff wind blowing in the window— but just then your telephone rings. The girl picks it up, says hello— listens— and says deliberately into the phone ’I’ve never owned a pair of black gloves in my life.’ She hangs up, kneels by the stove again, and just as she lights the match you glance around very suddenly and see that there’s another man in the office, watching every move the girl makes -” Stahr paused. He picked up his keys and put them in his pocket.

“Go on,” said Boxley smiling. “What happens?”

“I don’t know,” said Stahr. “I was just making pictures.”

Boxley felt he was being put in the wrong. “It’s just melodrama,” he said.

“Not necessarily,” said Stahr. “In any case nobody has moved violently or talked cheap dialogue or had any facial expression at all. There was only one bad line, and a writer like you could improve it. But you were interested.”

“What was the nickle for?” asked Boxley evasively.

“I don’t know,” said Stahr. Suddenly he laughed, “Oh yes— the nickle was for the movies.”

The two invisible attendants seemed to release Boxley. He relaxed, leaned back in his chair and laughed. “What in hell do you pay me for?” he demanded. “I don’t understand the damn stuff.”

“You will,” said Stahr grinning. “Or you wouldn’t have asked about the nickel.” F. Scott Fitzgerald (2015-05-14). The Last Tycoon (p. 39).  . Kindle Edition.

What Stahr is saying works for both the screenwriter and the novelist. That being, show, don’t tell; action speaks louder than words. Why did she lie about the gloves? Why did she burn them” Who is the other guy in the room?

Whether you are watching a movie or reading a book, you will continue to watch or read to see what happens next. Don’t explain everything, that is boring. Reveals should be slow and tantalizing.

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