Everyone leaves, sooner or later. But I’d always kind of hoped William Goldman would be an exception.
If you watched movies at all, you know who William Goldman is. Heck, you’ve probably quoted him a hundred times without thinking about it.
If you’ve ever read about an investigation of political corruption and thought “Follow the money,” you’re quoting Goldman.
If you’re a Wild West fan who’s ever seen characters in a desperate situation and remembered “The fall’ll probably kill ya!”, you’re quoting Goldman.
And of course, if you’ve ever seen the actor Mandy Patinkin anywhere – on stage, on screen, in an airport – and immediately felt yourself saying “My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die,” you’re quoting Goldman. (And you’re in a very long line.)
His words and ideas gave life to a hundred stories. He put a crack in the myth that the screenwriter is the most powerless person in Hollywood – something that gives heart to every writer out there, including me – while also enduring his own frustrations with the movie machine, such as the 14 years it took to bring his favorite of his novels, The Princess Bride, to the screen. And then he made it awesome anyway.
In case you hadn’t guessed, I’m a fan. In fact, Missy and I had just read The Princess Bride as our bedtime book a few weeks ago. So when Goldman died on Friday, it was a little like losing a favorite teacher.
And his best lesson was that there is always a story behind the story.
Plenty of writers create a compelling story. The best create stories where the characters have depth, where they’re more than just a pair of steely eyes, a favorite weapon, and a cunning quip.
But where Goldman excelled was in looking at the assumptions of a story itself, and then pulling back the screen.
A master swordsman who’s quested 20 years in pursuit of his father’s killer? Great! But he’s also working for a boss he hates to pay the bills, because revenge isn’t a terribly marketable skill.
A pair of Western outlaws staying one step ahead of the authorities with fast draws and faster minds? Sure, we know that one – or we think we do, until we see that they’re in a West that’s going away, too late to stay frontier outlaws and too soon to be gangsters.
Hard-nosed reporters on the trail of the cover-up of the century? Sure, it’s faithfully told – including the fact that no one showed Woodward and Bernstein the script in advance, so that they have to listen to what isn’t said, stumble through trying to call a Spanish-language source, and even manage to screw up their big story on the front page on the way to nailing everything down.
It’s a good lesson, in writing and in life. Look at the assumptions. Consider the real-life consequences. Ask why you’ve seen a particular story a hundred times before, and you’ll see what gives it its power. And then see how to truly make it your own.
And if you still get in the killer quip , so much the better.
Stories are powerful. Stories frame how we see the world, even as the stories we tell – whether on the page or in our lives – influence the thinking of others. The more conscious we are of that, and the more we think about the unexpected turns those stories might take, the more we can make it a story worth living for all of us.
So thank you, Mr. Goldman. For the lessons in writing. And the lessons in life.
Wherever you are, “Have fun storming the castle.”
And if you’re also giving someone a peek at what lies behind the drawbridge, I won’t be surprised at all.