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North by Northwest

Meeting on the train

Overture from North by Northwest


North by Northwest

A Unique Narrative Perspectives for Screenplays

John Fraim

In screenwriting professor Paul Gulino’s 2004 book Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach, written much to carry on the screenwriting ideas and theories of his mentor Frank Daniel at the USC Film School (at the time). One of the key things that USC is noted for in screenwriting is the 8-sequence approach to storytelling. It’s an odd number of steps for screenplay structure – between the three-acts of Field and the twenty-two steps for Truby. But it made a lot of sense to me the more I thought about it. 

Especially I thought about the examples Gulino provides in his book that show application of the 8-sequence approach to film structure. Settling on the number 8 within the many other numbers up to twenty-two or three. Some say even more. It was the application of the 8-step structure to the great films from Hollywood that was an entire education by itself. 

The film I concentrated on was my perhaps favorite film of all time, Hitchcock’s 1959 film North by Northwest. Rated by critics as one of the greatest films in history. Certainly, it could be argued it was Hitchcock’s greatest film. 

Before Gulino goes on to discuss the 8 sequences of the USC structure, he spends a few pages explaining some of the most important devices/tools for use by screenwriters. If they only realize these tools are available to them in easy-to-understand morsels. These are the Four Basic Tools of the Screenwriter pages in the opening part of his book. An area one might quickly skip over on their way to read about the famous 8 sequence approach. In the middle of three, four, five, 12, 16, 22 and 23. To name just the major brand holders of these story steps in Hollywood. 

Briefly, this brilliant little section of the book lists the following in an outline I made from this part of Gulino’s great 2004 Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach. The outline is below but the content of the pages is more than worth going over a number of times. 


Four Basic Tools of the Screenwriter

1. Telegraphing – Telling audience exactly what will happen in the future. Ex.“Meet her at Joes at 5.” Action of preparing to do something. False telegraphing – pay off in reverse of what tell audience. Making an appointment but not showing up. Ticking time bomb – “You have till midnight to get the money.”

2. Dangling Cause – A cause that won’t have an effect until later. McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest – “I’m going to put a bug…” Lawrence of Arabia, “It’s going to be fun.”

3. Dramatic Irony – Omniscient narration where audience knows more than a character. Characters do not have to know things same time the audience does. Hierarchies of knowledge between characters themselves. The film North by Northwest as one of the greatest examples. Audience learns Eve working for bad guys. Roger Kimball doesn’t know but audience does. Kendall realizes Eve working against him. Doesn’t tell her he knows. A new hierarchy of knowledge established.

4. Dramatic Tension – Most powerful. Someone wants something badly and having trouble getting it. Or, someone wants to escape something and having trouble doing so. The classic three parts of all drama: Act I poses the question, Act II is deliberation or working out of the question and Act III is the answer


Gulino notes that the above are arranged in an increasing priority of importance in a screenplay or film. All are interesting tools to have identified and then shown in use through the examples of films Gulino runs through later in the book. 

The first two were interesting to have defined for once, making them more accessible to screenwriters it seemed to me. The last one Dramatic tension was simply a given that any dramatic story needed to have. 

The one of the four tools that fascinated me the most was his third one on the ladder of importance in a story. The device he labeled as Dramatic Irony. Really it might deserve to be at the top of all of the tools Gulino suggests.  If you took his top one of Dramatic Tension as a given background or medium – rather than tool or message – of modern story. It was Dramatic Irony for me. I understood this so much better by reading Gulino’s presentation of the film. 

In effect, much of the magic of North by Northwest, the spell it has cast over viewers for decades, might be related to the use of a little-known narrative perspective based around what Gulino labels as Dramatic Irony. Dealing with what one’s audience is allowed to know about a story. 

The Crop Duster Scene

In considering a brilliant film like North by Northwest, much of the magic of the film is hidden in the subtextual depths of this film that is ahead of its time in exploration of narrative voice in the film. In effect, through much of the film, the audience is given so much information that one of the characters don’t know. This adds a huge element of suspense to everything. If you watch North by Northwest you can see the two falling for each other, one betraying the other the other doesn’t know about, learning about betrayal but keep to oneself, bad person who has deceived one is working for those on your side of the war today. Or whatever it is.

The Omniscient Narrator is a device that continually plays around with withholding knowledge from characters during a story and letting the audience in on the withheld information. Where audience knows more than characters. How quickly can audience reactions be applied to characters/actors in the performance? It’s not that difficult for me to feel this will be one of the major questions in the coming years.

Interestingly, it seems to me that perhaps the leading screenwriting theorist John Truby has about the next state of story writing in a certain number of genres. One must know how to write in a particular genre in order to sell artistic creations – like screenplays or stories – to popular culture.

* * *

The Omniscient Narrator or third key tool of screenwriters Gulino identifies in his important book. The main element of this third tool. Is related to narrative voice rather than content within this voice. In many ways, an attempt at something totally new in perspective towards stories. Not something new about the content (messages) of stories. Rather, the context of a type of “Omniscient Narrator” observing the screenplay/film. 

In many ways, a modern film version of – for example – the famous “brown stocking” section of Virginia Woolfe’s To the Lighthouse. Probably one of the most brilliant experiments in narrative voice created in the 20th century. And now, two decades into the 21st century, there is still really nothing that can arrive at this brilliant idea she expressed.

This new form of narrator is one greatly needed and called for during out time. Will this narrative voice come so that truth might be expressed again? 

Towards the end of his section on the genre of Detective and Thriller in his massive The Anatomy of Genres, John Truby ends this key chapter of the book with stories about the unreliable narrator. And, with his presentation of the Japanese story Rashomon about an unreliable narrator Truby suggests in his book, do I begin to understand things in a new way. It wasn’t that fireworks and explosions went off in the external world. There was no need for this as the fireworks were exploding inside more than anywhere else. 

One of the things that interested me so much about the third of Gulino’s four tools is that the characters in stories do not have to know the same things at the same time the audience does. There are so-called Hierarchies of knowledge between characters themselves. The description between the perspectives of Grant and St. James in North by Northwestprovided by Gulino is a lesson in narrative perspective. 

Vandamm’s House

It’s exciting to me that this tool in the screenwriters toolkit, captured and identified so well by Paul Gulino in his book. Discovering this connection in literatures and stories and screenplays and novels is something that many attempt but few succeed at. But what is success? What it there is a worthwhile process in the attempt to succeed. Is success ever measured by height along? Rather it always needs to be measured internally. The increase in positivity about life from various perspectives.

Someone should start some type of niche film festival that celebrates new perspectives in that subtextual medium of narration. The narrative voice of films more than anything else. A medium as McLuhan would call it. As opposed to the messages contained within this medium. These messages, the loud, shouting out parts of messages. In opposition to the loudness of messages is the rather subtextual quietness of the medium of narrating modern stories of our times. The real question is who is best at this for most of the populace. Not those picked for the populace but those chosen by the populace. 

The narrative voice one needs to judge this updating of the tool of Dramatic Irony to use within most of a film today. In other words, might it be possible to write a type of contemporary Gatsby or To the Lighthouse. This medium of narrative voices whether Fitzgerald’s or Woolf’s. Or Joseph Conrad’s various works for that matter. Such as Heart of Darkness

* * *

The brilliant sequences in North by Northwest relating to Dramatic Irony needs to be studied and there is really no better place to start studying this than in this brilliant Hitchcock film. Transferring the narrative voice continually around. Perhaps to confuse the reader about narrator of a story. 

I think the ideas of Dramatic Irony in Gulino’s Screenwriting: The Sequence Approach. After all my reading of screenwriting books, this might be some of the most important information I ever received. A truly new perspective not on screenplay structure like most of the other Hollywood story brands but rather on screenplay psychology and philosophy. And media, one might add. The power of this technique is investigated far too rarely in modern screenplays.


An Interview with North by Northwest Screenwriter Ernest Lehman

The Original Shooting Script of North by Northwest

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