“The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”
Archilochus, 700 BC.
Just the other day I was chatting with a young friend who’s an actor. He was telling me that he and a close friend are thinking of trying their hand at writing a screenplay. Since he’s a fan of thrillers and she likes romances, they are noodling around the idea of writing a romantic thriller — sounds like fun!
Right away the Hitchcock classic “North by Northwest” popped into my head — it’s a great thriller with Cary Grant in which he plays an everyman-type character who gets embroiled in a nefarious plot. Along the way, he falls in love with Eva Marie Saint. The story builds to an action-packed ending on Mount Rushmore.
Anyway, I suggested that the two budding screenwriters take a look at “North by Northwest” (rated among the top 100 films by the American Film Institute) and a few other classics movies that they both enjoy and really spend some time analyzing just how they work. This was one of the great tips that my wonderful playwrighting coach suggested to our group back in the days when I was hopping into the city every week for his workshop. Actually what he suggested was that we take one play that we really loved and just live with it for a time, reading and rereading it, and getting to know it inside and out — so that we would really understand what made it tick. What a great piece of advice!
It’s the “hedgehog” strategy — as in “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.” Diving deep into a classic in your genre and spending time with it can be a very efficient, productive way to begin to understand the underlying principles that drive it. It can also give you a new appreciation for just how seamlessly a truly elegant and engaging story is constructed.
There are so many fruitful questions you can ask as you analyze a novel or play or film script you admire: How and when does it draw you in? What are the main qualities its protagonist reveals in the opening of the story? How does the writer release plot clues in a way that keeps you engaged and sustains momentum? Why is the ending satisfying — and is it surprising or does it seem inevitable? Write on!