Storytelling: Just Give Them Two and Two and Let Them Add It Up

Billy Wilder? Ernst Lubitsch? Ted Elliott? Terry Rossio? Ray Bradbury? Vince Gilligan? Andrew Stanton?

twoplus13Dear Quote Investigator: On the commentary track of a video I once heard a screenwriter discuss the requirement to engage the audience’s cognitive powers while spinning a tale:

Give the audience two plus two, and let them come up with four.

A famous Hollywood figure was credited, but I do not recall the name. Would you please explore this saying?

Quote Investigator: Filmmaker Billy Wilder directed classic comedies such as “Some Like It Hot” and influential film noirs such as “Double Indemnity”. In 1976 and 1986 he presented seminars at the American Film Institute, and segments from his talks were later published as a chapter in the book “Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute”. Wilder cautioned against over-explaining or providing too much exposition to viewers. He credited another well-known director Ernst Lubitsch with an illustrative arithmetic metaphor. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

Make it clear to them, but don’t spell it out like the audience are just a bunch of idiots. Just aim it slightly above their station and they’re going to get it. This is what I learned from Ernst Lubitsch. He had a real touch, a gift of involving the audience into writing the script with him as it was unfolding on the screen.

In other words, he was not the kind of a director who kind of hammered it down and said, “Now listen to me, you idiots. There now, put down the popcorn bag, I’m going to tell you something. Two and two is four.” He said, “No, just give them two and two and let them add it up. They’re going to do it for you. And they’re going to have fun with it. They’re going to play the game with you.”

QI has not yet found a citation in which these words were spoken by Ernst Lubitsch. Perhaps this guidance was communicated to Wilder during a private conversation with Lubitsch. In any case, Wilder can be credited with popularizing the figurative language which employed simple addition.

In recent years, successful storytellers such as Vince Gilligan, writer/director of “Breaking Bad”, and Andrew Stanton, writer/director of “Finding Nemo”, have discussed the “two plus two” adage for weaving compelling tales.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1986 the Mitsubishi Corporation ran an advertising campaign featuring commentary from Billy Wilder accompanied with a picture of the director sitting in front of a large-screen Mitsubishi television. The campaign was printed in several publications including “Variety” and “Time”, and the words below are from an advertisement in “American Film”. Wilder mentioned addition, but did not give the two-plus-two example: 2

“The language that has been established between the picture maker and the onlooker has been tremendously refined. Today they outthink you, outguess you all the time. You had better not underestimate them.”

“Let people reach for it. Let them add it up. Don’t spell it out. They’re not stupid.”

In 1987 the author Daniel Fuchs was profiled in the reference work “Contemporary Authors: Autobiography Series”, and he mentioned the statements of an unnamed movie director. QI conjectures that Fuchs saw the Wilder advertisement in a trade paper like “Variety”: 3

A director in a trade-paper statement cautions that the onlooker now will “out think you, will outguess you all the time,” and had better not be underestimated. The audience nowadays is savvy, wants the story told in quick flashes, in quick cuts, dispensing with dissolves: a character is seen walking to his car and—a jump cut, no transition—is driving away. “Let people reach for it. Let them add it up,” the director advises new moviemakers.

In 1999 writer-director Cameron Crowe published “Conversations with Wilder” in which Billy Wilder spoke extensively about his life and his films. Near the end of the volume a set of eleven items were listed under the banner “Wilder’s Tips for Writers”. These three guidelines were included: 4

6. If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.
7. A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.
8. In doing voice-overs, be careful not to describe what the audience already sees. Add to what they are seeing.

In 2006 the book “Outspoken!: How to Improve Writing and Speaking Skills Through Poetry Performance” discussed an exercise for students about communicating the internal moods and feelings of a character to an audience indirectly through visible actions. During the discussion the authors linked the saying under examination to the prominent science fiction author Ray Bradbury: 5

To paraphrase Ray Bradbury, “Put two and two on the page for your reader, but let them add it up.”

In November 2006 the trade journal “Video Business” reviewed the DVD release of the movie “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest” and noted that the commentary track included an instance of the saying: 6

Meanwhile, the audio commentary reins are handed exclusively to screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who make light of going into production without a completed script, reference Billy Wilder (“give the audience two plus two and let them come up with four”) and talk about their “mosaic story structure,” which seemed to annoy many film critics but obviously did just fine with the public.

In 2011 the ArtsBeat Blog of ‘The New York Times” published a Q&A with Vince Gilligan who created the popular television series “Breaking Bad”. The interviewer asked about a scene in which a poisonous plant was shown, and the director stated that the audience was supposed to make a deduction based on the scene. Specifically, the main character Walter White poisoned another character: 7

Q. What about the closing shot of the episode, the poisonous plant growing ominously in Walt’s backyard. Is it meant to suggest the possibility that he might have poisoned Brock, or is it meant to say he definitely did it?

A. To me it is fairly definitive. But there’s the old Billy Wilder quote, which I am going to misquote, that if you give the audience 2 plus 2 and let them add it up to 4 themselves, they’ll love you forever. I abide by that. The audience is plenty smart, and I like giving them as little as possible, and letting them do the math themselves.

In 2012 writer/director Andrew Stanton who is best known for the animated films “Finding Nemo” and “Wall-E” delivered an address at TED, and he referred to the saying: 8

I first started really understanding this storytelling device when I was writing with Bob Peterson on “Finding Nemo.” And we would call this the unifying theory of two plus two. Make the audience put things together. Don’t give them four, give them two plus two. The elements you provide and the order you place them in is crucial to whether you succeed or fail at engaging the audience.

In conclusion, Billy Wilder popularized the “two plus two” guidance for storytellers while speaking at the American Film Institute. The date was not precisely specified, but it was on or before March 3, 1986. Wilder acknowledged Ernst Lubitsch, but QI has not yet located any earlier citations. Several other screenwriters and authors have mentioned the saying, and some are aware of the linkage to Wilder or Lubitsch.

Image Notes: Publicity still taken on the set of the movie “The Major and the Minor” accessed via Wikimedia Commons; cropped to show screenwriter Charles Brackett and director Billy Wilder. Equation constructed with Gimp using in Algerian Extra-Condensed font.

(Great thanks to George Mannes whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Mannes identified Wilder and Lubitsch as the top candidates, and he found several valuable citations including the Vince Gilligan interview and the TED talk by Andrew Stanton.)

Update History: On June 3, 2015 the 1999 citation was added.

Notes:

  1. 2006, Conversations with the Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute, Edited by George Stevens Jr., Chapter: Billy Wilder, Start Page 302, Quote Page 320, (The Wilder chapter is dated December 13, 1978; however, a footnote supplies additional dates: “This transcript contains segments from seminars Wilder gave at the American Film Institute on January 7, 1976 (with his writing partner I. A. L. Diamond) and on March 3, 1986)”, Published by Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper)
  2. 1986 October, American Film, Volume 12, (Advertisement for Mitsubishi Television featuring remarks by Billy Wilder), Quote Page 1, (Back of front cover), Published as a joint venture by The American Film Institute and the AMS Foundation for the Arts, Sciences, and Humanities, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1987, Contemporary Authors: Autobiography Series, Volume 5, Edited by Adele Sarkissian, Profile: Daniel Fuchs, Start Page 53, Quote Page 62, Column 2, Published by Gale Research Company, Detroit, Michigan. (Verified on paper)
  4. 1999, Conversations with Wilder, Interviewee: Billy Wilder, Interviewer: Cameron Crowe, Wilder’s Tips for Writers, Quote Page 357, Published by Knopf, New York, Distributed by Random House, New York. (Verified on paper)
  5. 2006, Outspoken!: How to Improve Writing and Speaking Skills Through Poetry Performance by Sara Holbrook and Michael Salinger, Chapter 5: Character Study and Persona Performance, Quote Page 73, Published by Heinemann: A Division of Reed Elsevier Inc., Portsmouth, New Hampshire. (Amazon Look Inside)
  6. Date: 2006 November 20, Publication Title: Video Business, Source type: Trade Journals, Volume 26, Issue 47, Article Title: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest Two-Disc Special Edition, Article Author: Irv Slifkin, Quote Page 11, Publisher: Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier, Inc. (ProQuest ABI/INFORM Complete)
  7. Date: 2011 October 9, Website: New York Times, Section: ArtsBeat Blog, Article Title: Vince Gilligan of ‘Breaking Bad’ Talks About Ending the Season, and the Series, Article Author: Dave Itzkoff, Website Description: “ArtsBeat is a website devoted to culture news and reviews, and to the work and interests of the reporters and critics of The Times’s culture department and the Book Review.” (Accessed artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com on May 3, 2015) link
  8. TED Video, Title: Andrew Stanton: The clues to a great story, Video Date: Feb 2012, (Quotation starts at 7 minute 13 seconds of 19 minutes 16 seconds), Description: “Filmmaker Andrew Stanton (‘Toy Story,’ ‘WALL-E’) shares what he knows about storytelling — starting at the end and working back to the beginning.” (Accessed on ted.com on May 3, 2015)