Act One: Get Character Up a Tree. Act Two: Throw Rocks. Act Three: Get Character Down.

Vladimir Nabokov? Harry B. Smith? Augustus Thomas? George M. Cohan? George Abbott? Steven Spielberg? Anonymous?

tree08Dear Quote Investigator: Recently, I saw a fascinating quotation about writing that was attributed to the brilliant prose stylist Vladimir Nabokov:

The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.

This figurative representation of plot mechanics was shrewd and vibrant, but I do not think that Nabokov would grammatically pair the phrase “the main character” with the pronoun “them”. Would you please explore the origin of this storytelling advice?

Quote Investigator: QI has found no substantive evidence that Vladimir Nabokov made this statement. He was born in 1899, and the earliest strong match known to QI was published shortly before that date.

In November 1897 the “Bridgeport Herald” of Bridgeport, Connecticut discussed several contemporary dramatic productions within a section titled “At the Theatres”. The newspaper presented the following anonymous guidance for playwrights. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 1

The best advice ever given writers of farce is in these words: “In the first act get your principal character up a tree; in the second act, throw stones at him; in the third, get him down gracefully.” This recipe Mr. Smith has followed in writing “The Wizard of the Nile.”

The libretto of the operetta “The Wizard of the Nile” was written by Harry B. Smith who was a very popular and prolific writer for the American stage. The passage above asserted that Smith adhered to the formula, but the text did not name Smith as originator. In later years the formula was assigned directly to Smith.

This initial citation was located by top researcher Barry Popik, and his discussion of this topic is available here.

In December 1897 the “Fitchburg Sentinel” of Fitchburg, Massachusetts presented the same formula for the construction of a humorous play: 2

Following the approved recipe for farce writing, the author manages to get Mr. Daniels up a tree in the first act, he throws stones at him in the second, and in the third act he gets him down again. The detail of the story is spoken of as fully as clever and amusing as was “The Wizard of the Nile,” and the other characters are even stronger.

This stratagem for designing narratives has been circulating for more than one hundred and fifteen years. The attribution has shifted over time to point to storytellers who were active in popular media during different eras such as Harry B. Smith, George M. Cohan, and Steven Spielberg. Certainly, this schema has been re-expressed by many individuals, yet the originator has remained anonymous.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1902 “The Chicago Tribune” presented an instance, but did not precisely identify the advice giver: 3

“In the first act get your comedian up a tree; in the second act throw stones at him; in the third act get him down again.”

That is the formula for writing a successful musical comedy which a man wise in such matters years ago gave to an ambitious aspirant.

In 1904 “The Washington Post” ascribed the plot scaffolding remark to the theatrical workhorse Harry B. Smith: 4

The struggling libretto writer would do well to peruse a few of Harry B. Smith’s heart to heart epigrams (with annotations). Mr. Smith is about the only librettist in the field at present—not that any others ever were there—but Mr. Smith remains. “Men may come and men may go, but I go on forever.” Bien! However, the most fluent brook runs dry some time. Says Mr. Smith:

“In the first act, get your comedian up a tree; in the second act, throw stones at him, and in the third bring him down again.”

In 1918 the journal “Current Opinion” reviewed a collection of four plays which were accompanied with introductions by the playwright Augustus Thomas who provided insights into his methods of composition. An instance was mentioned, but it was labeled “the French formula”: 5

Farce, on the other hand, is extremely difficult, and one can do no better than follow the French formula: ‘Act one, get your man up a tree; act two, throw stones at him; act three, get him down.’

In 1922 “The Washington Times” of Washington D.C. printed an anonymous instance: 6

A funny old recipe for a successful play is this: “Act One, chase your hero up a tree; Act Two, pelt stones at him; Act Three, get him down again as gracefully as possible.”

In 1932 the advice was listed on the “The Boys and Girls Page” of multiple newspapers. The domain of application was children’s literature: 7 8 9

One writer of adventure stories once gave the following directions for his kind of writing:

“Get your hero up a tree quickly at the start. Then throw rocks at him. Get him into worse and worse difficulties. Finally, have him solve all the difficulties by one masterful stroke. Then finish in a hurry.”

The rocks and difficulties are the rising action. The masterful stroke is the climax. “Finishing in a hurry” is the conclusion.

In 1942 the widely-distributed gossip columnist Walter Winchell ascribed the remark to the well-known versatile Broadway figure George M. Cohan: 10

Cohan always summed up his formula for writing a play in this manner: “In the first act, get your hero up a tree. In the second act, throw rocks at him. In the third act, get him down without a scratch.”

In 1951 a newspaper in Monroe, Louisiana used the descriptor “ancient formula”: 11

An ancient formula for writing plays goes like this: First act—Get your hero up a tree; second act—throw rocks at him; third act—get him down.

In 1954 the influential columnist Leonard Lyons attached the saying to the Broadway writer and producer George Abbott: 12

George Abbott, the veteran director-playwright, offered this simple advice on play structure: “In the first act, get your hero up a tree; in the second act, throw stones at him, and in the third act, get him down safely.”

In 1967 a movie reviewer in San Mateo, California recalled the linkage to Cohan: 13

Two generations ago a gifted dramatist named George M. Cohan devised a formula for a successful melodrama. He said, “You put your heroine up a tree in the first act, throw rocks at her until a moment before the curtain falls, when you get her safely, down out of the tree.” Cohan’s formula went one step beyond that favored by another old pro named William Shakespeare, who didn’t always get the groggy girl down out of the tree.

In 1987 a movie reviewer in Boston, Massachusetts assigned the saying to the prominent Hollywood director Steven Spielberg: 14

Steven Spielberg once described his notion of the three-act dramatic structure: “In the first act you get him up a tree, in the second act you throw rocks at him and in the third act you get him down from the tree.”

In 2013 an article at the “Business Insider” provided a list of “17 Quotes on Writing That Every Wannabe Author Should Read” which included a statement attributed to the notable author Vladimir Nabokov: 15

“The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.” – Vladimir Nabokov, “Lolita.”

The quotation above was not contained within “Lolita”, and it has not been found in the writings of Nabokov.

In conclusion, this schematic guidance for constructing commercially successful plots was in circulation by 1897. The creator was anonymous. Over the years the statement has been linked to a variety of successful writers, e.g., Harry B. Smith and George M. Cohan. But these attributions were made after the expression was well-known.

Image Notes: Tree climbing from andriusm on Pixabay. Colored stones from sarajuggernaut on Pixabay.

(Great thanks to Benjamin Dreyer whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Dreyer did not believe the attribution to Nabokov and wished to learn more. Also thanks to Omar Sakr who pointed to the “Business Insider” article. Special thanks to Barry Popik for his valuable research on this saying.)

Notes:

  1. 1897 November 21, Bridgeport Herald, At The Theatres, Quote Page 9, Column 3, Bridgeport, Connecticut. (Google News Archive)
  2. 1897 December 23, Fitchburg Sentinel, Frank Daniels in “The Idol’s Eye”, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Fitchburg, Massachusetts. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1902 September 18, The Chicago Tribune, How to Write a Musical Comedy, Quote Page 12, Column 6, Chicago, Illinois. (ProQuest)
  4. 1904 June 12, The Washington Post, Theatrical News and Gossip by Marie B. Schrader, Quote Page A8, Column 2, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  5. 1918 March, Current Opinion, Volume LXIV (64), Number 3, The Playwright’s Box of Tricks Exhibited by Augustus Thomas, Quote Page 183, Column 3, Published by Current Literature, New York. (ProQuest American Periodicals)
  6. 1922 September 3, The Washington Times, Noted Catholic Editor Flays Hall Caine’s Divorce Views by Monsignor Francis C. Kelley, Quote Page 3, Column 1, Washington D.C. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1932 June 5, The Sunday Star (Evening Star), Section: The Boys and Girls Page, A Good Formula, Quote Page 14, Column 3, Washington D.C. (GenealogyBank)
  8. 1932 June 5, Times-Picayune, Section: Young People’s Paper, How to Write Stories by W. Boyce Morgan (Author of more than fifty stories for boys and girls), Quote Page 2, Column 3, New Orleans, Louisiana. (GenealogyBank)
  9. 1932 June 5, The Ogden Standard-Examiner, Section: The Boys and Girls Page, How to Write Stories by W. Boyce Morgan (Author of More than Fifty Stories for Boys and Girls), Quote Page 5B, Column 5, Ogden, Utah. (Newspapers_com)
  10. 1942 May 26, Bradford Evening Star and Daily Record, Walter Winchell On Broadway, Quote Page 3, Column 3, Bradford, Pennsylvania. (Newspapers_com)
  11. 1951 March 11, Monroe Morning World, Sensationalism Bogs Probe At Angola; Unrest Studied by Warren Rogers Jr., Quote Page 7A, Column 3, Monroe, Louisiana. (Newspapers_com)
  12. 1954 February 9, San Mateo Times, Broadway Medley by Leonard Lyons, Quote Page 12, Column 5, San Mateo, California. (Newspapers_com)
  13. 1967 March 11, The Times, ‘Wait Until Dark’ Seen As a Hit, Quote Page 13A, Column 4, San Mateo, California. (Newspapers_com)
  14. 1987 December 18, Boston Herald, ‘Batteries’ thick with adorable aliens, thin on plot & substance by Nat Segaloff, Quote Page 42, Column 2, Boston, Massachusetts. (GenealogyBank)
  15. Website: Business Insider, Article: 17 Quotes On Writing That Every Wannabe Author Should Read, Article Author: Megan Willett, Date on website: September 14, 2013, Website description: Business news website. (Accessed businessinsider.com on September 4, 2015) link