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?

Dear 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.

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


  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)