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Clayton Hammond (Dennis Quaid) meticulously prepares himself for his latest publishing event: a reading of his latest novel, The Words. As he opens his book to let the tale unfurl for the audience, Danielle (Olivia Wilde) slips into the auditorium and into an empty seat.

Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper) is at the peak of literary success for the release of his debut novel, The Window Tears, and prepares for the evening with his wife, Dora (Zoe Saldana). As they exit their apartment, they pass an Old Man (Jeremy Irons) who watches the couple climb into a limo. His eyes follow Rory hungrily, but he doesn’t say a word. As the limo drives off, Rory rests his head on Dora’s lap and sighs that “it was only supposed to be a small book.” They arrive at a gala event where Rory is awarded the American Literary Fellows award.

FIVE YEARS EARLIER – Rory and Dora are a young couple who have just moved to a dingy New York apartment. Dora jumps on top of him, happy that they are taking this leap together, but their financial situation is not the best. Rory goes to his father (J.K. Simmons), and his father reluctantly gives Rory; his sole condition being that Rory finds a job that can actually support the couple.

Rory gets a job as a mail supervisor at a literary agency. Soon, the couple has settled into their lives, and they wed quietly in city hall. While on their honeymoon in Paris, Rory finds an old, beat up briefcase in an old antique shop. Time ravaged, but with an understated air of sophistication, the case seems like it was meant for Rory. Dora buys the case as a wedding present for him.

Upon their return to New York, Rory gets around to shopping what he hopes will be his debut novel, The Burning Tree. Instead of praise, he receives only rejection after rejection. He collapses in Dora’s arms, and she tells him that it will all be alright. He just needs to stop holding back.

A few days later, Rory has tossed his manuscript in the trash. He starts compiling the rejection letters and puts them in the briefcase Dora bought him when he notices a yellowed folder with a manuscript inside of it. He opens it and begins reading, finished almost as quickly as he began. When he’s finished, he is left with both awe and a sadness that he will never have the skill that was expressed by this author.

That night, while at an elegant dinner with a married couple from Dora’s social circle, Rory loses it. Dora follows him out into the alley where he confesses that he’s not where he thought he’d be in life. He thought he’d amount to something better than this. Dora is crushed by this statement and asks him how that’s supposed to make her feel.

That evening, lying in bed with Dora in his arms, he thinks only of the manuscript. The words, the feelings behind them and how masterfully they had been put together. He leaves the bed and turns on his computer, typing up the manuscript piece by piece so that he could feel the words flowing through them, channel the energy, the emotion and for a moment believe himself to be as good as the man who wrote this work. After a few hours, he’s finished.

Later the next morning, he returns home to find Dora in tears. He asks what’s wrong, and she confesses that she read the typed novel because he left it open on his computer. She thinks it’s a masterpiece and that it’s everything she knew he had inside but was too afraid to let out. Rory is stricken by this confession and decides to follow his wife’s advice: to show it to his boss at the literary agency.

Rory arrives at Joseph Cutler’s office, and states that in two years he has never asked anything from anyone, instead, focusing on doing his job as best he can. He begs Cutler (Zeljko Ivanek) for an opinion, nothing more, on the work. Cutler spends the evening reading the novel and calls Rory back into his office. He asks who Rory has shown the novel to and offers Rory a publishing deal on the spot.

From there on, the novel explodes critically and commercially. Rory has become a literary darling and has his two other manuscripts sold to publishers. But everything changes when he meets the Old Man.

Clayton stops telling the story and pauses for a brief intermission. His publisher (John Hannah), notices Danielle approaching with wine and tells Clayton that he’s wanted back in 10 minutes so he should “skip the foreplay.” Danielle and Clayton go to a private office to talk where she confesses that she knows everything about him – including the fact that he is separated from his wife, despite the fact that he still wears his wedding ring. When he grills her about who she is, she admits that she is a grad student at NYU who won the same fellowship that Clayton did at her age. She wants to interview him, so Clayton agrees to talk about his inspiration, but it’s clear that the interview is not what they’re really focusing on.

Clayton returns to the podium to begin the second part of the reading, picking up where we left off.

Rory goes for a walk in Central Park when the Old Man sits on a park bench nearby. They idly chit chat before the Old Man reveals himself to be a fan of Rory’s novel. He asks Rory for an autograph which Rory obliges. The conversation takes a turn when the Old Man asks him if he would be willing to write a book based on the Old Man’s story but cite the Old Man as the author. Rory tells the Old Man that wouldn’t be fair and prepares to leave when the Old Man tells him the premise: An author loses his prized manuscript only to have it found and stolen by a dick less little thief.

Rory sits down next to the Old Man as the Old Man starts his story.

At the end of World War II, The Man (Ben Barnes) was stationed in France and never saw combat. In fact, the only dead body that he’d ever seen was someone who accidentally stepped on a mine. He was stuck on a shit detail but found it enjoyable. One day, he saw a beautiful waitress named Celia (Nora Arnezeder) who he couldn’t take his eyes off. Despite thinking him an American pig, she gives him a chance.

The Man learned French so that he could be with Celia, and she learned English so as to be with him. For a while, it was perfect. Until the Man was discharged. Forced to return home, he found that the only thing that had changed in his absence was him. Knowing what he had to do, he returned to France and Celia. Taking a job as a magazine writer, he soon wed Celia and together they had their first child. She screamed day and night, but he never knew that she was sick. Soon the child died, leaving the couple broken.

The Man tried to keep Celia afloat, but he couldn’t. Frustrated, he left her to go drinking only to find her gone when he returned. A letter was all she left him, telling him that she had gone home to be with her parents. Hit by the loss of his wife and daughter, he sat down at his typewriter and typed. Two weeks later, the words were finished – having captured his frustration and emotions over what happened.

He went to see Celia at her parent’s house, but she was not ready to come home. He left her the novel, which she read with tears and put in a brand new bag, a gift for The Man. But when she decided to return she forgot the case on the train. The Man angrily raced to the train station to try and find the manuscript but failed. Celia didn’t understand that the manuscript was how he coped, how he put down every moment of grief at their daughters passing. Eventually, his anger consumed him, and he left for home without another word.

The Old Man tells Rory that he just wanted Rory to know the pain and the feelings that went into the novel so that he’d be able to answer if a reporter asked what went into the work. He leaves Rory horrified at what he’s done, bitterly joking that he now has material for his next novel.

Clayton announces to the audience that if they want to know how the story ends, they’ll have to buy the book. He and Danielle return to his apartment where he offers to go open a bottle of wine to share. While Clayton is downstairs, Danielle rifles through his copy of The Words and finds a photograph that the audience can just barely make out as that of a young African American woman – Clayton’s estranged wife. When he comes up stairs, she pressures him to tell her how the story ends. Clayton reluctantly agrees.

Rory spends the next day in a drunken stupor. When he returns home, he confesses that he stole the work – shattering Dora’s perception of him. The full weight of his lie weighs down on her, and she leaves him. Rory returns to Cutler’s office to take his name off the book, but Cutler tells him that the shit storm that would result would ruin both of their careers. Rory asks if his follow ups were anywhere near as good as the Old Man’s novel and is met with the loudest answer of all: Silence.

Rory tracks down the Old Man to a gardening store where the Old Man works taking care of plants. Rory’s offer of money upsets the Old Man, who tells Rory that he’d made a choice, a mistake, and has to live with it. Rory begs the Old Man to let him take his name off the book and give the Old Man his due credit, but the Old Man simply says that it’s done. He confesses that he saw Celia one last time after he left her.

At a train station on his way to work, he glanced out the window and saw Celia on the platform. She hadn’t seen him, and her attention turned towards a man carrying a young child, whom she kissed lovingly on the lips. The Man’s face shatters with grief as he looks on, and for a moment, their eyes meet. In their moment of recognition, they raise their hands in hello until the train departed.

The Old Man’s eyes mirror the grief in his younger self’s eyes. He tells Rory that he thought he had crushed Celia’s world when he left, but that in the end, we move on from our mistakes. We make peace with them or learn to live with them. The Old Man had made his peace. Rory, stung by the weight of the Old Man’s story, leaves him with some solace: “I really do love your book.” The Old Man smiles to himself as Rory leaves.

Danielle isn’t satisfied with Clayton’s ending. She presses him to tell her what happened to Rory after. Clayton tells her that the Old Man died and the secret died with him. And when Rory learned of that, he did what he had to: he continued claiming that he was the author and went on to be a big success. But again, Danielle isn’t satisfied. She wants to know what Dora did after.

Their fights escalated and their marriage was ruined, Clayton confesses. Danielle posits that Rory never really made piece. That every night, he was haunted by dreams of the Old Man’s face and that was all he’d let himself remember, haunted by the knowledge he was a fraud – his writing being a reflection of that. But Clayton bitterly states that it’s never really that simple, and that in the end, all Rory dreamed of was his own face and the fraud that he had made himself by robbing himself of the knowledge of whether he could have done it by himself.

Danielle kisses Clayton, but Clayton pulls away, having flashes of Dora. He asks her to leave but Danielle questions whether that’s what Clayton truly wants. We shift back to Rory, who may just be a younger version of Clayton, lying on Dora’s arms as she assures him that everything is going to be alright.

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Clayton Hammond (Dennis Quaid) publishes a (potentially) autobiographical account of his career as a young writer called, The Words.

His character, Rory Jansen (Bradley Cooper), finds the lost manuscript of an Old Man (Jeremy Irons) who tracks him down and tells him the story of how he lost his wife and child in post-World War II France.

In the end, the Old Man was left alone with the knowledge that his mistakes cost him his wife and Rory is left with the knowledge that he is a fraud. When confronted by a young grad student (Olivia Wilde), Clayton intimates that while there are similarities between the story and his life, fiction and reality come very close but never really touch, leaving it up to the viewer’s interpretation as to whether the Words is truly an autobiographical work or simply a work of fiction.

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