The Writing Is the Thing!
I know you. I do. When I look into myself, I see you staring back at me. You are, like me, always and forever, a writer first. If you weren’t, you wouldn’t have made it this far into this essay. The fact that you have made it this far is justification for my appraisal of you. You keep reading because, like me, you want to do the things you’ve seen others do. You want to write something that reaches down into the depths of another person and stirs in them the emotions that you want them to have. You believe, like I do, that a piece of art is a fully functioning wormhole between minds.
Ever since I was twelve years old [and saw Amadeus for the first time] I have wanted to write screenplays; I have wanted to write something that would mean as much to someone else as Peter Schaffer’s beautiful script meant to my twelve year old self. As I mentioned to a screenwriting friend one time, my entire writing life [mostly without my conscious participation] has been devoted to writing My Own Personal Amadeus. The irony… I should start over and be more accurate: The exquisite irony of this situation is that I go to all this effort because I believe that if I write the story of my own personal Amadeus, the transformational alchemy of applied literature will allow it to be Your own Personal Amadeus too. Because you believe, like I do, that:
A piece of Art is a fully functioning wormhole between minds.
And no matter what anyone tells you about premise, roles actors want to play, the viability of certain genres in overseas markets, etc., that wormhole closes and opens by one [and only one] method—the words on the page.
First, we are writers.
I will divide the following discussion into two parts: technical aspects, and stylistic aspects.
There are two pieces of your writing that you have absolute control over:
2. Grammatical errors.
I cannot tell you the number of professional readers I have heard say, in essence, that they read until the first typo, but I can tell you they can’t be counted on both my hands. Even if we assume these readers are exaggerating to make a point, we can still be pretty sure that if you send your script to an industry reader and there are two or three typos on the first page, you’ve killed whatever reading momentum your title, logline, and query letter provided you. Your PDF is going to get closed. We writers are left wondering, is this fair?
I believe, unequivocally, that it is.
Look, maybe when a reader is first starting out, she might be on some sort of mission to improve the world by finding meaningful, artistic scripts. I doubt it, but we’ll allow that possibility if you want it. But the halcyon days, if they exist at all for an industry reader, end fast. For me, it took until my second amateur script.
This thing was a complete mess. I remember taking 14 pages of notes about the typos and grammatical errors. It took me six and a half hours to get through the 103 page draft. On top of all this, reading the entire thing exhausted all my reserves of respect for the writer because I felt that he had [very callously] wasted my time sending me that version of his script. It wasn’t ready to be read. The typos alone proved it.
That first experience has been backed up by [almost] (91) every other error ridden script I’ve read since. If you think about it for a minute, it should be pretty clear why industry readers assume that a script with three typos on the first page is destined to be bad.
Scripts with numerous typos and grammatical errors imply a lack of revision on the part of the author.
The inductive reasoning that justifies this assumption is airtight. Everyone makes mistakes [I shudder to think how many still remain in this draft], unmaking mistakes requires a lot of dedication and extreme diligence on the part of the author. The reason for this is that your brain comes equipped with a remarkably effective error mitigator that constantly frustrates your attempts at typographical perfection—in other words, we’re just really bad, as a species, at seeing our own mistakes. (92)
Because readers know all of this [and they don’t have to know it consciously for it be a dramatic influence on their reading behavior], they equate the amount of time you spent on the story of your script to the amount of time you spent on the typos and grammar errors. To an engaged reader, a script with a lot of typos is the same thing as a script with a lot of plot holes.
So, find a way to bring this aspect of your writing as close to perfection as you think humanly possible. In fact, if you aren’t willing to bet someone twenty dollars that there are ZERO typos in your script, your script isn’t ready to send out.
Writing—A Style Guide:
No single book on writing is ever going to teach you how to write in a way that makes people want to read what you’ve written. I do, however, have the hubris to imagine that my essay can cast a few of the more important techniques of good writing [and especially good screenwriting] up on the beach for discussion. I believe that:
Good writing starts with compelling sentence construction.
Although that statement is 100 percent accurate, it still could use a little unpacking, so let me be more specific:
In any well told story every word is a conscious choice.
That last statement is only true by degrees. We live in an empirical world that refuses necessarily true statements in favor of contingently true approximations, which means [even though I am loathe to admit it] the much more fallible presentation of the last statement is better:
The closer any story comes to being a well told story, the closer the author came to making every word a conscious choice. (93)
As much as I would like to, I can’t take full credit for this idea. I am spinning it into my own web, for sure, but the silk for my design came to me by way of George Orwell’s collection of essays entitled Why I Write. If you have not read this, do. There is a powerful aesthetic formula hidden inside this miraculous essay.
The war that Mr. Orwell declared on clichés and “bureaucratic doublespeak”, I declare on all of writing. Our thoughts are coated in prefabricated chunks of information because [my completely off the wall scientific guess with no merit whatsoever posits] our brains can process information faster than they can generate it. Using the prefabricated chunks (94) facilitates information processing at the expense of information generation. Basically, it keeps us from sounding like stuttering idiots who can’t respond to situations in a vanishingly fleeting present. Our language is designed for functionality not accuracy. [Of course, it could also turn out that language, like light, follows a geodesic—other things being equal a word will always cross the shortest distance between itself (signifier) and what it signifies (signified).]
My metacognitive self can’t help but come up with an answer for what causes the prefabricated chunks but, even if my answers turn out to be blatantly false, the fact of the chunks remains. And it is these chunks that always prevent a writer from being a good or [after years of apprenticeship to her craft] a Great Writer.
Prefabricated Chunks are a Dual Headed Hydra:
Orwell does a good job of pointing out the first head, thinking of it as verbal clichés or bureaucratic doublespeak suffices to understand what you want to excise from your writing. In shorthand, if you just wrote something that sounds familiar to your ear, unwrite it (or refabricate it!).
The other head of our Hydra [while there is universal recognition that it also needs to be excised] continues to fill up screenplay after screenplay that I read. This truth is out there [haha], but no one is listening. I call this shortcut to bad writing, the over indulgence in prefabricated tropes. Let’s approach the idea by way of a few examples. I’ll start with one I mentioned a few pages back when we were talking about exposition.
The Prefabricated Newspaper Trope:
You’ve all seen this before. A guy walks into a convenience store/bar/gas station and the cashier is reading a newspaper/watching TV news/googling something on her smartphone. During the transaction, the main character notices what the cashier is reading/watching and, by unbelievable coincidence, this happy accident gives the main character the piece of information she needs to move forward in her story.
Some day [when I have a lot more time than I do now] I’d like to trace the etymology of this trope. I know it has one. Somewhere, a movie or show or play was the first movie or show or play to feature this plot device. There is a point in the etymology of the newspaper trope where it counted as an original way to move a protagonist forward in her story. It gets repeated nowadays because it is functional. It does what’s required [give the protagonist information she needs] in a way that conforms to our understanding of our world [people do get information they need from newspapers]. (95)
The newspaper trope [like all prefabricated tropes] is a story cliché.
How about this:
How many times have you been watching a movie where the story is beginning to make you doubt the sanity of your protagonist? You are beginning to think to yourself that, yes, this person’s point of view on the world is definitely muddled. Maybe they are so unreliable as a perspective that they are subject to delusions. Clearly, this type of character presents a challenge to the author. How does the author let the audience know that she wants her viewers to doubt her protagonist?
Delusions of Maggots as Sign of Mental Instability Trope:
Again, I am sure that if we traced the Maggot Trope backward, we’d eventually find a story which began the trope, a story in which the trope was still unique. The last time I read the trope myself was in the script for Black Swan [which I praised a few pages ago for being “high concept” in a unique way]. Its presence there made me roll my eyes. The trope is so overdone that it exasperates a reader.
Writers continue to use the trope because it works. Put a character in a room without maggots and then suddenly have that character see a squirming pile of maggots on the floor, and we readers will connect the dots—your character is losing her mind. The problem is that the trope is a shortcut signifier for a longhand signified. Readers hate those.
Your job as a writer is to invent the next generation of tropes. This is what keeps the pages of a PDF rolling. If you should ever have to get across to the audience that you are writing a character who is out of touch with reality, resist the Maggot Trope and refabricate the signifier. (96)
The job of the author, in any artistic endeavor, is to mine all of the available prefabricated chunks of meaning for their natural (97) meaning and then assemble them on the page in a way that captures truth.
Algorithm 11—Writing like a Pro
1. Eliminate all typos
2. Eliminate all grammatical errors
3. Make every word a conscious choice
4. Avoid linguistic clichés
5. Avoid story clichés [like the Maggot Trope]
91 I am forced into the “almost” by Mr. Tarantino. His scripts are travesties of spelling and grammar, and yet, most of the time [The Hateful Eight is an exception to the exception– as that script was terrible], they are fully finished stories. If you know you are a good writer, but struggle with technical aspects of the craft for reasons outside your control, find a good proofreader. The service is usually reasonably priced.
92 Unfortunately for us, our ability to see the mistakes of others borders on the savant-like.
93 Someone might argue that this is a bad definition because “well told story” does all the work and it is not defined by the definition. To that person I say, somewhat scathingly: what, then, is the point of this essay?
94 Incidentally, this idea of “prefabricated chunks” is the inspiration behind my idea to name my process of criticism: refabrication. That discussion will be forced to wait for a later chapter.
95 I should probably say: people used to get information they need from newspapers. I still can’t believe how often the scripts of the digital age still use the newspaper trope.
96 By the way, I’m not suggesting that you substitute a squirming pile of worms for the squirming pile of maggots. The process of refabrication takes time and effort. It is not a process of renaming “x” as “y”.
97 And if you are Derrida, you will focus your deconstructive lens on my use of the word natural in this context.