Sunday, February 10, 2008  

Four Ways to Give a Crap

By Henry Jones

There are a lot of factors working against writers -- gaining access to the Hollywood system, finding representation, over 40,000 scripts registered at the WGA every year. But sometimes, a writer's greatest enemy is him- or herself. Henry Jones tells you four simple ways you can show a reader that you care about your script (and whoever's perusing your gem).

There're a lot of folks out there with all kinds of advice on screenwriting. You've got the seminars, the expos, the festivals, and competitions all telling you they've got the key to open the Hollywood gates. They don't, but man do they ever paint a pretty picture. If you follow this structural paradigm, you'll sell a script for a million dollars! Yeah, you might. One out of 45 million people won the lottery too; that doesn't mean every person who got a ticket made a good investment. Structure, story, character, dialogue, style, and tone are of vital import. They are things that every writer must learn regardless of ability. Almost every aspect of the craft can be taught. Almost.

The one thing they never tell you is the only thing that really matters: You can either write, or you can't. It's that easy. All the books, seminars, and conferences in the world aren't going to change that. Instinct cannot be taught. Writing is like any other innate ability. You can take all the drawing, painting, and sculpting classes every university has to offer, but you'll never be as good as the kid whose fifth-grade doodles looked like real pictures. Michael Jordan can teach you every single thing he knows about playing basketball and -- even under the weight of all this knowledge -- you'll never be as good as him if you don't have it in you already; not if you don't have the natural ability, the instinct.

This is not to say that every successful writer has this instinctual knack for the craft. Of the 30 highest-paid writers in the industry, ten would fail a freshman creative writing course. Another ten might rise to the dizzying heights of proficiency. Of the remaining ten, five or six are good, three or four are great, but only one or two are brilliant. And it's a sad detriment to this craft that you don't have to at least reach the level of good to succeed.

Am I promoting some kind of literary elitism where only the best of the best should be allowed to participate? No. I'm saying that those teaching the craft spend their time trying to teach something that can't be taught while ignoring the things that every screenwriter can and should know. This concentration on mapping the intangible has cast many a fledgling writer's script into the fires as a result of failure in the most rudimentary lessons.

But there's light on the horizon; all is not lost. Regardless of whatever innate ability you may or may not have, you can improve your skills. Most of us will never be brilliant, but with practice, perseverance, and dedication, you can at least be good. There are things every writer has control over regardless of skill level. Spelling words properly should be a no-brainer, so we'll skip that. It doesn't matter how many or how few years you've been at this, these bits of advice can be applied by any and all.

Lesson 1:

In the name of everything holy, don't put camera directions in your script.
But Henry, I read a bunch of scripts online and there were camera directions all over the place! Yeah? I once saw a guy pour a bottle of lemon Lysol through a loaf of bread and drink what came out the other side. That still doesn't mean that Lysol's better for you than whiskey.

The great majority of scripts you read online are shooting drafts, kids. The same goes for the scripts you buy at the bookstore. They call it a shooting draft not only because it's the draft they shot the film with, but because it has directions with which to shoot -- camera directions. And who is it that has the camera? Right, the director. Don't tell them how to do their job. Having this garbage in your script will mark you as an amateur before they get past page one.

Moreover, camera direction tends to be used by writers to avoid having to write. Angle on this, close-up on that, pan to this, wide on that -- this is hack work, all of it. Use your skills as a wordsmith to say these things without having to say them. An example? Ugh. Fine. But I want you to know my toaster strudels just dinged and they'll be cold by the time I get to them. That's on your head. Let's use some descriptive lines for this.

With camera direction:

CLOSE on the tip of a pencil moving against paper.

Without camera direction:

The tip of a pencil moves against paper.

Or, if you want to put a little sauce on it:

A pencil tip scratches a graphite trail
on white.

Looks easy, right? It is. Nine times out of ten, the answer to removing camera direction is simply that -- delete it. The sauce is a different matter, that's up to you. Okay, one more. We'll continue with this scene.

With camera direction:

PULL BACK to reveal TOM (30), a tall, skinny
man, writing in a ledger at a small desk. CLOSE
on the wall clock: 6:30. CLOSE on Tom's watch:
6:30. ANGLE on the ledger as Tom writes in it.

Without camera direction:

Tall, lean frame hunched over a child's desk,
TOM (30) eyes a wall clock: 6:30. He
crosschecks the time on his watch and notes it
in a ledger.

Not only should you not use camera direction, you don't need it. It takes the reader out of the story, removing them from the fictional reality you've created, and makes them think about cameras moving this way and that. While I'm at it, let's talk about reveal. Something moves aside to reveal something else; something blows up to reveal something behind; someone opens a Happy Meal to reveal a cheeseburger within. Do not overuse this word. As a guideline: Nothing is ever revealed unless it is, in fact, a revelation. When that guy in Total Recall opens his shirt and the conjoined fetus/mutant/speech-impaired telepath Kuato pops out, we've got us a revelation, people. You want confirmation? Okay. From the script:

George unbuttons his shirt, revealing...A SMALL

Considering four different writers had a crack at the script by this point, it's about as eloquent as a mute with lockjaw -- but you get the point.

[Ed. note: Total Recall's final writing credits list screenplay by Ronald Shusett & Dan O'Bannon and Gary Goldman; screen story by Ronald Shusett & Dan O'Bannon and Jon Povill; inspired by the Phillip[sic] K. Dick short story, "We Can Remember It For You Wholesale."]

Lesson 2:

Knock it off with the parenthetical dialogue directions already.
So often writers use these to convey a character's emotional state while they're saying the line: (angry), (happy), (worried), (sincere). All these and their wretched ilk do nothing more than add a line to the script that doesn't need to be there. The character's emotional state should be clear without any of this needless dreck if you've done your job setting up the scene and telling the story. Most actors cut them out like so much cancer the second they get the script. Once again, it's a matter of telling someone else how to do their job while the writer avoids doing theirs.

The only reasons to use parentheticals in dialogue are to clarify to whom a person is speaking if there're more than two people in the room (to Bob), or -- in rare instances -- how a person is speaking (whispers). It's just that easy. The golden rule: Show, don't tell. Again, this comes down to doing your job as a writer. Don't take the easy -- hack -- way out; let your prose do the heavy lifting.

Lesson 3:

Never use "we" in your description. Ever.
There are writers who will argue with me on this. I'll flat-out tell you: they're wrong. "We hear" this, "we see" that, and while "we" were writing it, our skills reverted back to a seventh-grade level.

Yes, it's easier. It's also easier to kill someone with a disease than it is to cure them. I could go off on a tangent and ask, "Is there more than one person reading the script at one time? Who constitutes the other half of 'we'?" But that's the back-door explanation to this. The beauty of this particular venue of the written word is that all you have to do is write it and -- bam -- there it is. There is no need to say we see or hear anything. Don't tell the reader what they're seeing, show them. Don't tell them what they're hearing, give them the damn sound.

With WE:

We see a MONKEY rattling the bars of his cage.
We hear a distant RUMBLE.

Without WE:

A MONKEY rattles the bars of his cage.
A distant RUMBLE.

There you have it, easy as Sunday morning. Just like camera direction, the cure is usually a matter of omission. As you go through your work to excise all these little tumors -- which, ahem, I'm sure you're doing at this very moment -- you'll come across some that require something more than just deletion. You'll find instances where you've painted yourself into a wee corner. You're gonna think, "Maybe I'll just leave it in. Just one. No big deal." Sweet mercy, kid, you sound like a recovering alcoholic taking a nosedive off the wagon. It's not okay to have just one instance of this in your script. Not one, not again, not ever. Got it? Use your skills as a writer to figure out the best way to write it without resorting to the use of "we."

Lesson 4:

There is a time and place for "-ly" adverbs; most often, it is neither the time nor place.
As with everything above, this is a problem that stems from laziness on the part of the writer. The great majority of screenplays -- and writing in general -- are rife with them. And, more likely than not, their effect is the very antithesis of what you're trying to achieve.

If you want to separate yourself from the cattle, this is the best place to start. Every time you feel the urge to use words like slowly, plaintively, slyly, quickly, happily, smoothly -- ask yourself this: "Am I adding detail, or avoiding it?" I got a dime to a dollar that says you're avoiding it. Not only that, but folks have a tendency to tack on the old "-ly" and make rather unwieldy bits of chaff out of solid words. Take "stalwart," for instance. A great word that, while it can mean physically strong, is most often used to denote solidarity of character. But when someone stands by their friend stalwartly, it softens the meaning and almost loses it altogether. Using the adverb in this manner is like wrapping a pillow around a crowbar before you hit someone with it. And what is it that "-ly" adverbs really do? They tell, folks; they don't show. To be precise, they tell how.

Avoiding these little devils is going to hone your craft. It's going to force you to think of ways to present information that you've never thought of before. To set it up a bit: Bill's on the ground and Jake's working him over with a baseball bat.

With "-ly":

Jake brutally beats Bill to death with a
baseball bat.

What does this sentence tell the reader? A guy killed another guy with a baseball bat. How did he do it? Brutally. Now it's time for the question: "Am I adding detail, or avoiding it?" This sentence is dry, it's bland as communion wafers -- they really should do sour cream and onion, or cheddar, mix it up a bit -- and does nothing to tell the reader what's really going on. Sell it, kids. Sell it.

Without "-ly":

Bone shatters, flesh bruises and
bursts, every wet thump of the bat
coming harder, faster. Jake wipes
blood spray from his eyes, lines
up on what's left of Bill's head and
swings for the bleachers.

Of course, not every description in every scene needs this much detail. Most shouldn't have this much detail. But the ones that matter should. The ones you really need the reader to remember should. An adverb used at the right time, in the right place can be just what the doctor ordered. These instances are rare. Let me put it this way: If you have three "-ly" adverbs in your script, you probably have one too many.

And there you have it, folks. Four really simple things you can do to improve your work in the craft of screenwriting. Dropping your adverbs will be the hardest of these tasks, as it demands more of you as a wordsmith. But if you're not in this to get better, then you shouldn't be in at all.

Can you sell a screenplay with camera direction, parenthetical dialogue direction, "we," and "-ly" adverbs? Yes, absolutely. There is no doubt. If you do (or have), it still won't change the fact that you're a poor craftsman. You don't need to follow this advice to succeed. Will it make your screenplays better? Beats me, you could have the worst story in the world. But it will make your writing better. That's where you have to start -- on the level of a single sentence, a word, a punctuation mark. They can preach structure, character, dialogue, style, and tone to you till kingdom come and your script's still gonna look like a chimp after a (*&^ fight if you can't string five good sentences together.

Writing well in this venue has become a matter of personal ethic. Being a writer doesn't mean you have to be brilliant, and it's not just the ability to form letters into words, words into sentences and so on -- it means that you care how you use your words and that you study how others use theirs with that same care. There're roughly 18,000 to 20,000 words in a screenplay. If you really want to do this, if you want to be a writer, then every word has to count. No one can make you write well, no one can force you to stop taking shortcuts and hone your craft. No one can lay down an edict to honor this lovely language and try to be worthy of her. No one but you.

Henry Jones is a working screenwriter and connoisseur of foods containing preservatives, carcinogens and cheese. His hobbies include smoking, cursing, and string theory speculation.