Specificity: Authentication

Specificity is something my creative writing professors pounded into my skull from the moment I walked into their suspiciously bare, humorless classes (there should seriously be a law requiring  CW classes to have some form of decoration, what writer can function in a such a sterile environment!).

Specificity is a way of grounding your work. That does not always mean adding adjectives & adverbs, or even writing super long descriptions. It means taking something potentially abstract in nature, and making it concrete by adding relevant information. For example: Think in the context of someone walking into a room. There’s been a murder, and the person discovering the body has never seen something so heinous. They are attempting to describe their initial thoughts.

“It was a horrific sight. There was blood everywhere.”

“The blood was pooling in tiny puddles around the corpse, on the walls, and on the cabinets. I’d never seen so much blood outside of a body before.”

Yes, the second example is longer. But it tells us a lot more about the scene, the person encountering it, and the victim. We know they’re obviously dead in the second example, that the person who found them isn’t used to that type of scene, and that they’re most likely in a kitchen. This example is also a little more broad, as it applies to a scene and not a sentence.

The gist of it is, if you mean shout, don’t say said. If you mean balked, don’t say frowned. Use a thesaurus or dictionary and find what you need in the moment. Distillation, using as few words as possible, is an art. There is a time and place for long, poetic prose. But screenplays, and even novels depending on your genre, aren’t the place. Build your brand around the hard and fast rules, and then adjust as you go.

 

The Big Jump: Novels to Screenplays

If you want to transition from novel/prose to screenwriting, this is for you.

The biggest mistake that new and intermediate writers make, especially those transitioning from traditional novel prose, is that they pad every blank space between dialogue with as much description as possible. That’s a big no-no, unless you are a Sorkin or a Whedon. And even they stuck to the less is more approach initially.

When writing a novel, we are tasked with designing, painting, and illustrating a world that our reader has never seen. Never experienced. But a movie or tv show has a visual component that employs up to, or beyond, a dozen workers whose sole job is to use your dialogue and clues to build a world. There are set designers, art decorators, animators, artists, directors, etc. who will bring the artistic vision you have in your mind to life. And their vision, too. Shonda Rhimes has elaborate sets on all of her shows. Everything down to the instrument is thought of and supplied. But she doesn’t write everything down to the secondhand of the clock. She writes what matters, and moves on. Then she allows others to use the bones of her vision to construct an experience.

Television writers have more of a hand in the day to day, detailed approach than film writers. Directors are typically attached and made the face of their project much more often in film because they are (usually) the individuals who make the final decisions as to what will happen and how and what it all should look like. That’s not to say the writer isn’t important or doesn’t have any say-so, but a lot of what you say set or design-wise isn’t going to be kept anyway, so why write a twenty page manifesto as to how the tea should be stirred: clockwise or counterclockwise?

Another reason not to pad your screenplay with tons of description is that often, we are so wrapped up in wanting every little detail to paint the picture, we include details that will bore the audience (be that a potential agent, manager, etc) to tears. We lose that instinct to cut the fatty bits because even those extraneous, useless portions are somehow important to the experience for us. I’m an avid believer in the two step authentication of writing. Not just for catching errors, but also for testing whether you’re holding on to something that doesn’t belong there.  No one cares that your character tied his shoes in twenty seconds, unless him tying his shoes in twenty seconds is somehow significant to the plot, or his character development.

Lastly, and perhaps the most important thing, don’t write anything in the scene setup or action lines that aren’t action or something that can be translated to screen. So many writers say things like “This was the first time he’d ever woken up this drunk,” and don’t remember that unless it says voiceover (V.O.), or is spoken aloud to another character, that information is lost to the abyss.

Another example is writing the thoughts of your characters. Again, if it isn’t being spoken aloud, or it isn’t stated as a voiceover, no one will know. It isn’t like moviegoers or tv audiences at home are handed a copy of your script & instructed to follow along. They get what you give them: visuals and dialogue. Whatever you leave in those spaces between dialogue should be material that shows or does something that is integral to understanding the headspace of your characters, or the distilled world view they have. Don’t play God in a story if there isn’t one, and certainly don’t overexert yourself with writing weird transition shots or camera angles or parentheticals. Your job is hard enough. Strengthen your dialogue and distill your writing into something minimalist, yet impactful.

Assignment:

Think of your favorite movies and shows. Try to find a script of an episode or a draft, and see what they include outside of dialogue.

Writing: No one said it’d be easy.

I write stories for a living. I make no money off of these stories, but I’m living to write them.

By design, I write prose. By desire, I write screenplays. I have twenty passions, but none of them burn as brightly or last as long.

I’ve never made a cent from my writing. But I read other people’s writing and offer my thoughts. This past year, I went from being a manager at a fast food restaurant to providing feedback, coverage, loglines, and everything else needed to make a story work.

All of this came to pass because I knew how to say hi when all I wanted to do was shut my mouth. I knew that the only way I’d ever be on the path I wanted to be on was by betting on myself. I’ve said that to everyone in my life at least a hundred times in the past couple months, but it rings true. Nothing is riskier or more rewarding than betting on yourself. If you’re a creative, you have no choice except to bet on yourself. No one is going to write your story. No one is going to paint your picture. No one is going to reassure you that you can be the 1%, 2%. But everyone can say that if you never try, you’ll never get anywhere.

I don’t write as much as I want to. Mainly because it’s frustrating to love something and hate it at the same time, especially when you forget grammar rules and characters between coffee breaks. But besides betting on yourself, here are three tips that (may) lead you (and me) to success.

  1. See how someone else did it and copy them.

There are tons of books, short stories, videos, screenplays, and movies that will teach you everything you need to know. Want to be a novelist? Read. Preferably books. Seriously. I’m amazed at how many people I know who want to write novels, but seriously hate reading. Unless you’re a prodigy, chances are you need to study your craft. Copying the writing style of a writer you admire is the best way to practice. And by copy, I mean literally copy their style. How do they write action scenes? How many characters do they introduce on the first page? Second page? You get the point. This also applies to screenplays. Don’t throw so much at your audience that they’re struggling to remember who the main character versus semi-main versus supporting…..You catch my drift.

2.  There are free movie/TV screenplays online. Read them.

The biggest mistake I made was assuming screenplays had the same scene setup process as novels. By general rule, screenplays should have as much white space as possible. Less is more. The worst screenplays I’ve read had long chunks of description and setup, and even longer stretches of dialogue. I’ll be going over resources for screenplays in a later post, but the gist of it is this: Read screenplays, see what works (chances are if it’s a show or movie on air, it worked), and see how your own writing stacks up.

3. You may always hate your writing. Don’t give up because of that.

Every writer struggles. But you will improve. That doesn’t mean writing will be easier, it just means the quality will improve. You may always have shitty first drafts, but maybe the fourth draft is better. Then the third. Then the second.

Figuring out your story is hard. But the one’s that stick with you deserve a voice. They deserve the chance to get fleshed out on the page. I hate writing the first draft! But there are movies and shows that went through 10, 15, 20 network drafts (true story) before they were made. Professional writers too, not newbies. So don’t fret. No one is perfect.

 

The Short Series: Alabaster Stairs

Before the end of the road, between two trees and an empty forest, is a house with six windows, seven doors, and two people. There in the hall is an empty bottle of rum, two drops in it for the lingering alcoholic. Under the stairwell is seven answers to six questions never heard. Two of them are for you, four of them for me. Harvey says a question ain’t a question if there’s no answer for it. But I gots millions of questions in me that no man, no mortal and bleeding man, could answer without the help of the devil. I’m running on empty now. I’m out of juice. I gotta get back into the house. I’ve had one too many screws come loose.