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Writer's Rules Revisited #6

It's been a while since I revisited my "writing advice" sorts of columns since I've been so busy with conventions (like the incredible and excellent Geek Media Expo) and my new book, but I know a lot of people have been consuming every writing tip they can as they work on their NaNoWriMo novels and I wanted to bring these back for you guys.

If you want to catch up on the series:

You can read Part 1 here, Part 2 here, Part 3 herePart 4 here, and  Part 5 here.

Now that that's all out of the way, we can get down to business:

20) Read other peoples books and screenplays that you admire and are better than your skill level. You don't necessarily need to switch to their style, but adapts their strengths into your style and learn from their mistakes. 

I think this rule is very important and it seems very obvious. Too often I hear people who want to be writers complain that they don't read, that they don't have time, that it's boring, or that it just doesn't fit in with their routine. With very, very rare exceptions my expectation is that I'll never hear of these people as writers. Would you work on a car without learning how an engine works? Would you build a couch without understanding the fundamentals of how to comfortably support the weight of the user and without ever sitting on a couch yourself? No? Because the same level of craftsmanship and focus on craft required to build an engine or a couch or a recipe or anything else is the same level of craftsmanship required to write a story, whether it's a screenplay or a novel.

You have to know how and why stories work and you need to be able to dissect what doesn't work about them. If you aren't doing massive amounts of reading, then you aren't going to learn anything to hone your craft.

I read a lot of screenplays when I'm working on a screenplay. My favorite source for them is Drew's Script-O-Rama. There's a section there called "film scripts" and it provides links to the shooting (or early) drafts of hundreds and hundreds of our favorite movies. You want the script, not the transcript, because a transcript isn't at all what you need to study. A transcript of a film shows you what the film is in screenplay form. The early drafts and shooting script show you what led the filmmakers to the final product. There are plenty of different ways to write a screenplay and different styles of formatting. For instance, William Goldman is much more jerky and technical than, say, a script from Sergei Eisenstein, who writes more like a novel. Brad Bird's draft of Ratatouille was incredibly fun to read and enlightening. Alex Proyas's early drafts of Dark City barely resemble the final film. But I've learned something from each and every one of them. My style of writing a screenplay is about as different as you can get from William Goldman, but I think he's one of the greatest screenwriters who has ever lived.

Being able to discern what from their style I like and don't like reinforces my ideas of what my style should be. Reading their material with a critical eye will allow you to evaluate what you're doing right, what you're doing wrong, and what you can improve.

Reading other authors in the same way is key. Hemingway used to advise people to find the author's they loved, and then pick the ones whose style they could beat the hell out of and improve on it. For Hemingway, that author seemed to be Flaubert. For Kurt Vonnegut, that authorial influence quite clearly comes from Mark Twain.

For me, one of the author's whose style clicked in my brain, both for the screenwriting side and the novel side, was Graham Greene. I'd already quite enjoyed the film he wrote called The Third Man, but I read a book of his called Dr. Fisher of Geneva (or the Bomb Party) and it was at once simple, elegant, and cinematic. All of Greene's books had the hallmarks of good films and novels. I consumed everything of his I could find and wish I had his gift. And we all have dozens of writers like that. Michael Chabon. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Cervantes. Steinbeck. Hemingway. The list goes on and on and on and on. Don't be ashamed of your influences. Know what it is they do that you like and what you think they could have done better.

And don't forget the importance of devouring non-fiction. Do your research. If you want to write for a living, you're going to have to read lots and lots and lots. Don't let that discourage you. If the prospect of having to read stacks of books and screenplays doesn't thrill you, then maybe writing is something you should keep as a hobby and leave the professional work for those of us willing to do the leg work.

 22) If someone doesn't understand the images you're trying to show them, if someone doesn't "get it," it's your fault. As a writer, it's your job to make people "get it" and if they don't, you haven't done your job properly. 

It's easy to forget that your novel, your story, your screenplay, is a fully formed entity in your brain. It's easy to forget that sometimes there is information vital to the story, to the description, to the action, that is locked only in your imagination and sometimes you can forget to put it down on the page. If you have a reader explain that they didn't understand how something worked or played out, or they can't visualize something the way you wanted them to, it's not their fault for not getting it.

I'm a firm believer that it's your fault for not giving it to them properly. Your job is to make the writing as clear and concise as possible. Sure, they need to have room to imagine things, but your job is to give them all the information they need to invest in the story, whether that's geography, descriptions, motivations, anything. If something is unclear to readers (unless that's done on purpose), chances are good that you're going to need to do some rewriting.

This isn't to say you have to spell every little thing out, you still need to be paying as much attention to pacing and execution as you are to what specific actions and places and people that readers are imagining in their heads. It's a balancing act like everything else in writing is. This one is just a little more precarious than others.

This is why writing groups and advanced readers and editors are so inherently valuable. They're coming at your story with fresh eyes and will be able to very quickly tell you what confused them. When that happens, don't dismiss what they're saying, address it in the prose. They're a reader and their opinion is every bit as valid as someone who is going to eventually pay for the privilege of reading your story.

 * 21) In screenwriting, avoid metaphors and similes in the action. Readers generally skim and if they only skim the metaphor part of the sentence, they'll get images in their head that aren't actually in the movie.

This one is very specific to screenplays, but I think it's an important one. It is imperative that you remember that novel writing and screenwriting are two completely different disciplines. They work two entirely different parts of the writing muscle and must be approached differently in very nuanced ways.

One of those ways is to eliminate metaphors and similes from your screenplay. They work very well in prose, but if you get someone skimming a page in a screenplay and reads that you've got a murder victim pinned to the wall like a butterfly in a collection, some production designer somewhere might go immediately to find out where he can find butterflies, pins, and a collection of them. Screenwriting is an art that thrives on clear writing and brevity, so those extra words that constitute a metaphor or a simile are largely wasted effort anyway.

Things that work elegantly and beautifully in prose will not usually fly in screenwriting. Adding in images that aren't going to be in what you imagine the final movie to be is only going to serve as confusing and may well get your screenplay tossed in the trash by a reader somewhere.

And that's it for this installment.

Be sure to check out Part 1Part 2, Part 3Part 4, and Part 5.

If you want to check out the whole list, you can find it here. And while you're thinking about it, feel free to order a signed book from me, or check out my collection of work that's available digitally.
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