A producer who’s sold to all the majors, Barri Evins created Big Ideas to give aspiring screenwriters what it takes to break into the business by sharing methods she uses with professional writers. Sign up for Barri's newsletter and follow her on Twitter @BigBigIdeas.
There’s a lovely book of life lessons by Robert Fulghum, “All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten.” His charming and relevant wisdom includes:
Clean up your own mess.
Say you’re sorry when you hurt somebody.
Live a balanced life – learn some and draw some and think some and paint and sing and dance and play and work every day some.
The book was a #1 New York Times bestseller.
There are a lot of life lessons from kindergarten, well worth hanging onto in the grown-up world of screenwriting. While many folks out there are debating whether or not you should pay to learn screenwriting or for a consultant’s advice, I think it’s time to remember what you have already learned but may have forgotten.
Use Your Words
Anyone who has seen a toddler in a meltdown – frustrated by their inability to get what they want – has heard an adult plead, “Use your words.” No easy feat when you’re just getting a grip on this thing called “language,” and can’t articulate what you need. Lacking the coping skills to handle the powerlessness and frustration they feel leads to a tantrum.
A screenwriter’s job is to use their words to tell a story through dialogue and pictures. The art of conveying with words on a page that which is meant to be expressed in a visual medium may leave you feeling like stomping your feet and shrieking too.
I adore a Thesaurus. Roget was a genius. When I got my first one as a Bat Mitzvah gift, I would get lost in perusing categories; following words from one derivation to other uses. I was awash in the possibilities of expression.
I am thrilled to now have an entire Thesaurus at my disposal at the click of a computer icon, even if that touch of amazement may make me sound old. But I love exploring the flavor variations of words to precisely express my thoughts .
The best writers I know are fascinated by the nuances of language. They are well aware of the power of words; the significant impact of a subtle implication or intonation. I’ve had an amateur writer yell at me, “Do you mean that if I don’t change this word, my spec script won’t sell?!” Please.
The top writers I work with are eager for feedback as to whether their words are painting the picture – just as they want it to be – in the mind of the reader. They would never have a temper tantrum, because they are eager to capture the specific connotation that the right word can convey.
In this medium that you’ve chosen to express yourself, words are all you’ve got, kids. Acknowledge their power. Choose them wisely. Use them to convey exactly what you mean.
Playing In The Sandbox
Remember when a plastic bucket and a little shovel were all you needed to turn a sandbox into an amazing, 3-D world? Buildings and highways, mountains and rivers, and anywhere that your imagination could travel to came to life. Growing up in Florida, my father was famous for creating “drip castles” at the beach. Sand towers topped with hand dripped wet sand, to form tall spires. When he was done, we’d dig a little trench toward the incoming waves, and they would fill the moat with water. Magical.
You have only words to create the worlds that your characters inhabit. As I’ve said before, “Do not skip over setting the scene in description.” Sluglines are not enough. Take us there! We want to experience the location and its atmosphere.
If you can’t see it, we can’t see it – on the page or on the screen. As in the sandbox, imagination is key. Don’t overload us with detail. Give us just enough to convey the feeling of the setting. You’ll activate our imagination. It is more powerful at creating a castle than if you were to describe every spire. And it will fill the moat.
Show and Tell
In kindergarten, “Show and Tell Day” was exciting. You got to choose something special from home, bring it to school, and tell the class all about why it was so cool, so wonderful, what made it your most favorite thing.
In the grown-up world of screenwriting, there is no “telling.” You only get to show. Doesn’t matter how much prose you have on the page. If you can’t show it, the viewer won’t see it.
Many writers introduce characters as if they were writing a novel. But you’re not. Going on about their background, education, aspirations, and fears will not reach the moviegoer.
By the same token, external detail is not a substitute for characterization. It may help to know how a character is dressed, in conveying who they are, but going down to the tiniest of detail doesn’t paint the picture succinctly. In fact, it makes it blurry.
Your hero may be wearing a watch that appears “more expensive than a Ferrari,” but do we gain anything by learning that the watch is a Jaeger-LeCoultre Gyrotourbillion? We learn that you have access to a computer that can search the Internet. And unless we stop reading your script to do a search of our own, (would you want that?) we won’t know that a “Tourbillion” is a wrist-mounted anti-gravity device to improve accuracy.
Stick to crucial, key, vital, essential, or salient (your pick) detail.
In writing what is a blueprint for a film, constantly ask yourself, ”How will this translate to the screen?” How will the Costumer dress your hero to convey that they had a happy childhood, but a troubled adolescence, and have come to terms with it as an adult? I doubt there’s a Girl Scout badge for that.
We learn the most about characters from how they behave. Write all you like about your characters’ inner thoughts and feelings, but remember – your character will be portrayed by an actor on the screen. Great characterization externalizes the internal.
“Barri felt that something more was needed. She could sense that the concept was still incomplete. She hoped to find a solid illustration. Meanwhile, she felt frustrated.”
Hmm, how do you suppose that would play on the screen? Furrowed brow; head scratching; chin stroking? Could even the likes of Meryl Streep come up with a facial expression or series of gestures for that one?
Give your actors something clear and specific to play, or once again, your words will be stuck on the page. All by their lonesome.
The beauty of finger painting is getting your hands into paint and creating with reckless abandon. Direct contact with paint and paper may leave many parents scratching their heads thinking, ”What is that?” It is a child’s unselfconscious expression of emotion as much as it is a rendering of a tree. It’s visceral, and that’s what we love about these early masterpieces.
Visceral is defined as relating to deep, inward feelings rather than the intellect. Characterized by intuition or instinct. It is emotional. Deep-rooted. Primal. “You feel it in your gut.”
When we read something that is emotionally evocative, it stands out and indicates a writer of significant ability.
There are two ways to bring this compelling quality to your writing: By what you say, and by what you don’t say.
Often, the most powerful description and dialogue will stand out for what it does not put into words. Text can be powerful, but subtext takes your writing to the next level.
Think for a moment of the familiar medical drama scene, in which a doctor must tell the patient’s loved one that they died. Potent stuff. But often, this is a scene shown without words. We watch from afar or behind glass, without hearing a single word. After all, we know what the words are; we’ve seen this scene a millions times.
There is little new or fresh that one can bring to the doctor’s standard, “I’m sorry. We did everything we possibly could, but…”
Beyond that fact, there is more impact without words than any dialogue can provide. It’s the emotional reaction of both the grieving person, along with the doctor’s attempt to inhibit their own reaction, when they truly care, that is gut wrenching. That comes across with the greatest impact through the actors’ reactions – their facial expression and body language. Dialogue would distract from the experiential element of the moment. Our own emotions about loss – a universal experience – are activated. The scene speaks more loudly MOS.
Look for opportunities where saying less can say more – from the harsh truth that is cut off and left unspoken, but hangs in the air, to the dynamic between characters in a scene. The palpable tension in the air. The painfully awkward silence. The emotion-laden glance between two people with a history. The easy connection between a couple in love.
Get in touch with your former finger-painting self – because if you don’t feel it, we can’t either – and write pictures that express emotion. Don’t tell us the emotion. Show emotion in motion. The reader will get it, and the actor will bring depth and dimension.
Put the emotional content on the page, in your dialogue and description, and the actors will be able to play the subtext more potently than any writer can put into words.
Strong subtext leaves your reader impressed and the audience impacted by your depiction of human emotion.
Sticks and Stones
“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” is an old timey retort to playground bullies and name callers. But in the park that you’ve chosen to play in, words can hurt you.
Don’t use an ostentatious word when a simple word will do the job, and often convey meaning more effectively. Don’t try to impress us with your fancy vocabulary. This isn’t an IQ test; it’s closer to a communication test.
When I was two, my mother took me to the pediatrician for a regular check up. She mentioned that I had a large vocabulary. The doctor, likely having heard this many times, probably rolled his eyes while smiling patronizingly. Shortly after, I chimed in, “That stethoscope is cold!” Gotcha. My mother was not just another doting parent; she was a Child Development Specialist.
Despite my solid vocabulary, I have run across words in scripts so esoteric, that I had to look them up. Major writing fail. Worse still, many writers trying to show off their smarts with fancy words use them incorrectly.
On the other hand, specificity counts. It’s easy for us to harp on misused homonyms, a wildly frequent flaw in scripts, but ponder the nuanced difference between “brief,” “blunt,” “brusque,” “bluff,” and “bitchy” when describing your character’s speech and tone.
Did you know the word “bluff” in that list? Not as in “faking,” but as an adjective that belongs in that sequence. There are no bonus points if you did, just the recognition of a word that would fail to communicate to all readers that your character is frank and outspoken, but in a manner that is seldom offensive.
Choose the right word that communicates exactly what you want each and every reader to understand.
Hide and Seek
This may be fun on a playground, but when it comes to a screenplay, I don’t wanna play this game.
The story, the story, where’s the story hiding?
First acts tend to get a lot of attention from writers. Often, they are rewritten the most, since a writer goes back to Page One when they start a new pass. I’m finding scripts where there’s set up and set up and set up. But the story is what we’re after.
The best first acts get the story off and running with little wasted time and energy. They focus on the essentials: establishing tone, the main character, their problem, the conflict, and let us know what the story is about at its heart.
There’s something extremely exciting about a writer who quickly gets the story on its feet and moving forward. This lean and effective writing grabs our interest and shows a skilled and confident writer. As a reader, you feel you are in good hands with someone who knows exactly where they are headed. We can relax and enjoy the ride.
What’s the secret?
While authentic mystery is engaging, there is nothing more frustrating than to be strung along by a manufactured mystery, waiting for the reveal. All too often, it’s a much hinted at missing piece from the hero’s past. And there’s little payoff other than having stuck it out long enough to find the answer. We feel manipulated by an artificial effort to hold our interest.
Contrivances aren’t effective at creating real tension and suspense. It’s more engaging when there’s a real mystery afoot, that our hero desperately needs to solve.
What’s the big deal?
Some writers get confused about description that is considered directing: i.e. spelling out specific camera angles. They’ve heard that they should, in almost every case, avoid it. And that would be correct. Your real challenge is crafting description that shows us what is important.
In a screenplay, all things are not created equal. Some characters, settings, or objects are more important than others because they directly impact the story. Others are there merely to supply background or create atmosphere.
When you throw the same amount of attention into describing a minor, one scene character, such as a gas station attendant, a typical gas station the hero pulls into simply to fill up, or the details of the car that just happens to be at the adjacent pump, we can’t tell what is truly significant. If you’ve put that much energy into it, we’re going to think that the attendant might possibly be an undercover cop, the gas station could be about to explode or the other car is actually filled with bad guys tailing our hero.
The more light you throw on something with your words, the more you make us believe it is important. You are saying, “Hey, look at this!” It indicates that the camera is meant to linger there. It implies that this is key to the story. When you are saying that for no reason, you’re not adding texture, you’re adding confusion.
Use your words to say, “This is important,” and you won’t have to fret about camera angles.
What do you mean?
Let’s not indulge in beating around the bush. Get to the point already. Everything in a screenplay should serve a specific purpose: advance the plot, illuminate character and arc, support the theme; preferably more than one of the above at the same time. The point being, everything should have a point. That is only possible if you know where you are headed.
Obfuscation evokes frustration. Wandering is infuriating. When things don’t add up to something bigger in the end, we’re left unsatisfied.
We want the story to move forward, to have a clear direction, to build momentum. We want there to be a point to telling this particular tale, a deeper meaning, or message, or cathartic experience. We want something we can take away from experiencing the story.
Just yesterday, I was having a conversation and couldn’t help tossing in a Yiddish phrase, because it expressed what I meant so aptly. However, the person I was speaking to looked at me blankly, so I had to explain, which led to a whole other conversation about Yiddish as a language.
The cool thing about Yiddish is that a single word or a short phrase conveys volumes of meaning and connotation. Often, even the sound of the words supports the concept. Adequately translating one takes a good ten times longer than saying it. Such a long way to go. Oy vey!
English words and idioms may not always be as richly expressive, but they can definitely do the job when you know exactly where you are headed.
As my siblings and I used to whine on long car trips, “Are we there yet?”
Less IS More
Across the board, you can accomplish the most by writing the least. Less is more. I’m not talking about counting lines or words – we DON’T – I repeat – we DO NOT. Not even page count can seal your fate.
I am talking about making every word count. It takes a writer with skill, experience and confidence – plus a lot of time devoted to honing and polishing – to write less. Readers are keenly aware of this, and believe me, it counts a great deal.
One last story for you. My all time favorite kindergarten story:
A Kindergarten teacher was observing her classroom of children while they were drawing. She would occasionally walk around to see each child's work.
As she got to one little girl who was working diligently, she asked what the drawing was.
The girl replied, "I'm drawing God."
The teacher paused and said, "But no one knows what God looks like."
Without missing a beat, or looking up from her drawing, the girl replied, "They will in a minute."
That kid has vision, she has ambition, she has drive. Bring that determination, focus, and sheer confidence to your writing and your readers will be in heaven!
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