Screenwriters are a bunch of know-it-alls. There really is no other job where a person with a dozen produced credits, a student, a struggling newbie or a guy serving up your a latte will all act as if they know equally as much about the craft of screenwriting. How did this happen? How did we get in this state where everyone and their mother is a screenwriting expert? I suspect it’s because we all learned the basics of writing in elementary school. Learning to write is not like learning to play the violin or chemistry, where you need special instruction before you can gain some skill and insight. Anyone with an elementary school education knows how to write, but it’s what you do with your basic writing skills that differentiate the screenwriting pro from the student.
So what are you going to do with your writing skills? How do you go from a basic understanding of screenwriting to mastering your craft? Hell if I know. You’re the one that has to show up to the page and do the work. At this point, I should probably walk away and let you get back to your writing, but I’m a screenwriter, so therefore a know-it-all. Sorry, I can’t stop myself from giving out some kind of advice.
Now, I have been paid to write comedy, and that automatically makes me a comedy writing professional. It’s an unwritten law that if someone pays you to do what you’ve been doing your whole life (writing), you will magically transform into a legit professional. Becoming a paid writer is kind of like getting married, suddenly all the years you dated your spouse no longer count toward your anniversary, and your parents suddenly think the guy or girl you’ve been living with for years is now a socially acceptable human being.
Honestly, I have no clue if any of my “professional advice” will help you, but in the words of Oscar Wilde, “The only thing to do with good advice is to pass it on.” Keep in mind that Oscar Wilde supposedly died of syphilis, so I don’t know how much this stuff should be “passed on.” At the very least, reading this column will be better than catching syphilis.
So here it goes; here’s some of my writing experiences (the names have been changed to protect the innocent and my career) along with some gems of advice I’m learning along the way. Comedy is a wacky genre to tackle. It comes with its own set of terminology and lingo that is used to describe its various working parts. Before we can dive into some serious comedy writing talk, we’ll need to get on the same page with some basic comedy writing terms, or what I like to call: how to talk sh*t in the comedy writer’s room.
I believe comedy writers developed their own lingo because comedy tends to be written in a team or group setting. When working under a tight deadline with a bunch of people, you need shorthand to communicate your ideas, or else nothing will ever get written. So here’s some basic terminology that will make you sound like one of the cool kids:
Callback – Referencing something specific that was done or said in an earlier scene or in the same scene.
Game – What is funny or unusual in a scene.
Beats – Separate moments in a scene that accentuate the game for laughs.
Heightening – The process where you make sure each of your beats in the scene has a higher impact, and is naturally funnier than the preceding one.
Blow – A funny joke that can be used to end a scene.
Shoe leather – The physical traveling or action of a character in a scene that is used to accentuate the joke. I’ve never heard this term used. So don’t say, “shoe leather,” unless you are writing for a vaudeville act in 1925.
Now that you have some lingo under your belt, we can start talking some serious sh*t about comedy writing like; “what’s the game in your scene? Do your beats heighten in the scene? Does your scene need a blow? Will a callback in Act Three make the script funnier?” You should also start using these comedy terms in everyday conversations to confuse your non-comedy writing friends and family members.
Unfortunately, sounding like you know what you are talking about, and actually knowing what you are talking about are two different things. Hopefully you will want to learn more, and together we can delve into the details of pitching, structure, making executives and agents laugh, plot devices, exploring comedic themes, and a bunch of other stuff.
Let’s be know-it-alls together in this crazy profession we’ve all chosen. If you gain nothing else from reading this column, it will make you feel like you're being productive as you procrastinate on that rewrite you should be working on. Now get back to writing.
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