Archive for the ‘teaching writing’ Category

Okay, so I’ve spent months writing and re-writing a script.  I’ve been listening to characters speaking in my head, jotting down their rhythms of speech, noticing their quirks of phrasing. I’ve paid attention to how scenes evolve, what words particularly piss off other characters, what words act as “keys” to character and plot.  I’ve set up jokes that evolve on the third repetition of a particular phrase — each time by a different character in a different context.  I’ve cut away every inch of useless verbiage to make way for actors to respond non-verbally and to add plot twists while keeping the page total under 108. I’ve taken the script through two or three in-house readings.  Now I’m in casting.

I “get” that actors usually only get sides.  I “get” that the film industry values immediacy over training.  I “get” that actors want to stand out.  But I never understand why actors feel compelled to improvise new lines the first time they are seen.  This is even more disturbing when they do it during a comic sequence.  Nothing ruins a joke faster than adding unnecessary verbiage.  So in an effort to assist the actor, I’m going to highlight a few things that every writer hopes for while sitting at the casting table (truth — they have little power, if they are there at all, they are mostly there because the director has much less experience with the script at this point than the writer).

Character Rhythm — if a writer has any skill at all, each character has a rhythm of speech.  Some people cut other people off (you’ll notice the ritual dash — on the line before, where someone is cut off), some characters stumble through their speeches, (“The thing is, I mean, the thing, what the hell am I saying, Trisha is, you know.  Round.  About to.” He makes a motion over his stomach. “Getting bigger.”). Not all patterns are written in stone, and we’re usually excited when someone brings truth to the words being spoken, but usually the pattern is there for a character reason — i.e. the alpha male who cuts everyone off, doesn’t find them worth listening to, and then needs to learn to listen by the end of the story; or the battered character who cannot say anything directly and must learn to stand up and confront.  Yes, writers think about it that much — there is character in speech.

Scene Rhythm — almost every scene is written with an arc, it begins at a particular point A (in a plot, in a relationship, in self-awareness), it moves through a transforming moment and ends at  point B.  Along the way, characters speak and things happen with a particular rhythm.  If I watch my son play with his best friend, they bump each other constantly as they walk from point A to B.  There’s a sort of friendly contention.  When Evan spends time with a young girl in his class, they move together like two fish swimming side by side.  The motion is less linear, and yet they are always in sync.  Scenes are like this. This does not mean there are no pauses; the question is where the actor chooses to pause.  For example, suppose these are two lines to close out a scene

Character 1 : Badda bing

Character 2: Badda boom.  [They clink beer bottles together and drink, the deal is on]

The dialogue expresses a certain amount of rapport, history and understanding between the two characters.

I can’t tell you how many times, if this were an actual audition piece (or even after the actor is cast and “keeping it fresh”) you’ll see:

Character 1: Badda……………………………………………………………………………


[Now character 2 feels put on the spot, needs to one-up]

Character 2: (looks at his friend) You’re such an ass. Badda f*%kin’ boom.

What has happened to the rhythm of that scene?  Gone.  What has happened to the relationship?  Gone.  There is no sense of history, understanding or rapport. By ignoring the rhythm of the scene, the actors have now destroyed any legitimacy a joint action by these two characters would have in the future.  It would look like a manufactured plot point rather than a natural development of their mutual understanding. Weirdly, I might hire the actor reading Character 2 — he /she would have played the emotional truth of that moment.  More likely, I’d skip both of them because of the bad taste left in my mouth. Yet with different words, different scripts, I see this pattern repeated constantly — each time an actor wants to make an impression rather than play the truth of the scene.

Say the Words.  Everyone has a unique manner of speaking — even without improvising.  Some voices are high, some lower, some squeak, some lisp.  There are unique pronunciations simply because one was born in the Bronx or in Weehawken.  When someone is cast, it is in large part due to this unique quality.  The first courtesy to a writer is to say the words, as they are, at the audition.  Through the first several rehearsals.  If there is a problem, ask — what is this line supposed to mean?  Why can’t I seem to make sense of this?  In the theatre, this almost goes without saying.  But when I’ve been around film, there’s this attitude among actors (having read too many Actors Studio bios) that the words are just suggestions.  I can’t describe how many times I’ve been called back to rewrite a later scene because an actor glossed a really important piece of information while ad-libbing their lines.  I write character jokes, not punchline jokes (although I do write those on occasion) — how many times have I seen a joke killed because the actor missed the point and the necessary word to make it funny?  Then the director comes to me — “I thought this was funny — it got laughs in the reading — how come it isn’t funny?”  (because you allowed the actors to run rough-shod over the text).

Line fluffing — If I’m at an audition for a film, I can almost guarantee that half of the actors will add one of the seven words you can’t say on television to add some element of emotional emphasis they feel they cannot achieve in any other way.  It’s as if we can’t express ourselves as a culture, emotionally, without going to the septic tank. Some sprinkle the f-bomb through the lines so liberally that it seems the only thing that comes through.  One of the more embarrassing moments for me, was bringing my son — eight at the time — to a rehearsal.  These actors were cast!  They went through the scene several times.  Finally I took my son out to get some pizza.  “Daddy — did you write all those bad words?”  While I have written some F-bombs myself, when the situation and the character demanded that it be put on paper, that rehearsal was an old world family playing canasta.  Yeah.  F*%kin’ canasta.  “No, I did not write all those bad words.”  “Then how come they’re saying them?”  “Good question, boss.”

There was worse than the F*%kin’ card players, however.  We had a big reading of a script for backers back in 08′ (yes, just before the mortgage crisis, when funds could be got).  Film set in 1979.  Suddenly one of the actors, who’s playing an FBI agent (with a hippie girlfriend), starts adding “Dude” to every line.  Dude. I cringed.  I lived through 1979.  No one I knew called anyone dude.  Not in NYC.  People called each other “Man,” at times, but not “Dude.” And his use of “dude” was constant.  It made me look bad, as a writer — i.e. that I hadn’t done my research, didn’t know the slang of the era.  So, if you’re going to add a word, a line, a phrase, make sure — forget about it.  Don’t add it.

I read back over this, and while my intention was to provide some advice for actors — about how scripted dialogue is put together, and maybe how to best approach it, I feel I may have slipped  overmuch into the realm of rant.  I think that while providing examples, I slipped into ranting about those examples.  A bit.  I hope there is still enough useful information to make it worth the read.

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–There are two nuns walking….
–So, there’s these two nuns, right?
–A couple of penguins is hoofing it down the street….
–Yo, check it out, right, there’s these two nuns
–Two sacred vessels of God shining in glory
–Ha ha, nuns, look! Where they think they’re goin’?

I had the good fortune when I first began to study acting to take classes with Michael Beckett. His approach was always very individual, but one of the lessons that resonated in my mind was a class in which he insisted that “words don’t mean anything.” There were mutterings about the class — “that’s not true,” “How can you know anything about a play if the words don’t mean anything…” etc.

Michael then proceeded to scream “I love you” at someone, then he said the words again as if he were mocking the person to whom he was speaking and then again as if the idea that he would love the person at whom he’d directed the phrase was the most ludicrous thing in the world (the subtext was along the lines of “yeah, right, like anybody would love you”). It was suddenly clear that the phrase “I love you” could mean multiple things and that much of it depended on context. He went on through several more variations, but not one of them meant “I love you.”

In other words, something that David Mamet made me think of:  People never say what they mean, but they always mean what they mean.

I was also lucky enough a few years after that to translate Fabio Rubio’s Mosca from Spanish into English for a production that included a Spanish director and several Spanish speaking performers. One of the trickier elements was finding English language equivalents — not just for the words that were spoken, but for the manner in which each character spoke. The play is an retelling of Titus Andronicus and each character is very distinct: Aaron the Moor is blunt and brutal, Chiron comes across as the idiot son of Tamara while the elder son, Demetrius is aristocratic and dainty. Tito has the aura of a no-nonsense woodsman and his daughter Lavinia has been very affected by her years of illness (there are traces of it in her speech).

One of the items I exploited in translation was the multiple meanings of various verbs (one of the things that translators begrudge is lost in translation). For example, the verb espantar can be translated as “to astonish” or “to frighten.”  Might one character mean “to frighten” and another to “astonish”?  Next,  one tries to add multiple layers in English to words that are written the same in Spanish, i.e. the phrase “Por fin, llegamos” could simply be translated “At last, we’re here.” For Demetrius, however, I would translate “Finally, we’ve arrived.” For each character, I tried to find a distinct way of speaking so that the actors would have more room to create variety (and to feel what was in the original).  Oddly, the Spanish speaking actors were the most demonstrative against such liberties (“It simply means ‘we’re here!”).  However, the director backed me on this.

If one looks at the list with which I began, it is clear that each line is a repetition of the same phrase said — not just in a different manner, but by a different sort of character. One of the more difficult things for a writer to do is to hear voices other than his or her own. I love East of Eden — one of my top ten books simply for its wisdom and compassion — however, most of the main characters sound like they’re the same person speaking through the mouth of a differently named character. I’m not saying every writer  has to imitate The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn with the varieties of dialects and phonetic spellings, but there is an advantage to paying attention to things like rhythm, word choice and sub-text when writing dialogue:

Rhythm: people speak in different rhythms. I knew a man once who kept winding one story into the next. I wanted to move on to another conversation at the party, but he seemed to begin each new story without taking a normal break. Once I started paying attention, I noticed that he would break for breath mid-sentence. I had been anticipating a story would end with a breath-pause; it never happened. I had an “American Renaissance” professor who spoke like train — wheels running down a track at medium speed. Clack-e-ta-clack-e-ta, he never broke stride, never hurried, never slowed, never paused. There were no emphatics, no points of humor. My notes from his class would leave a long streak that trailed off the bottom of the paper; I’d fallen asleep mid sentence and the pen slid down the page. There is no way to write rhythms without hearing them. If one lives in a city, it is easier — one can hang out in a part of town with a different ethnicity. The rhythms there are always different — and more easily heard. Sometimes I sit in a crowded place and simply try to hear voices like music — as sound only, so that the rhythmic quality of the voices comes through.

Word choice: I had a classmate in high school who, while everyone else was saying “that’s cool,” coined the phrase “that’s casual.” Someone I knew in college called women either “beauteous” or “hideous.” There was nothing in between. He also would walk into my room, pick up a cup (or pen or anything, really) and say, “what have you got here? A little cup-de dup?” He’d rub his hand on his belly while expelling air between his lips and add, “I seen betta in Maine.” My son and his classmates are now in the habit of calling anything excellent “o.p.” (over-powering). I had another friend who continually modified one description by a second — “She’s cute, in a big nose kind of way.”  “It’s good, in a stinky kind of way.” There are people who always phrase things as questions.  I acted with a model who always attributed her ideas to someone else (“I read in a book that….”; I also used this in a play).  When you add to the mix people who speak English as a second language, it gets more interesting.  Spanish speaking people frequently mix up “to make” and “to do” — thus the phrase “I have to make my homework.” (In Spanish, it’s the same verb, hacer.) A Japanese student once explained to me that “a dream has a lot of wish.”

Screenwriters who work in cityscapes have many choices to diversify their character content, not just in stereotypical ways (i.e. Pakistani cab driver) but in power-broker circles as well: club owners, grad students, library researchers, etc. can be given extravagant rhythms of speech by thinking about word choice and rhythm.

Sub-text: This goes back to my Mamet inspired statement about people not saying what they mean.  Most of us are dishonest.  We make allowances for people who can advance our careers that we’d never make for family.  We bypass honesty to be expedient.  But we still try to get what we want! Couples break up over the minor issues, never the major ones — if one is a profligate spender, the confrontation with the spouse is about some stupid six dollar object, not the repeated pattern of spending. How many times does a spouse say “You could have called me!”  But what is she or he really saying?  Possible answers: you don’t respect me. I think you’re cheating on me. I want out of this stinking marriage.  It’s important that the screenwriter never employ those last three sentences in such a context unless the character who speaks them is ready to step off a cliff.  We never say those things, not because they’re true, but because they seem irrevocable.  Once we’ve crossed into that turf, there’s no going back.  No, we much prefer to blame things on the other person, push them to leave or stay, push them to make any decision.  Right now, we’re too emotional to think clearly at all.

I was engaged many years ago to a woman in Ecuador from a very wealthy family.  Naturally, she didn’t want to leave Ecuador and insisted I go there to live.  I told her that I wanted to be sure that if I wasn’t happy in Ecuador, we could look at other places to live — i.e., I wanted to marry her, not Ecuador.  She cancelled the wedding.  I had already surrendered my apartment and my assistant professorship (tenured) and spent several days trying to get each back.  I succeeded.  In my summer job, I received a call from the young woman who had rented my apartment and had it taken back (via a real estate agent).  She told me she wanted to bring her mother by the place, as co-signer, to give the mother some idea of the places the woman was looking at.  I told her I needed to run, but she could come by around 8 p.m.

At this point, I was still numb.  It had only been a couple of days and I had been in constant motion to repair my life.  I hadn’t cried or even thought about the loss all that much.  It truly was just numbness.  I got back at 6, went for a run, and beat the woman back to the apartment by 10 minutes.  I was still breathing a little heavy from running up the stairs when they buzzed.  I let them look around.  The girl asked a few questions, showed her mother.  We made some small chat.  She was in her early twenties, dark-haired, willowy and simply dressed in jeans and a flowing blouse.

“I really just wanted to make sure the real-estate agent wasn’t pulling  a fast one.”


“I mean, you’re really going to stay?”

I don’t know whether it was the innocence of the question, the long run, the possibility that I’d let down my guard because these people had nothing to do with my life, my lost fiance…. Suddenly I was bawling. Full out, body convulsively bawling.  The women felt awful.  They backed away, apologizing — “oh my god, I’m so sorry.  So sorry.”  They couldn’t get out of there fast enough.

As a writer and actor, I always remember — that is truth.  It is the emotion that seeps out when we least expect it — and it almost never comes from the words you would expect.  Sub-text is emotion.  It is truth.  It is what we really mean or feel when we’re busy saying something else.

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When I was a teacher of writing, I spent a lot of time looking at what made words click for me and then trying to find exercises so that students in my classes could see and practice simple elements of style that vastly improved their writing.  I used to call it the toolbox approach to writing.

I have often compared writing an essay to building a house.  One needs a blueprint of sorts, materials that will support the structure and the fine details that make it pretty (let’s leave out the plumbing and electric for now). So the blueprint is the outline (which will include the general idea or thesis of the structure), the supporting examples (drawn from life or books or entirely made from whole cloth) and description — the fine detail that makes the essay a pleasant read.  It sounds good, but what if the student doesn’t know how to use the tools?  Would you ask teenagers to make a house without showing them first how to use a hammer or saw?

I had been out of teaching for a few years when the SAT began to include writing as one of its components.  I was asked to help tutor high school students, many of whom were gifted in math or science, to find ways to improve their score on the SAT.  These tests begin with a prompt — generally a quote of some sort (“Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall” – Confucius) — and then asking a question. “Do you believe success is the result of resilience?”

Ideally, the student would have some personal story in which they’d been knocked down and came back stronger.  Failing that, they would be instructed to use examples from literature, history, etc.  They have 25 minutes.  It is hard, in 25 minutes, to pay attention to style unless one is used to doing so as a part of their practice.

As I read through the examples of successful essays (given by the College Board, creators of the SAT), it became apparent that personal narrative was more likely to score well by almost a 2 to 1 margin. Sadly, for gifted my math and science students, they “could not remember” the details of most of the events in their lives.

It reminded me of a drawing exercise I was once given by Lance Richbourg when I studied in his class.  He had us take out a key — any key from our pockets — put it on a pedestal and told us to draw it.  We all drew it once, in about a minute.  Now we were told to do it again.  The caveat was that we couldn’t look at our paper.  Only the key.  We were to follow the outline of the key with our hands and our eyes had to stay on the key.

“And when we finish?” a crazy-haired blonde named Vita asked, following Lance with her thick lenses as he ducked out of the classroom.

Lance smiled and let his Texas twang sing out between his lips,  “Do it again.”

We’d all drawn the key anywhere between fifty and a hundred times before Lance returned.  Each sheet of paper was an agony of lines that did not connect or properly overlap.

“Take out a clean sheet of paper and draw the key,” Lance said, his dark curly hair falling over his forehead.  More groans in the large loft classroom’s fading afternoon light.

I learned to draw a key that afternoon, but I learned a whole lot more.  My initial key, the key I’d drawn in the first minute, had been subtly influenced by my mind’s idea of what a key should look like. My mind had flattened out some shapes along the key’s edge that had looked incongruously longer than the others.  It had centered the word “Royal” by putting the “y” over the hole in the center of the key.  In reality, the “y” was to the left of the hole and the word was unbalanced.  I was astonished at how badly I’d perceived the key — because truly, I was trying to draw the world’s most amazing key on that first run-through.  However, the world’s most amazing key would not have opened my dorm room.  I thought of how children make circles out of trees that are a myriad of lines and leaves.

It occurred to me that unless we are trained (or train ourselves) to observe — we do not pay attention to the details of our lives.  Fortunately for us, the brain records them anyway.  The question then becomes — how do we access them? (Oops, that’s a blog for another day) First we simply have to work on observing the “now.”

I would ask my students, who had chosen their own chairs at the table — for weeks on end — to describe what was behind them at that very moment.  Most failed.  They had come into the room, sat down in a chair, and never observed the bookshelves, the hanging scrolls, the plants.  I asked a high school Junior, a heavy-set girl who ate candy throughout class, what was above her at that very moment.  Inches from the top of her head hung the branch of a fig tree.  She did not know.

So problem number one, I told my students, is to pay attention.  I’d ask them to take a minute to describe the other students in the room — based only on what they are wearing, how their hair looks, if their fingernails are painted or trimmed, dirty or clean.  Make no judgements.  Just see.  Are their clothes well-kept, frayed? What about purses and other belongings?  I couldn’t aid them outside of the classroom, except with assignments, so I’d ask them to write a paragraph each day — describe the place you are in, describe the people who come in or out of that place, use only the senses (sights, smells, sounds, textures — I don’t encourage them to share tastes, for one thing, taste is one of the most difficult senses to describe).

“But what do we do with it?”

“Nothing.  It’s an exercise.  Just bring it to me at the end of the week.”

For the second part of the work, when they were writing, I’d ask them to use “tags.”  For me, a tag is a short physical description of a person, place or thing.

“If someone comes into your story, tag them.  Let me see something of how they appear.”

“What if I’m writing about myself?”

“If I’m the SAT reader, do I know what you look like?”

Heads shake “no.”

“So look in a mirror, see your reflection in a window.  Have someone else describe how you look that day.  Now, every narrative also takes place somewhere.  Even if you are thinking about something very abstract at this very minute, you a still sitting in this room.  You still feel the chill of the Winter air.  The people around you are sniffling and it may be the cold or an allergy to the window full of plants.”  Add a brief description of the place.

“Then won’t the essay go on forever and ever.”

“You wish.  Are you really concerned about over-writing in 25 minutes?”

“Won’t it get off point?”

“If you write ‘My teacher yelled at us’  — I know nothing about that teacher.  Is she young? Old? Stocky and intimidating?  Slender with a lisp?  If I write, ‘Miss Garvy has strawberry blonde curls that look soft as cotton candy, but when she looked at us on the desks, her voice snapped like a wet towel hitting a bare back.’  How much more information is in the second sentence?  I know the kind of trouble the class was doing (the why of the yelling); I know Miss Garvy is unmarried (or she’d be Ms.); I know that her appearance is soft, so that her voice yelling is something of a shock.  The first sentence contains scientific information, the second sentence contains emotional information.  You want your readers to respond emotionally.  Therefore you give them emotional information.

“The same applies to the place something happens.  If I’m writing about the baseball field, I could write: ‘I stood in the outfield.’ But are all outfields equal?  I remember playing in an outfield in Albany that was rarely mowed.  The grass was knee-high and there were pit-holes and mounds of dirt hidden beneath it, as well as leftover gravel that made it brutal to dive for a ball.  I’ve also played on a college field that looked as if the groundskeeper not only mowed the lawn, but combed the grass and used mousse when he was done.  It’s up to each writer how much or what kind of detail will be used, but place description gives the reader the context of the story.

“Lastly, there is often a ‘thing’ — the story revolves around a doll or a bicycle.  It has to be described. Unless you describe the thing that is gained or stolen, lost or won, it will have no emotional content — like an object you see in the 99 cent store that doesn’t belong to anyone.”

I’d challenge my students to use the two adjective tag — whenever someone appears in the story, two adjectives that describe them.  When a new place is entered, give two adjectives again. If an object is necessary to the progression of the story — a car that takes you on a date, a book that transports you far away — two adjectives.  It is not full-blown description, like Charles Dickens describing the London mud and fog at the start of Bleak House, but it helps the reader to separate what they are reading from similar stories.  Also, I encourage, each time a person or place returns, add another bit of description, flesh it out.

“If you write ‘my dog’ came down the stairs — unless you describe the dog in some way (or the stairs) I’m going to automatically insert a dog or a stair from my own memory.  I start thinking my own thoughts more than reading your essay.  Your job is to keep me engaged in your story — to give me enough detail that I can see it, follow it, smell it, hear it and eventually to be a part of it in an empathetic way.  Tagging is the first step.”

Using two adjectives doesn’t seem overwhelming to most students.  When I say ‘describe’ something, the first question I always get is “how much is enough?”  The correct answer is “as much as is necessary for your story,” but to make it succinct, I simply say “tag it.”

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