I was going to write a post on ghostwriting a sort of ‘ghost story’ being you know 10.31, but I had to get this one off before its nuggets began to fade.
Last week I had the pleasure and honor to be a part of the Austin Film Festival. It is extraordinarily special from those film festivals, not only in every city, but also the ones that boast major star power – because this film festival focuses on the writer more than any other.
This year there was a definite theme amongst panelists, award ceremonies, pitch evaluations, and even casual roundtable conversations, and that was the poetry on the page. Mind you, this was not a promoted theme, nor did all the speakers get together and agree to refer to it, it just came about organically.
So what does it mean?
It is what sets apart good writing from bad. If the poetry isn’t there it’s why your story isn’t being accepted. It’s not about rhyming or sonnets per se, but it is how EVERY SYLLABLE of your story is absorbed effortlessly when read.
So how does one achieve that? The long and short answer is, with practice.
Terry Rosio gave a fantastic example in his talk, where he graciously went through participant’s scenes and rewrote them ON THE SPOT. Here’s the moment the light bulb switched on for him:
As he told it, he handed this line to his writing partner:
Stuart got up out of his chair, went over to the door, and shut it closed.
His partner instantly revised it to:
Stuart rose up from his chair. Shuffled across the room to shut the door. Leaned against it, to make sure it was closed.
Terry’s response was F*@k you, but in a good way, because his craft was instantly elevated and he saw how.
Now, one could argue (and they often do) that the revision is two lines longer… what about the coveted white space and page count?
And these are genuine concerns and considerations he puts into EVERY SYLLABLE, but more important he explained ‘is the ratio of value to the reader’. In his partner’s rewrite, there is so much more personality, physicality and tension it is worth every character. — literally. To put it another way, the rewrite, immerses the reader in the scene, the original just lays out the facts.
Pen Dansham, writer of Robin Hood Prince of Thieves, the new book RIDING THE ALLIGATOR and producer of so many other great stories, calls writing ‘casting a spell’… because 1st scripts are a reading experience before anything else. The script (and any writing really) needs to be crafted to seduce the reader… make it incredibly readable… This means no screen direction, no laundry lists of what’s going on, no pictures chasing dialogue. He also believes that it is impossible to pitch badly, if you are truly passionate about your story.
Even writers of action and horror, (Rhett Reese, ZOMBIELAND and much more, Scott Rosenburg, THINGS TO DO IN DENVER WHEN YOU’RE DEAD and much more, Jon Turman, HULK and more), spoke of dedicating their time to perfecting the flow of EVERY PAGE and infusing the most gratuitous chases and fights with personality and purpose, and breaking it up so the reader doesn’t skim over. Granted executives often butchered the hell out of their works, but that didn’t stop them from making it a good read to start with.
The amazing Caroline Thompson won this year’s distinguished screenwriting award, and to hear her story, about her stories and craft, you instantly knew why. She begged us not to write what the business seems to want, and stated that if she were trying to break into screenwriting today she’d never be able to — with all of the screenplay formatting and structure courses and rules – she firmly believes it is unproductive to think so much about the story. She writes 5 pages a day, no more, no less. She always writes forward, not reviewing the previous day’s work. This gives her a 1st draft in a month! And she rewrites it 5x before showing ANYONE.
BTW – Rossio and his partner (Ted Elliott) write 40-80 drafts of every script! Firmly believing they can always make it better. (I’ll get into their sequencing method another time).
The bottom line is, you need to agonize over every syllable, line break and cadence of words – that’s how the pros got to be that way.
I strongly recommend going to Austin’s festival next year. Regardless of what you think of Texas as a whole — or its government – Austin is unique enough to get amazing talent and decision makers to open up in accessible ways you will not find anywhere else. Plus, any place that celebrates every dusk with a million tiny bats soaring over the city is simply put; poetry in motion.