Reader Eric was kind enough to read my last post. He asks [You talk about fundamentals of writing. what are they] what specific steps are you taking to improve them?
Author’s note: Every time I open my big fat mouth about some sweeping generalization, someone comes out of the woodwork to argue about it. Even worse, sometimes they have a point.
In the (probably vain) hopes of subverting arguments, let me say that the following seven “basics” are simply a collection of received wisdom. They are not the ten commandments, they are simply a list of good advice I put together for the sake of argument because I need to illustrate some points about basics. Seriously, these basics are just a list of things I cobbled together at 2AM to illustrate a wider point.
1. Write every day.
2. Enter scenes late, leave early.
3. Scenes are about conflict. Characters must be in opposition.
4. Midpoint splits the second act into two thematically distinct halves.
5. Show, don’t tell.
6. Characters should have a distinct voice, you should be able to ID them just by their dialogue.
7. Outline before you write.
So, for the sake of argument, there are our basics (not really, but if I were to make a list of 35 basics, these would be among them). I know them, you know them, probably knew them years ago, and yet our scripts sit unfinished. Why?
KNOWING ABOUT A RULE IS NOT THE SAME AS KNOWING IT
Everyone knows show don’t tell. Still, when I read my work, I often say, “huh, I certainly told rather than showed there. Way to write, Lazarus.” Your name may differ. People often treat knowledge like a Pokemon. Capture it once, and it will live deathlessly in it’s container, ready to serve at a moments notice.
When I was 17, I set a fitness goal: I wanted six pack abs, like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. I was in the best shape of my life, a high school athlete, and it just never happened.
Google six pack abs and you’ll get one truism: “abs are made in the kitchen, not in the gym.” There are two basic steps to getting six pack abs: 1) lose weight/body fat, 2) work your core (2 is far less important than one).
Despite how ridiculously simple this is, I don’t have six pack abs, and most of the guys I know don’t, despite the various advantages they have in this superficial world we live in. Our screenwriting basics are the same. You can’t just bookmark this blog and think “okay, got it.” The basics, like my atrophied, fat covered abs, need to be worked every day if they’re going to make an appearance in your every day life.
BASICS TAKE MONTHS TO INGRAIN
You have finite attention. Concentrating on even three things at once will derail you. Skilled (#insertSkilledPracticionerTypeHere) will only focus on one thing at high levels, the breath. By making the breath conscious, they make everything else unconscious.* See also: Chess experts use Brains Differently, for a glib popsci explanation of another thing aspiring writers should know about. They got their basics to be “unconscious” by isolating them, drilling them over and over again. Why do piano teachers make their students play scales, when songs are more fun and might actually get students to practice the piano? They’re trying to isolate the basics.
BASICS PUT THE ENORMITY OF THE TASK INTO SHARP, HUMILIATING RELIEF
So if there are seven basics (Seriously, there aren’t. I cannot stress how little interest I have in arguing over the seven I chose) and it takes, let’s say a year to internalize each of them, you’ll have the basics down in only seven short years. That’s horrifying! I’ll be, like, old then! And there aren’t seven basics, there are dozens, if not hundreds of them. Dozens of things to fail at. Dozens of programming bugs ready to derail your screenplay. Dozens of blindingly obvious amateur mistakes that even pros make, dozens of ways for even your best work to sputter and die on.
I moved to Los Angeles at 18. I thought I was hot shit, and that the town would fall to its knees to acknowledge my greatness. I knew there would be hardships, but I thought I was on the verge. Eleven years later, I’m still on the verge. It’s a big freaking verge, like as big as the Sahara desert. Level One writers** think they know the enormity of the task, but they don’t. That’s actually a blessing, it gives them courage, gives them hope, frees them up to rush in where angels fear to tread.
BASICS ARE BOTH THE FIRST AND LAST THING YOU LEARN
It’s easy to say “write every day, show don’t tell,” but it takes months to do it consistantly, years to do it gracefully, and years more to approach an understanding of all the whys and wherefores. No one understands anything perfectly. I’ve been at this for years, and in a way, I’m just starting to care about the basics. Earlier me would have just scoffed at the list and continued writing sloppily, secure in the knowledge that I was good enough.
Ben Franklin had a list of 13 Virtues. He couldn’t focus on all of them at once, but he’d focus on one for a couple of months, hoping that the rest would improve in its wake (they did). So should it be with these basics (again, these are not all there is to know about screenwriting, please come up with your own list of basics). Drill one for a month***, then move on, keep cycling through the list. Keep doing that, over and over until you can write like Larry Bird can shoot**** The funny thing about drilling one area of expertise is that when you get comfortable with a drill, really get into it, entire scenes of your screenplay often pop up unbidden.
*There’s a great analogy I heard in a documentary on Starcraft that I will blog about if anyone asks me about this ever.
** I find myself dropping a lot of game references in these blogs. I should probably do less of that or much, much more of it.
*** “But what are these drills, Matt,” is probably the smart question. I’m hoping no one asks so I don’t have to spend a week talking about actionable drills for a list of hypothetical basics.
**** Few writers know sports well, everyone should. That’s the blog I really want to write.