Tonight in screenwriting the teacher told us to be brutal to one another in our study groups. He didn’t exactly put it that way, but he did tell us to correct one another’s grammar, spelling and punctuation errors, and for some of the folks in my group, that means being brutal. I’ve been impressed by the originality a lot of my classmates have shown in their stories, but a few seem utterly uninterested in the its/it’s distinction — in the age of text-message abbreviations (CUL8R) and alternative spelling, it seems schoolmarmish to point out that you misspelled “douchebag” in your dialogue on page three. I let it go by in study group today, but as the only professional writer among us, I guess it’s time to bring out the blue pencil.
The other problem that’s arising in everyone’s pages is dialogue. The rule is: Show, don’t tell. And yet we all want to tell. “Now that my graduation is but three months away, it’s time for me to look for a job in a metro area large enough for me to get soy lattes and day-spa treatments in the same two-block area, but still with that small-town warmth I value so much,” a character might say. “Fortunately for me I just dropped my arrogant, posturing boyfriend, who thought he was too good for me and valued me only for my narrow waistline, large breasts and piercing blue eyes. If only I could meet a man who values me for what’s inside, not just my attractive exterior.”
Disclaimer: My own stuff suffers from these problems in spades.
The fabulous Michael O’Donoghue once wrote a guide to this stuff called “How to Write Good,” and hey — it’s online. And his riff on exposition through dialogue is much funnier:
(The curtain opens on a tastefully appointed dining room, the table ringed by men in tuxedos and women in costly gowns. There is a knock at the door.)
LORD OVERBROOKE: Oh, come in, Lydia. Allow me to introduce my dinner guests to you. This is Cheryl Heatherton, the madcap soybean heiress whose zany antics actually mask a heart broken by her inability to meaningfully communicate with her father, E. J. Heatherton, seated to her left, who is too caught up in the heady world of high finance to sit down and have a quiet chat with his own daughter, unwanted to begin with, disposing of his paternal obligations by giving her everything, everything but love, that is.
Journalists: Make sure you read at least as far as “Covering the News.” Word.
alex said on October 16, 2003 at 12:08 pm
What’s with the old chestnut about writing being one part inspiration and ninety-nine parts perspiration?
O’Donoghue has it right–whatever the medium, writing can all be reduced to a formula. No sweat at all. (Then again, not much inspiration either when you’re a hired hack.)
Stan Freberg’s another great humorist from that era–love his stuff. It’s still funny today, even though it reflects on a world that hadn’t yet become a mad parody of itself.
KCK said on October 16, 2003 at 6:45 pm
I remember “How to Write Good”, it was in the National Lampoon about 1971-72. Glad it’s still around.