Study excellent writing

fantasticIt should probably go without saying that to be an excellent writer, it helps if you study brilliant writing and also outstanding writing techniques.

What isn’t usually said is that to study excellent writing you should also study poor writing and meagre techniques so you can easily learn and choose between the two extremes.

To know what is good, you need to be able to distinguish writing that is dreadful, from the remarkable.

Take, for example, the incredible movie ‘Gran Torino’ which stared Clint Eastwood. The screenplay was written by Nick Schenk from a story he wrote with Dave Johannson. Firstly, it was said that a screenplay involving a 78 year old lead actor and a mix and match standoff between a former American soldier (from Korea) and his Korean neighbors could not sell. At almost $300 million theatre ticket sales and many DVD purchases, you know who was right.

There’s no doubt that excellent screenplay writers think of an actor when writing dialogue. It helps to compose the mind. This makes the words come alive while writing the screenplay, even though the script writer (usually) has no say over the actors employed to deliver the final words and actions. It certainly doesn’t take a leap to believe that an actor who made famous the phrase ‘Make my day,’ could ensure that another line that reads ‘Get off my lawn’ could be delivered with such intensity and belief. When he later adds ‘I’ll blow a hole in your face and sleep like a baby,’ you completely believe he will do exactly as suggested, even if he’s 78 years old.

We teach children that ‘show’ and not ‘tell’ is an important aspect of the learning curve. The significance is shown throughout the Gran Torino screenplay. We, as an audience, are not bludgeoned with obvious dialogue. The lead character doesn’t say ‘I’m going to lock you in the basement.’ The screenplay writes in an ‘action’ mode ‘he locks him in the basement.’ Nothing is said. The lead character doesn’t tell his dog ‘I’m going away so I’m leaving you with a neighbor.’ He takes the dog and ties the labrador’s lead to a neighbor’s chair as we know Clint is preparing for a final showdown with a lawless gang.

This is a good movie to dissect. It shows a lot and tells even less. The dialogue is excellent throughout. Not a word is wasted. You can only imagine that the writer went through every word with a fine toothcomb to delete anything that wasn’t required. Difficult dialogue is used in a manner that reflects real life, however unsavory. It must have been hard for the actors to say their lines knowing that human dignity suggests that you leave those words in the closet. In contrast, they give the actors an excellent starting point for real character information and complete motivation to perform just as the writer had intended.

Obviously, with Gran Torino, it helps when Clint Eastwood is also the producer and director and his son Kyle, provided the music. In particular, this team involvement introduces the sound of military drums twice when Clint’s character needs to go into battle with the local Hmong gang. These are the touches that don’t appear in a screenplay and lift any writing that touch higher – because a screenplay writer wouldn’t tell a director how to direct. However, you need to start with a great screenplay to be able to add to it, from the director’s chair.

To study a terrible script is all the more difficult because you want to change it, edit it and lose pages as you wade through the treacle. You wonder in amazement as you consider if the writer had a treatment (plan) to follow. Did anyone suggest they write to a format or was it their own work? Sometimes movies get made because of the attachments; an actor, director or production team which helps get the funds to make and release the movie. In these circumstances (and we’ve all seen these types of movies) it appears that the writers just don’t care and churn anything out because they know that millions of people will pay their dollars to go see their favorite hunk or hunkess regardless of the story, the plot or the characters.

This is not to say that we all need to attend a ‘thinking’ movie to enjoy it. Often it’s great to watch a movie without switching on your brain to enjoy the feature. The difference is in the writer’s skills to still ‘show’ us what they’re aiming at and not to ‘tell’ us each single brain cell step.

Clint Eastwood deserved the little man/woman gold statue for his work in Gran Torino. He could only have achieved this with a first class screenplay, which, luckily for the audience, we found in the wealth of this writer’s toil.

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