Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Seven Skills of Screenwriting (and Almost Every Other Kind of Writing)

Hi gang, thanks so much for all the advice I got in the reader survey! Now let’s start looking at some of the work I’ve done on the book. My very first weeklong was called “Beyond Good Vs. Sucky”, but this is a total re-write of that, and sets up this week’s series. (Some of which will be re-contextualization of old stuff, but everyone is allowed some re-runs during Thanksgiving week)
The biggest misconception that anyone makes about writing is the idea that writing is “a talent”, and you either have it or you don’t.  But it's more helpful to think of writing as a discipline, made up of seven separate skills.  Most people who choose to become writers are pretty sure they have a natural talent for at least one of these skills. But once they begin, they belatedly realize that they still have to learn all the other skills that they don’t know. 

This happens to everybody: we all have to learn how to write.  At first we focus on learning whichever skill we totally lack: Maybe you’re great at structure but terrible at dialogue.  Maybe you come up with exciting concepts but you have trouble attaching a meaning theme to those stories.  So you teach yourself (or get taught by someone else) the skills you lack, one by one. 

And then, once you’ve mastered all those unfamiliar skills, guess what happens?  That one skill that you had a natural talent for is now your weakest area, because you’ve been doing it instinctively, rather than intentionally. Instinct isn’t reliable, but well-learned tools are.  By the time you’re done, you jettison your “talents” altogether, and you learn every skill, even re-learning the stuff you already knew. 

For this reason, it’s way too vague to say that any given manuscript is “well written” or “poorly written”.  There’s nothing more painful for a beginning writer than to lovingly craft your first story, masterfully showing off your natural talent for dialogue, then be told “it sucks” because the person reading it thinks it’s a lousy concept.  You mutter to yourself, “That jerk didn’t even say anything about the dialogue!”

The problem is that, all too often, writers and their early readers are totally mis-communicating, because they’re each referring to a different skill when they talk about “good writing”.  In order to figure out how good or bad your work is, you have to move beyond “It’s great!” or “It sucks!”  You have to separately examine the seven skills of writing, evaluate how good you are at each one, and develop them one by one. 

I’ve found this breakdown to be very useful, both when improving my own work and when evaluating the work of others. Here are the seven separate skills:
  1. Concept
  2. Character
  3. Structure
  4. Scenework
  5. Dialogue
  6. Tone
  7. Theme
In this series, I’ll look at the misconceptions I had about each skill, and what I’ve figured out since.  But first let’s start with more misconceptions about writing in general…


j.s. said...

Looking forward to this reimagined series, though I'm fond of the original moniker BEYOND GOOD & SUCKY.

A few questions I'll have going forward:

Does Tone include considerations of style and genre too in addition to the distance of the writer from the story and any degree of serious or silly attitude s/he takes toward the whole?

You haven't written that much about Theme. I feel like you've been more comfortable discussing theme in terms of controlling metaphors or competing overarching ideas of a good vs. good or a bad vs. bad. I'd like to recommend Brian McDonald's book INVISIBLE INK which remains the single best thing I've yet read on theme. It's a quick read, available in paperback and also free on-line at this web address:

Matt Bird said...

Dialogue, Tone and Theme are the three that have not yet gotten their own series...

Tone is going to get its own series next. I've been putting it off for exactly the reason you state: do I use the term "tone" narrowly to refer to things like light/dark/satirical/pulpy/etc., or broadly, to also refer to genre, style, foreshadowing, etc. And if I intend to include all these things (and I do), then what do I call things like light/dark. I can't call them BOTH tone.

Believe it or not, this has been giving me migraines for about two months. I now think I'm going to use the term tone broadly, so that means I have to refer to qualities such as light/dark/satirical/pulpy/etc. as "feeling", though that still feels wrong to me, and "tone" sounds more correct there, too.

Oh the suffering I endure in order to bring you this blog!

I would argue that Theme has actually been touched on a lot in the Rules (good vs. good, etc.) but the corresponding "Losing my Religion" piece should make it clear whether or not there's enough left for a whole series.

Beth said...

I don't think tone is the same as genre. Like with mysteries - there's cozy mysteries and noir mysteries, and the difference lies in the tone, right? Or with fantasies, there's epic High-Fantasy, and there's light paranoramal romance. Maybe tone's more like the combined power of setting and mood?

Can't wait to read your post on it, because i could use some clarity, too!