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“Movies are about life-changing events in these character’s lives.”
Screenwriter John August
Scriptnotes, Ep. 218

The 25 cent word of the day is synecdoche. Author/Princeton professor Joyce Carol Oates uses the word synecdoche in her MasterClass talk as a literary device meaning “one stands for the whole” and states that “it is the principle of all art.”

One example she gives is her book Blonde: A Novel. While the real life Marilyn Monroe had several miscarriages and lived in multiple orphanages and foster homes, Oates chose to write about one miscarriage, one orphanage, and one foster home. Limiting selections gives your story power.

Oates says this principle works in journaling and other forms of writing.

“If some profound thing happens one day out of 25, that’s the day you write about. So too with a short story. Most of my short stories focus on people at climactic moments of their lives. Like it’s the one event in their whole lives that’s really momentous— that’s what I’m writing about. I’m not writing about anything else.”
—Joyce Carol Oates
MasterClass, Principles of Writing Short Fiction (Message 2)

This principle works in screenwriting as well.

“If your movie isn’t about the most important moment in your hero’s life don’t write it.”
—Scriptshadow

Billy Ray used synecdoche in his screenplay Richard Jewell where he made a composite character named Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm). A singular FBI agent that stood for the many FBI agents on the case.

Aaron Sorkin used the technique when he limited his screenplay Steve Jobs to just three days —three acts—in the life the Apple co-founder. The 1984 Apple Macintosh launch, the 1988 launch of NeXT, and the 1998 launch of the iMac. The king on the throne, the king in exile, and the return of the king.

And when writer/director Lulu Wang chose to tell the story of a Chinese family in The Farewell, she chose the events surrounding her grandmother getting cancer and a lie.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

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“The task of the successful writer is to lower the bar. You want to avoid areas of high difficulty. So a high difficulty task is having your story in your head before you write it. That’s too hard to do! You got to be really smart to do that. I’m not smart enough, so why would I put myself in that position? Just start writing and then work it out. You can always rewrite it, you can change it. That’s the great luxury of being a writer. We’re not surgeons. The world does not hold us to our first pass.”
—Author Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point)
MasterClass, “Drafts and Revisions”

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“Art stands on the shoulders of craft, which means that to get to the art you must master the craft. If you want to write, practice writing. Practice it for hours a day, not to come up with a story you can publish, but because you long to learn how to write well, because there is something that you alone can say. Write the story, learn from it, put it away, write another ”
Ann Patchett
The Getaway Car (found in the book This is the Story of a Happy Marriage)

 

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“Every time I have set out to translate the book (or story, or hopelessly long essay) that exists in such brilliant detail on the big screen of my limbic system onto a piece of paper (which, let’s face it, was once a towering tree crowned with leaves and a home to birds), I grieve for my own lack of talent and intelligence. Every. Single. Time. Were I smarter, more gifted, I could pin down a closer facsimile of the wonders I see. I believe, more than anything, that this grief of constantly having to face down our own inadequacies is what keeps people from being writers. Forgiveness, therefore, is key. I can’t write the book I want to write, but I can and will write the book I am capable of writing. Again and again throughout the course of my life I will forgive myself.”
International best-selling author Ann Patchett
The Getaway Car (in the collection of essays book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage)

P.S. Patchett also owns Parnassus Books in Nashville. (Probably not something she imagined would happen when she was in her twenties and working as a waitress and dreaming of being a published writer.)

Scott W. Smith

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“I divide the world into two groups of people. There are those who pay someone to listen to their problems. And there are those who get paid for telling people their problems. I am very fortunate to be in group number two. . . . I can’t wait to hear everything that’s gone wrong in your life.”
David Sedaris
Masterclass, Conclusion: Two Groups of People

Humorist David Sedaris said that he knows there are better storytellers than him, better writers than him, and people who have better speaking voices than him him—but as of this post he’s written ten books that have sold 12 million copies and has made a career out of reading his stories in person and on the radio. (That reminds me of the motivational saying, “Never let what you can’t do prevent you from doing what you can do.”)

Here’s one of his secrets.

“I wrote every day for 15 years before my first book came out.”
David Sedaris

If you want an easier task to follow, read Ann Patchett’s essay The Getaway Car (found in her book This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage) which Sedaris calls “the best essay I’ve ever read about writing” because it reminds him “of the joy of writing.”

“Why is it that we understand playing the cello will require work, but we attribute writing to the magic of inspiration?”
Ann Patchett

P.S. Ann Patchett is a has an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. All roads lead to Iowa.

Scott W. Smith

 

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“You know, when you first start writing you’re going to suck. And so it’s good to keep it to yourself, until maybe you don’t suck as much.”
David Sedaris

The sweet spot for the essays that David Sedaris writes is five pages. The shortest are the two pages he does for CBS Sunday Morning and on the other end of the spectrum he says he “has a 12 page attention span.” Experience tells him that anything longer is hard to read on stage. He spends much time on the rewriting process, and encourages others to do that as well.

“Nine times out of 10, my only comment is you need to rewrite this, ah, 60 times. And most people don’t even want to hear that you need to rewrite it one time. But that’s what writing is—it’s rewriting. And sometimes something’s not worth rewriting. You think, oh, I’m just so bored with this . . . it’s not worth diving back into. And that’s fine because not everything is worth diving back into. But I would say, personally, I probably write something over 12-18 times before I give it to my editor.”
David Sedaris
Masterclass

While you can see doing 12-18 drafts of a short essay, how big of a climb does 60 rewrites seem. And have you ever done 60 drafts of a script you’ve written—or even 12-18. This is what screenwriter John Logan did on rewriting his first screenplay with Oliver Stone:

“We did 26 drafts of Any Given Sunday, one right after another, so I learned everything about the form from him. He was patient. I’d go to his house, he’d say, ‘Pick up that Oscar, hold it, it’ll feel good, you’ll enjoy it.’ And then we’d work. Any Given Sunday, like all these monstrous big movies,  was hard to get made.”
John Logan

And that was after he spent nine months on his own writing more than 20 drafts. Screenwriter Michael Arndt reportedly wrote 100 drafts of Little Miss Sunshine—his sixth script and the first one he sold.

Sometimes it takes a little time. Here’s a closing quote from another rewriter:

“It’s true I rewrite a lot . . . my talent is I just try and try, and try and try again, and little by little it comes to something that I think is okay.”
Francis Ford Coppola

Scott W. Smith

 

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“Notice when you’re talking to people, notice what people laugh at. If you tell a story and somebody laughs, then they sort of ask you some follow-up questions, that’s a pretty good indication that that might be a good thing to write about. Carry a notebook— make note of those times. I do.”
Humorist David Sedaris
Masterclass, “Observing the World”

While I lived in Iowa I got to know former Saturday Night Live writer/cast member Gary Kroegerwho lives there now, and he said that comedian Rodney Dangerfield once told him that three funny things happen to everyone every day, he just writes them down.

Do the Dangerfield math there. If you write down 3 funny things every day for a year (365 days) you’ll have 1,095 funny bits. Even if only 10% have staying power you’ll have over 100 bits to develop further.

And if you want to see how a comedian crafts together five-minutes of original comedy material then check out the documentary Comedian (2002) with Jerry Seinfeld.

Scott W. Smith 

 

 

 

 

 

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