Posts Tagged ‘Synecdoche’

“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.”

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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Sure screenwriter Charlie Kaufman was born in New York and attended Boston University and NYU but perhaps the secret of his success is (get ready for Midwest connection) he lived in Minneapolis in the late 80s for more than four years working in the circulation department at the Star Tribune.

According to the Being Charlie Kaufman website Kaufman said, “I would take missed-newspaper calls at 5 in the morning. It was a hard job, especially in the winter. I’d get up at 4 and take the bus downtown. It was freezing and everybody looked really sad on the bus. I worked at the art institute as well. I was the person who said ‘The museum will be closing in 15 minutes’ over the loudspeaker.”

That’s that ole’ Midwest work ethic for ya.

I’m not sure what lead him to Minneapolis but that’s where he was before he moved to LA in 1991 eventually going on to win an Academy Award in 2005 for best original script (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind ) as well as two additional Oscar nominations in 2003 (Adaptation) and 2002 (Being John Malkovich). And according to the critics Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York, that he directed as well as wrote, is said to be lining up for more awards this year.  

For someone who has said that he doesn’t know what a third act is he’s done pretty well for himself. I recently discovered some videos online that have been produced by the Writers Guild of America and today’s screenwriting quote comes from an interview I saw there with Kaufman (I’ve smoothed over some stumbles):

“I don’t really have any advice because I feel like the circumstance that I find myself in I think is attributable to luck to a large extent. I wrote for a lot of years in obscurity, and I wrote the script Being John Malcovich which got me attention but was never going to be made, and I got the lucky break of Spike Jonze being interested in making it and having the power at that point in his career to get a movie made that nobody wanted to get made. The only thing I can say is if you’ve got a thing that you’re exploring, then explore it truthfully. I mean if you want to do that and are interested in doing what you want to do in the world, then do it.”
                                                                                          Charlie Kaufman
WGA/ Angle On

So for Kaufman the road to an Academy Award took him through waking up at 4 in the morning to catch a bus downtown and a lot years of writing in obscurity.  While his screenplays are unique, you’ll find that his long and winding road to success is quite common. 

By the way, I think the definition of luck is writing “for a lot years in obscurity.”  Even Diablo Cody who found success with her first screenplay spent well over a decade writing in obscurity.

Scott W. Smith

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