Monday, August 8, 2011

The Language of Writing

                    "Writing is language. The use of language. The language to 
                    create image, the language to create drama.  It requires a 
                    skill of learning how to use language."
                                                                                   - John Milius

There's the old argument that says writers are born to which some people suggest anybody can write. I know this; it took me a long time to learn how to write well, those who have followed this blog from the beginning probably remember the number of times I've said that.

Several years ago I taught screenwriting at UCLA extension classes and had about 250 or so students over the course of a little over 2 years. And of those 250 or so, I thought maybe 4 or so could become screenwriters.

Depending if they could live in L.A., constantly write, make contacts and know somebody who is working, be it writer, director, secretary, grip, anyone who can introduce you to someone who then can introduce you to someone else. And so on.

I wrote my first story in Grade 4, at least as far as I can remember. And it was about a young boy who wanted a bike. Obviously a self portrait. I did get the bike. I wrote a few stories in Grades 5 & 6, inspired by a young, beautiful teacher who took a liking to me. She continued to be an influence through the years and only recently passed away.

On the other hand I was not nurtured and primed by my parents, my dad was a mechanic who worked in a garage and my mom was my mom. My dad went to school as far as Grade 11, my mom had to drop out at Grade 8 to work for her father, a farmer. My father also played the violin professionally, something he loved more than anything else.

So there's a bit of talent in the family.

And then there were the movies. In a small farmland town of around 500 people, we had one theater and played one movie for three days and another for another three days. Sundays they were closed.

I quickly began to see every movie I could and from 5 yrs old to 12 yrs old, movies were my inspiration.  I learned to read the credits, names of writers, actors, directors and even cameramen and someone called Edith Head who seemed to be on every movie.

Later as a teen in a big city I took a "Famous Writers" course, advertised in the back of comic books. But it didn't work out, more of a scam to take money than how to write. I wrote some stories in high school and college but nothing of any significance.

It wasn't until I got a job at a local TV station that I wrote professionally, and that was as a news writer. From there I never looked back.

The language of writing, when it's great, is not apparent. And that's the hardest part to teach, that is to write something that nobody notices. Bad writing is easily noticed, same as bad acting.

As Milius says, one has to learn the language of screenplays. You can also probably say that one should also learn how to read the language. So many studio and network readers now have no real idea how to tell a good screenplay from a bad one. They focus instead on the twists or the premise.

And far more people think all you need to become a writer is to buy Screenwriter or Final Draft, the pro softwares for all screenwriters.

And there's no shortage of "experts" ready and willing to help the aspiring screenwriter make their screenplay a blockbuster. The fact that most of these experts have probably never had a movie made or even never have written a screenplay defies any kind of logic.

Who would you rather have climbing a mountain with you on your first time; an expert climber or someone who's read a book about climbing?

And that's not an exaggeration.

The language in a good screenplay takes you into the story without you even knowing it, you feel, taste, smell the story, it takes you into a world of visuals. You can picture the movie fromo good language.

It took me a long time to learn these things, and it followed a typical formula, at first I copied screenplays. Literally. I rewrote The Deerhunter on my IBM typewriter twice. I copied the styles of Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas and even William Goldman and many others. 

I began to notice in the last dozen years, writing flowed easily and that once I had the characters nailed down, I could write a screenplay in a few weeks. And the language did flow with the story.

But ultimately, there's one element that nobody can guess. The writing can be great, but the story can be bad.

And nobody can foresee that.  Let's end with another Milius quote.

"You're either born a writer, a storyteller, or you're not. "

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