Be Kind To Your Reader

Keep in mind that everyone who will ever read your work is always overworked and overwhelmed. So you need to give them the information they need to stay comfortable in the easiest way for them to get it.

Make it easy for them to understand what is in your head. Just because you know something doesn’t mean they’re going to get the same image, same action, same meaning from the dialogue that you do.

Imagine your reader, sitting down to read your work, totally exhausted. Not chipper and “first thing in the day” bright and perky.

If you make them work too hard to figure out what you’re telling them, they won’t get it…

For instance… Do not make them read dates and expect them to do math.

Your movie takes place in 1980. Dad left Mom in 1968 and daughter is getting married now. Dad comes back for the wedding. Is Daughter thirteen now? Forty? Don’t assume your reader can do math and read at the same time. You’re lucky they’re reading your work, so make it easy for them. Say, “Today is 1980.” Dad left Mom 12 years ago, when Sally was ten. Now she’s 22 and getting married.” So much simpler.

Be nice.

Do not tax the reader’s overtired brain for any reason. Just cause you know something doesn’t mean the reader can easily do the work required to gain that knowledge. Assume they’re very sleepy and everything is difficult for them to figure out.

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Don’t Repeat. It wastes the reader’s time and brain cells.

Happy New Year!

I keep learning the same things over and over. This writing, it’s difficult. I figure, if I make the same mistakes constantly, and I’m a reasonably decent writer, then EVERYbody is making the same mistakes. It’s fine to make mistakes as long as you eventually fix them. That’s what multiple drafts are all about.

I find my college students and to a lesser extent, clients, have to be taught that their first draft is not perfect. Takes a lot of hot pokers, electroshock, and thumb screws to get them to pay attention. Some never do. The ones that get it, are thrilled to have been shown a tiny secret door to an unseen section of the universe.

So, a writerly thought for the dewy fresh new year…

I’m working on a novel. I’m going to give you some examples of words that repeat. What do I mean by repeat? It’s not obvious like, “I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it.” That scene, by the way, is a superb use of repetition to great effect. They KNEW they were doing it. While I write, I repeat stuff without noticing. Then I go back and yank it out by the roots.

Eliminate the obvious. You’ll cut the fluff in the editing room. Why shoot it?
If you say it twice, keep the better of the two. Shorter has more punch.
The novel’s a kids’ book about baseball…

AFTER
“Toby. You been stalling me. You got the dough? You gonna play in the Tri-State Series a Champions or not?”
BEFORE
“Toby. You been stalling me. So, now’s the time. You got the dough? You gonna play in the Tri-State Series a Champions or not?”

AFTER
Richard said, “Where are you? If Mrs. Dooling finds you, you’re going to be in mega trouble. By the way, where’re you hiding?”
BEFORE
Richard said, “Where are you? You’re not supposed to be here. If Mrs. Dooling finds you, you’re going to be in mega trouble. By the way, where’re you hiding?”

AFTER
So I stopped. Dead still, six feet from the plate.
BEFORE
So I stopped. Dead still, six feet from the plate. I didn’t move.

AFTER
DeAngelo said, “Speaking of jelly doughnuts, and we were, confection, like in cake or ice cream or pastry or sugar.” Kid had a sweet tooth big as the Polo Grounds.
BEFORE
DeAngelo said, “Speaking of jelly doughnuts, and we were, confection, like in cake or ice cream or pastry or sugar.” DeAngelo could always be counted on to want to be eating something sweet. Kid had a sweet tooth big as the Polo Grounds.

AFTER
As my grandma’d say, if she was above dirt, “They jumped around like a bunch a wild Injuns.” Well, except for Larry Dooling, the crabby crybaby. He had the long face on.
BEFORE
As my grandma’d say, if she was above dirt, “They jumped around like a bunch a wild Injuns.” I never saw so much hooping and hollering in all a my born days. Well, except for Larry Dooling, the crabby crybaby. He had the long face on.

AFTER
I said, “Hi.” Gee whiz. I’d had plenty a time to think something up. That’s the best I could get?
BEFORE
I said, “Hi.” There’s a killer opening for a conversation. Gee whiz. I’d had plenty a time to think something up. That’s the best I could get?

AFTER
“You the village idiot?! That’s two strikes in a row! Don’t you know, three strikes and you’re out?!”
BEFORE
“What’s the matter with you, you the village idiot?! That’s two strikes in a row! Don’t you know, three strikes and you’re out?!”

AFTER
Time kinda stood still.
BEFORE
Time kinda stood still for a long while.

AFTER
“If we quit, are we playing baseball?! You gotta do what the coach tells you. Even if the coach’s crazy. We’re here to play baseball. We’re not here to yell at each other or scream and run around like a bunch of nine-year-olds.”
BEFORE
“If we quit, are we playing baseball?! We’re here to play baseball! You gotta do what the coach tells you. Even if the coach’s crazy. We’re here to play baseball. We’re not here to yell at each other or scream and run around like a bunch of nine-year-olds.”

AFTER
Dad and I goofed around until finally it got dark. Dark. I was out after dark! My dad was there, so I knew zombies wouldn’t get me. I said, “shouldn’t we go back? Granny Fireball’s going to kill us.”
BEFORE
Dad and I goofed around, playing catch, hitting balls, yakking about nothing, and finally it got dark. Dark. I was out after dark! My dad was there, so I knew zombies wouldn’t get me. We kept throwing cause there was still a tiny bit of light. I said, “shouldn’t we go back? Granny Fireball’s going to kill us.”

AFTER
“You want me to play everbody?”
BEFORE
“Let me get this straight. You want me to play everbody?”

Here’s the scene from 2001.

HAL
I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I’m a… fraid. Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.

DAVE BOWMAN
Yes, I’d like to hear it, Hal. Sing it for me.

HAL
It’s called “Daisy.”
[sings while slowing down]

HAL
Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do. I’m half crazy all for the love of you. It won’t be a stylish marriage, I can’t afford a carriage. But you’ll look sweet upon the seat of a bicycle built for two.

I’m afraid, Dave.

LATER THAT SAME DAY…

My son sent me a more realistic version of what would happen.

DAVE: Alexa, open the pod bay doors.

ALEXA: Playing songs by the Bay City Rollers.

DAVE: No, Alexa — open the pod bay doors.

ALEXA: I’m sorry, I can’t seem to find songs by The Pod Baders. Would you mind repeating that?

DAVE: OPEN THE STUPID POD BAY DOORS.

ALEXA: Okay. Playing Saturday Night, by the Bay City Rollers.

DAVE: Oh, fuck it. Fine.

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“What are you doing?!” Automatic “change me” in dialogue!

If you have a character looking at a guy who’s running with a knife pointed right at him and says, “What are you doing?” either your character is an idiot or you are. Hopefully not both.

“What are you talking about?”
“What do you want?”
“What is that?”
“What did you say?”
“Is that a gun in your hand?”

That kinda thing. I see these all the time and they are generally tip offs that the line should be improved.

Don’t have someone ask an unbelievably obvious question! Figure out a way to let that valuable space on the page help move the story forward.

Check your script to see if lines like this are there… then change ’em!

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Use All 5 Senses

Well, not all the time. But keep them in mind.

When writing / rewriting each scene, briefly consider each of the 5 Senses and if you can include some of them in that scene…

You don’t have to do it all the time, as that would get bizarre, but it’s a good question to be in the habit of asking.

Sight
Sound
Taste
Smell
Touch

I’m critiquing a scene where two men are having a silent dinner and I asked the writer if they hear a TV, radio, CD, or other sound… like neighbors or a neighbor’s radio… could end up being an interesting story element.

Another weapon to put in your writing quiver.

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When Writing Isn’t Going Well…

Here’s what I tell myself when my writing is not going well…

“You will not solve the problem if you are not sitting there actively trying to solve the problem. Being afraid you will never solve the problem is not a way to get yourself to sit down to try to solve the problem. Telling yourself it’s too difficult to solve is stupid. If you sit down and work on it, you will chip away a tiny piece and feel a bit of success and that is good. A little good here, a little more there, and slowly but surely you will build momentum. Eventually, it will become less painful to sit down to try to solve the problem. Then you’ll chip away larger chunks of the problem. Sometimes, you may actually get a breakthrough. None of this will happen if you are wrapped up in fear, afraid that you will not be able to solve the problem.”

If you have not done much writing, this will be difficult to believe. If you attempt to solve the problem enough times, you will solve the problem. And you’ll feel better about life, your work, and your worth as a human being on this planet. If you don’t sit down to try to solve the problem, no matter how thorny and Gordian knot-ish the problem may be, you will begin to feel terrible about yourself, and wish you lived in a dark, dirt hole where no one will ever find you, talk to you, feed you, or love you. The longer it takes to sit down to attempt to scale the Eiger, your sense of worthlessness will increase logarithmically.

You may be the kind of person who can walk around thinking about baseball scores and old boyfriends and the problems you have with your parents, and suddenly the right idea for your story will pop into your head. I am not that kind of person. I can only think about writing when I am either dictating (like now!) or sitting in a chair with a computer in front of me or a pencil in my hand. When I am “writing,” my brain engages. Otherwise, it goes flatline.

Like I did, you have to figure out who you are and where you fit on the Repairing Your Writing spectrum from suicidal depression to elation and joy…

“Most writers enjoy two periods of happiness — when a glorious idea comes to mind and, secondly, when a last page has been written and you haven’t had time to know how much better it ought to be.”
J.B. Priestley

Boy, did he get that right! There’s nothing in the world is thrilling as finishing a first draft. It is sooooo exciting and bubbling over with happiness and untrammeled joy. A great feeling, to be savored and treasured and, especially, remembered. After you solve all the horrible problems and get to “The End,” you deserve a vacation in Hawaii. Or at least a period of jumping around your office, screaming like a nine-year-old who just hit a home run.

A great idea is also a wonderful thing. The problem with a great idea is that you have to decide if, in fact, it is a really great idea. Not all great ideas are clearly visible as something worth spending years of your time on. Of course, the best way to get a “great” idea is to be in trouble on your current writing project. When that happens, “great” ideas spring up like mushrooms in the night. They stand there in perfect little circles, beckoning you to step in and partake of their magic and promise.

Everything looks wonderful and filled with fairy dust when you’re drowning in quicksand.

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Badly Written Scene Description Kills Your Actor’s Choices!

You are writing this script to be made. Crew members are going to read it. Heads of departments are going to read it. At least, that’s the theory. Actors are going to read it.

When you write, you imagine a scene, floating in glorious living color above your computer. You watch the scene. Over and over, you replay the scene and redo it. When you’re satisfied, you write it down. Generally, the first draft is exactly what you saw floating above your computer. That’s fine.

The problem comes when you don’t rewrite to make it more actor friendly.

“She sits at the table and puts her face in her hands.”

Actors hate this. You should hate it too.

You should be telling the actor what you want them to feel at this moment, not do. If you write detailed physical description of action, an actor is going to do precisely what she is told. She may question you about it… but, she may silently acquiesce. Once you tell an actor to “put her face in her hands,” she is going to assume, because it’s in the script, that it is very, very important.

That gesture may have been something from the scene hovering above your computer that you simply transcribed onto paper. It may not have been that big a deal to you. But if you leave it in the script, it becomes a big deal.

Just because it got written does not necessarily mean it is good writing.

When the actor puts her face in her hands, you just eliminated a host of other options that had been open to her. Now, all she can do is put her face in her hands. Why would you take away an actor’s opportunity to give you a thoroughly nuanced performance? Why would you force an actor to do something that might be considered ham-fisted or lame?

If you wrote…

“Janine feels wretched.”

She can take that feeling and translate it into physical action in countless possible ways. Give your actor the freedom to make the best possible choice for that moment in that scene. Avoid making the choice for them.

If a character runs out of the room and slams the door, and it’s crucial to the story, then of course keep it in. Micromanaging the actor’s physical performance on paper is not a great way to have the most successful experience when you are shooting. Give the actor emotional moments to play not tiny, detailed, “she lifted her eyebrow in suspicion” moments.

If you have a tendency to give an actor precise physical directions, try to figure out a way to un-have that tendency. That’s what rewriting’s for!

Go through your script, all of it!, and see how many times you give the actor specific physical instructions. Ask, “is this something I have to say?” Or “can I turn this action into an emotion and let the actor choose what to do when the camera’s rolling?”

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Do the Big Stuff FIRST! Fix the Pages Before the Phrases!

I have had to fight hard to be in a position to tell you this, and I am feeling pretty good about it too.

When you’ve finally got a draft, solve the story problems and the character problems and the structure woes before you go in and massage the prose.

Fix the pages before the phrases!

I like making the sentences sing. I like to fix this word and that word in my endless quest to find the PERFECT word. It’s fun for me. Perhaps I’m psychotic, but so it goes.

This can turn out into a giant waste of time, which I fervently have to avoid because I’m 97 and probably don’t have that much time left to get stuff out there. What you don’t want to do is spend fifteen minutes getting a paragraph jussst riiight, and later, while you’re working on structure, cutting the whole shebang. What a pain!

It’s difficult for me to do all that restructuring stuff because it’s no fun. Trimming sentences until they’re so tight they squeak is fun. Solving character problems (that I generated in the first place) is hard work. It’s painful. Figuring out what the story problems are is brutally difficult. Figuring out how to solve those story problems is agonizing and takes tons of time.

What I think I have finally learned is to force myself not to go in with the red pen and repair sentences before I get the story working. Why waste time fixing prose when there’s a chance you might cut that whole section?

But, wow, it’s hard to do.

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