MONTHLY SCREENWRITING TIPS - ISSUE #31
Writing is language; language is words. It often seems to me these days that the English language is under assault. But then maybe I’m just an old professorial fuddy-duddy. Read on for this professor’s pet peeves as we examine the battle brewing among word mavens.
Writing is language; language is words.
It often seems to me these days that the English language is under assault. But then maybe I’m just an old professorial fuddy-duddy. Language evolves, doesn’t it? Isn’t the Oxford English Dictionary and, indeed, aren’t all dictionaries merely history books detailing the way particular words were used at particular times?
The battle among word mavens in essence comes down to tradition versus usage. Must we stick to the traditional use of a word or does the way words are used today establish their true meaning?
My answer is: Yes. We should stick to the traditional use of words or we should accept the ways words are used in contemporary times to establish their meaning.
Regarding tradition, my dad was a musician who played under, among other conductors, the Twentieth Century master of the classical repertoire: Arturo Toscanini. It was my privilege as a young lad to attend rehearsals of his N.B.C. Symphony Orchestra. I recall on one occasion overhearing a musician ask him something like, “Maestro, in section 34, in the fourth bar, the score reads A sharp. Isn’t this traditionally played A natural?”
“Tradition?” the old man scoffed. “I’ll tell you what’s tradition,” he rasped in his thick-as-aioli Tuscan drawl, “Tradition is the last time somebody played this wrong.”
I’ll defer to the reader whether to go with tradition or usage, but here is a brief list of some of my current pet peeves regarding the (mis)use of our language.
Isn’t there another word in the English language besides ‘incredible?’ Someone told me earlier this very day that a particular movie she saw was ‘incredible.’ The acting? Incredible. The cinematography? The score? The editing? All incredible. The whole experience of seeing the movies was, well, incredible and also incredibly moving. There were also some incredibly funny moments in the film and there were also incredible special effects.
Incredible means ‘not believable.’
Even as I write this I receive an email heralding the ‘incredible’ talent of the students at UCLA’s Herb Alpert School of Music.
What’s wrong with: amazing, wonderful, splendid, brilliant, astounding, astonishing, life-changing, stunning, rich, profound, phenomenal, deep, meaningful, extraordinary, unforgettable, powerful, eternal, timeless, fulfilling, affirmative, nourishing, edifying, expansive, nurturing, charming, exciting, memorable, to name but an incredible few? These are ones I provide off the top of my head, figuratively. Imagine the bounty of choices beyond ‘incredible’ one could find if he checked even the feeblest thesaurus?
Here’s a word that is now commonly used to express precisely and exquisitely the opposite of what it actually means. ‘Literal’ means ‘to the letter.’ Writers too often use it when they really mean ‘figuratively,’ which derives from ‘a figure of speech.’
The restaurant was so crowded there were literally a million people there. It was so hot in the Valley the temperature was literally five hundred degrees. In last night’s game the Rockies literally crushed the Dodgers. The traffic was so bad it took me literally nine days to get to Westwood from Silver Lake.
The Writers Guild, which is the Hollywood writers union, has a rule whereby if a writer fails to win a minimum number of credits over a specific period of time she loses her voting rights. A writer who had failed to make the quota of credits and thereby lost her voting rights complained in The Los Angeles Times that the WGA is the only union “…that literally kicks you out if you don’t get enough work.”
Here’s a writer with an opportunity to show off her language prowess in a major newspaper but uses ‘literal’ when she means ‘figurative.’ What impression does that make? Is she paying sufficient attention to her words? Perhaps if she did, she would win more assignments and not lose her WGA voting privileges.
If anybody literally kicks you out of anywhere, dial 911.
Here’s another one that people use to mean just exactly the opposite of its true definition. To peruse means to read extremely carefully, closely, attentively. It means to pore over, to examine what one reads fully and wholly and comprehensively. (While we’re at it, you can’t imagine how many writers write ‘pouring over’ when they mean ‘poring over.’)
It does not mean to skim or to scan or briefly to glance at.
I strongly expect that a majority of the writers reading this complaint are pausing to check the dictionary to see if I am I right.
Why do people misuse ‘peruse’ to mean ‘briefly to glance at?’ My guess is that ‘peruse’ sounds a lot like ‘cruise,’ and to skim over or scan through a document sounds sort of like cruising through it.
That’s just a guess.
The T and the W in ‘between’ remind us of the number two.
‘Between’ refers to distribution among two and only two entities. ‘Between a rock and a hard place’ is quite correct because a rock is one thing and a hard place is one more thing, and collectively they add up to two. ‘Between Harold and Jenny there was enough money to pay for the new transmission’ is correct, but if they need Archie also to kick in some coin for the repair it is not ‘between’ but ‘among.’
SHE AND I
Here’s an error that even highly educated, literate, sophisticated people commonly commit these days. “She and I went to the store” is just fine, as ‘she’ and ‘I’ are the subjects of the sentence and are also subjective pronouns, that is, they represent the subjects of the sentence.
Precious few intelligent people would say “Her and me went to the store.”
But if ‘her and me’ constitutes the object, than ‘she and I’ is wrong. “He told my wife and I the whole story,” is wrong. In this instance, with the pronouns representing the object, the objective pronoun is appropriate, and that’s ‘my wife and me.’
A brilliant and successful attorney I know sent me a photo of himself and his wife taken on a Hawaii vacation. The caption read, ‘Here is a picture of she and I.’
Behind the Screen: Getting to Know J.M. Evenson
J. M. Evenson received a Ph.D. in Renaissance literature from the University of Michigan and an M.F.A. from UCLA’s famed School of Theater, Film and Television. At UCLA, she was awarded the Harmony Gold Screenwriting Prize and the Women In Film Eleanor Perry Writing Award and won top honors at the UCLA Showcase Screenwriting Contest. As a writer in Los Angeles, she has worked with a variety of studios and production houses, from DreamWorks to Focus Features. An award-winning teacher of Shakespeare, composition, and film, Evenson currently teaches at Pepperdine University in Malibu, California.
Her new book, Shakespeare for Screenwriters, is the first book to use Shakespeare’s works to examine the fundamentals of screenwriting. The book offers insight into what makes Shakespeare’s creations so powerful by analyzing the timeless themes in his greatest works and translating them into practical writing advice. Geared to all levels of interest and experience in both Shakespeare and screenwriting, each chapter focuses on specific lessons learned through reading Shakespeare. William Shakespeare wrote the most powerful dramas in the English language. Shakespeare for Screenwriters tells you how. Stay up to date on J.M.’s appearances and book news by ‘liking’ her Facebook page.
Q1: What led you to Hollywood to pursue a career in screenwriting?
I had a moment of clarity while I was working on my PhD: the best way to understand how great moments in drama achieve their emotional power is by trying to write. The more I wrote, the more I understood.
That led me to my second insight: good literature should do more than entertain us. It should also inspire good writing. That's exactly what my book on Shakespeare does -- it shows you how to get inspired by one of the best writers who ever lived.
If you're going to study writing, why not learn from the best?
Q2: How did you get your book contract?
I have a PhD in Renaissance Literature from the University of Michigan and an MFA from UCLA's School of Film. The book is a perfect combination of both those fields.
Getting the actual book contract was surprisingly easy. I came up with the idea for the book, then went to the Santa Monica Public Library and borrowed a copy of Michael Larsen's "How To Write A Book Proposal." I read it, wrote up a mini-proposal, and sent it to Michael Wiese Books (who published Blake Snyder's "Save The Cat" and Chris Vogler's "The Writer's Journey"). I sent the email at 11pm at night. By 10am the next day, I had three voicemails and two emails! I signed the contract later that week and was writing by Monday.
Q3: What is your favorite movie of all time and why?
"It's a Wonderful Life." That movie gets me every time.
Q4: What advice would you give to new writers who have the dream of making it big in Hollywood?
I think a lot of writers these days are worried about making their ideas fit into standardized formulas. They give up on their voice and everything that makes them unique in the hopes of making it.
I'd just remind them that Shakespeare was a maverick. Instead of adhering to formulas, Shakespeare made every single play exactly what it needed to be without worrying about whether or not it broke the rules. What Shakespeare ultimately teaches us is not to worry if your story fits into typical formulas. Do whatever you have to do to make your story right. If you need to, break the rules of today -- just as Shakespeare broke the rules of the sixteenth century.
Q5: What new projects are you working on?
Right now I am focusing on getting this book off the ground. I'm scheduled for a launch party at the Writer's Store in Burbank on September 21st from 3-5pm. I'll be giving a workshop there called "Creating Timeless Characters: 10 Lessons We Can Learn from Shakespeare." It will cover tips and tricks we can learn from the Bard on how to create characters like Hamlet, Othello, Macbeth, and Lear -- characters that stay in our imagination and stand the test of time.
Catch Richard If You Can!
Up and coming workshops and seminars: