Evocative writing: can we learn from novelists and poets?

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  • Evocative writing: can we learn from novelists and poets?

    Novel: The Red Badge of Courage, by Stephan Crane, published 1895.

    The cold passed reluctantly from the earth, and the retiring fogs revealed an army stretched out on the hills, resting. As the landscape changed from brown to green, the army awakened, and began to tremble with eagerness at the noise of rumors.
    Poem: Strange Fruit, by Abel Meeropol under the pen name, Lewis Allan, published in 1937, adapted as a song by Billie Holiday in 1939.

    Southern trees bear a strange fruit,
    Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,
    Black body swinging in the Southern breeze,
    Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.
    Novel: 1984, by George Orwell, published 1949.

    It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
    Novel: The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins, published 2015, adapted for the screen and released 2016.

    script, Michael Clayton, by Tony Gilroy. IMO, this could easily be the opening of a novel without changing a word:

    Gilroy breaks a rule with this opening by describing what the building will be like "Seven hours from now..." He also slips in a bit of a metaphor: "... in the heart of the Sixth Avenue Canyon."

    Before anyone objects, "He's a pro, he can get away with it!" I'll state up front I disagree. It makes the reader sit up and take notice. And now they want to date Gilroy for the next 100-plus pages. But wait -- read what follows the above -- a series of shots with a long VO introducing the character of Michael Clayton before he appears on screen. More rules broken:

    ARTHUR EDENS (V.O.)


    Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

  • #2
    Opening with a well written monologue/V.O. sequence is a great way for a spec writer to catch the reader's attention and gain their confidence to continue. Tarantino said he opened True Romance with the Elvis monologue for specifically that reason. I would tend to stay away from the novelistic prose at the beginning though, for a spec writer it could come off like you just don't understand the format.

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    • #3
      Originally posted by Jimmy View Post
      Opening with a well written monologue/V.O. sequence is a great way for a spec writer to catch the reader's attention and gain their confidence to continue. Tarantino said he opened True Romance with the Elvis monologue for specifically that reason. I would tend to stay away from the novelistic prose at the beginning though, for a spec writer it could come off like you just don't understand the format.
      Excellent point. True Romance is a great example of introducing a character through his/her dialogue alone. Tarantino used zero physical description of Clarence or the woman he's talking to. Just the setting and what we see:

      CLARENCE WORLEY, a young hipster hepcat, is trying to pick up an older lady named LUCY. She isn't bothered by him, in fact, she's a little charmed. But, you can tell, that she isn't going to leave her barstool.
      Then the awesome monologue follows. Yet I could just imagine the comments I'd get here if I posted a scene in the same vein.

      I did a little googling and found that, when True Romance sold, he was paid the WGA minimum: $50-grand. And then came Reservoir Dogs. And the industry wanted to date him for a long time.
      Last edited by sc111; 03-21-2021, 03:03 PM. Reason: typos
      Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

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      • #4
        Originally posted by sc111 View Post

        Yet I could just imagine the comments I'd get here is I posted a scene in the same vein.
        This to me is the heart of disagreements on this board. And probably in real life. Because A list screenwriter had success doing it -- then that's the way we all CAN do it. I'm only being criticized for my work because I'm not successful.

        And why I have always believed that once you have a ton of success you can put your name on a napkin and sell it -- versus me and you who have to work crazy hard to break in -- that's not the same as realizing the person who broke in that special way earned it. Also maybe it's just really great writing.

        So this isn't an attack on you Sc111 or anyone, but that comment expressed perfectly how I feel most writers on this board feel when they defend their work. You are at least being very direct about it.

        But what's funny is -- the best part and worst part of not getting the benefit of the doubt -- is that you can win over anyone with strong writing. If you write a scene in the same vein and it's great -- we are in. We aren't going to NOT like it just because you aren't Quentin T.

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        • #5
          Originally posted by Bono View Post

          This to me is the heart of disagreements on this board. And probably in real life. Because A list screenwriter had success doing it -- then that's the way we all CAN do it. I'm only being criticized for my work because I'm not successful.

          And why I have always believed that once you have a ton of success you can put your name on a napkin and sell it -- versus me and you who have to work crazy hard to break in -- that's not the same as realizing the person who broke in that special way earned it. Also maybe it's just really great writing.

          So this isn't an attack on you Sc111 or anyone, but that comment expressed perfectly how I feel most writers on this board feel when they defend their work. You are at least being very direct about it.

          But what's funny is -- the best part and worst part of not getting the benefit of the doubt -- is that you can win over anyone with strong writing. If you write a scene in the same vein and it's great -- we are in. We aren't going to NOT like it just because you aren't Quentin T.
          What I find funny is you using the royal "we".

          Back in the day when more members commented on pages, here, the nit-picking definitely happened to some really good openings. It would start with a few 'great job' posts out of the gate and, as if the comments were too congratulatory to bear, it started: "You can't use "we see," "You can't describe what's not on the screen," "Readers hate voiceover." And if you gave an example of a pro using a similar technique, "Pros can get away with it. Newbies can't."

          It happens less often now because fewer members post pages or comment on pages.
          Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

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          • #6
            Originally posted by sc111 View Post

            What I find funny is you using the royal "we".

            Back in the day when more members commented on pages, here, the nit-picking definitely happened to some really good openings. It would start with a few 'great job' posts out of the gate and, as if the comments were too congratulatory to bear, it started: "You can't use "we see," "You can't describe what's not on the screen," "Readers hate voiceover." And if you gave an example of a pro using a similar technique, "Pros can get away with it. Newbies can't."

            It happens less often now because fewer members post pages or comment on pages.
            I agree. Let's just call each other at this point.

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            • #7
              Originally posted by Bono View Post

              I agree. Let's just call each other at this point.
              Huh?
              Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

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              • #8
                "Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist,- Pablo Picasso

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                • #9
                  Those are great examples. I do recall early on in my learning curve reading a couple of gurus who said leave metaphors and similes to novels, where they belong. I eventually dismissed the advice.

                  Also agree on inspiration from anywhere. YouTube is also great for getting regional accents and local sayings.

                  That exercise you suggest would be fun.
                  Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

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                  • #10

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                    • #11
                      More from the "Annals of the Dogma of Screenwriting": Avoid writing boring, static scenes with two guys sitting in chairs talking to one another likes this one: https://youtu.be/fuWkcKbBQkg

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                      • #12
                        You know in real life how many boring conversations people have. I try to avoid that in real life and for sure in my screenplays. That's why I get in trouble in real life for saying the wrong thing just to get a good joke off. But the 10% of the time it works, it's worth it to me. Same with screenwriting. Take out the boring parts. And the boring people. Leave only the interesting.

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                        • #13
                          Originally posted by Satriales View Post
                          The idea that there are rules is very silly. And look, the guys who sold Keeper Of The Diary wrote dense walls of prose, as an example.

                          A bit of a Catch-22: Don't do it until you can prove you can do it?

                          How does that work? You break in "keeping a clean page, one/two lines of action blocks, left side of the page ...." then down the road you "prove" you can write "dense prose"?

                          Isn't that another version of the 'only pros can do' this or that rule.

                          Evocative writing doesn't have to be dense or laden with adjectives.

                          The first sentence of 1984 is clean as can be. But how did he decide on that image?

                          He created an entire world. Oceans of possibilities for an opening image. He could have opened with his protag in this world. Or one of the crazy meeting scenes later in the novel. Yet he chose:

                          "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen."

                          Immediately telling the reader they're in an alternate universe. Like a door opening into this world.

                          Come to think of it. That's what the first half page of a script is: a door opening into the world the writer has created.

                          And it can be done with one or two action lines as you state. But it needs to be evocative and never derivative.
                          Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

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                          • #14
                            Originally posted by Bono View Post
                            You know in real life how many boring conversations people have. I try to avoid that in real life and for sure in my screenplays. That's why I get in trouble in real life for saying the wrong thing just to get a good joke off. But the 10% of the time it works, it's worth it to me. Same with screenwriting. Take out the boring parts. And the boring people. Leave only the interesting.
                            Take out the boring parts is a writing truism. I think it goes: fiction is life without the boring parts.

                            I'm attempting to discuss how to use prose in an opening in a way that seduces the reader and lets them know they're in good hands.

                            I'm not talking about purple prose. That's a mistake new writers make.

                            The Gilroy prose above isn't purple. It's juxtaposed against the 4-page voiceover. But look at how visually evocative the VO is. It's descriptive prose introducing a character in voiceover by another character!

                            We "see" the rolls of 50- dollar bills. His smile. His sleeves rolled up. His metaphorical dust bin.

                            Figment linked a Gilroy BAFTA talk where he said, with Michael Clayton, that he started with the idea to write about a fixer. That's all he had. And now I understand the opening to this script. It's brilliant.

                            Now, we can lapse into the "rule" only a pro can open a script in such a way. But I'm quite sure Gilroy always wrote this way.
                            Advice from writer, Kelly Sue DeConnick. "Try this: if you can replace your female character with a sexy lamp and the story still basically works, maybe you need another draft.-

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                            • #15
                              This thread might be about something else -- but I just want to point out -- that even a pro can write a great script -- and me a nobody can not like it. It's still opinion. Plenty of people hate Aaron Sorkin -- I love him -- but I can obviously see why people would hate him too. Quentin -- most of us film nerds eat that up -- but for sure I can see being annoyed by him. And I haven't liked all his movies either.

                              My point -- I know many writers love Michael Clayton -- I'm not one of them. And that's okay. So I'm just saying there is no 100% we all agree this is great writing. The closest we come are of course some of the PIxar movies and Roadhouse.

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