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The Writer's Craft - Views

Copyright 2000 Dorian Scott Cole
No claim is made to quotes which are the property of the individual contributor.

I asked two groups of people what a writing teacher might mean by the words "author's craft?" I received a wonderful variety of answers that I think have great insight into what the "author's craft" is.

The overall metric (rubric):
Mark writes: I suppose one way you could define the "author's craft" is to ask how well they have a grasp of their medium, and how well they are able to use it and the tools of the medium; the idea of "craftsmanship".

Fulfilling the conceptual task at hand:
Jackie writes: I wonder if she might have in mind something like Arnold Bennett's definition. Bennett, who went to bat for writers who worked to please the public, defined the author's craft as one that describes, records, and entertains.

The basic skills:
Mysti writes: The creative and consistent use of literary voice and style in a piece, at best. At worst, watching for correct grammar and spelling, rhythm variations and good use of description in the papers.

The personal ingredient - knowing how to prepare:
(?) writes: The author's craft... the author's craft... the author's craft... to me that would have to be the spinning that goes on in my head every day about ideas, characters and the project I'm currently wrapped up in. It's getting excited when you've just realized a new twist, or path for your lead... something much better than before... the realization of growth and experience as I can see my growth as a writer with every project I do...

The analogy:
I often use the analogy of building a cabinet. There are a lot of plain boards and screws and knobs that are the basic building materials for the cabinet. They don't look like much when they are laying in a pile on the floor. In writing, there are a lot of plain building blocks that go into it, like words and grammar and structure. The better the quality of the material, the better the cabinet or the screenplay. When a carpenter adds his imagination and skill to the project, the end result is a unique and beautifully crafted cabinet. He knows just where to put in a little filler, a little color, the right style of knobs, and a grand sculpted piece here and there, but he also knows to keep it to the right dimensions, and knows when to quit. A writer does the same. For me it's a tall order. : ) - Scott

And then again...

What wasn't mentioned by any of us was what studios and publishers seem to want. The most obvious things: Plot, Characterization, Structure, Scenes, Dialogue, Originality, Surprises. These are the things that seem to define what the industry is looking for (readers and I myself rigorously rate these things). Could it be that the Author's Craft and what the industry looks for are two different things?  

I posed that question to one group. Their response was basically that they don't care what the studios want - they write what interests them. If it interests them, it will probably interest others, and sooner or later the industry will swing around to their story. I argued that for boring writers like me, it might be a good idea to keep audience interests in mind.

Recently I critiqued a movie and posed the question:

"What is it that a writer is trying to capture?"

What is it, exactly, that a writer is trying to capture? Drama. He isn't trying to capture linear time and events in which one event follows another in exact measure. Time is compressed, broken, and even warped in a story. He isn't trying to capture a "moment" in time. Moments have to be preceded by something - set up so that the action has meaning. He isn't trying to capture a scene into which all the dramatic action must be somehow stuffed. Scenes are preceded by other scenes which prepare for the action to follow - scene after scene in sequence.

So what a writer is trying to capture is a piece of drama that is set up by events that precede it, and most likely sets up events that follow it. He has to be careful that other unfolding drama, such as a subplot or events, don't take the focus away from the main drama to the point that the main drama is lost. And part of drama is dialogue. 

I sometimes can't decipher some of the dialogue in a movie. Dialogue is created by the character's reactions to each other and to events and to situations, and carries with it meaning and character motivation. If the dialogue can't be understood, then for all practical purposes it doesn't exist and the part of the story carried by the dialogue doesn't get told. That scene can just be cut out and discarded - it's just confusing. So if a line is poorly written, or background sound covers it up, or the actor doesn't speak distinctly, the scene is lost and the entire story suffers. Watch Mel Gibson or Arnold Schwartzeneger in a movie - every line is stated clearly and distinctly no matter what the situation.  

Sometimes silence is better than dialogue

Screenwriters often write the dialog instruction "Pause" or "Tic" into their dialog. When writing, they are thinking like the character, going through the reactions that the character would go through. I think that "Pause" is a useful tool that is often ignored, knowing that the actor will do it differently anyway. French Screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, director of The Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988) and Cyrano de Bergerac (1990), and recipient of the WGAw's Screen Laurel Award, says in his book The Secret Language of Film, that "The cinema loves silence - and within that silence the sound of a breath being drawn. It is expert at populating silence, listening to it - sometimes the better to destroy it."

When I did my first acting on stage, I rattled off lines like I was doing a timed test. No one could slow me down. Later when I directed my own play, I had one actress who rattled off the lines like it was a timed test. I had an idea to help her slow down (which didn't work for that). I had the group practice dramatic pauses prior to rehearsels. They would say lines and at selected points would pause for one second, then two, ... working up to five or even ten. Each time length gave the dialogue a little different slant. It reflected the inner workings of the character, and was often reflected outwardly by the actor. Silence is not silence at all, but a break in dialogue that is packed with meaning.

A writer can capture in that one moment of silence, a real moment of important drama.

- Scott

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