I want every line of dialogue I write to land like a punchline.
Even in the most serious, least funny stuff I write — I still strive for that rhythm. Each line sets up the next. And each line has to land. And if it doesn’t, you tighten it (by cutting off the top of the line, the first half of the sentence, which the eye skips over anyway) — or you cut filler words — or you reorder the line so that the highest-impact word falls last. Or conversely — you reorder the line so that it falls away, it’s a throwaway, the intensity and conviction of the words and the speaker drop from the start of the line till the end. And this is a kind of punchline too, where we suddenly look at the speaker, knowing there’s a story there. He’s the butt of the joke. Sometimes it’s funny, sometimes it’s not.
What we’re talking about is a way to make your dialogue rhythmic, musical and responsive. Just make each line feel like the punchline to the joke that was the last line. I’m not saying make it funny — I did this in death scenes in my Iraq pilot. Ok maybe there was a little humor there, I don’t remember.
“I just think to look across the room and automatically assume that somebody else is less aware than me, or that somehow their interior life is less rich, and complicated, and acutely perceived than mine, makes me not as good a writer. Because that means I’m going to be performing for a faceless audience, instead of trying to have a conversation with a person. […] It’s true that I want very much—I treasure my regular-guyness. I’ve started to think it’s my biggest asset as a writer. Is that I’m pretty much just like everybody else.”
Because this is the fight for writers, for artists — to get really ok with the idea that not only are we not special, that the more we dismantle the mountains of acute perceptions and rich interior lives and complications that we believe make us special, the more we connect with those around us, the better we get.
When artists feel like we’ve eaten enough shit, been kicked down enough, we push ourselves back up to standing by assuring ourselves that no matter what — these idiots aren’t artists. They can misunderstand and power-play and fuck stuff up and control and deride the shit they don’t understand — but at the end of the day —
My interior life is richer than theirs is.
It’s like we’re embattled, always, playing king of the mountain of depth and connection and aliveness and despair.
This is why we cycle between superiority and inferiority — because the minute any true artist feels better than others, whether it be in depth or output, she knows enough to know that very position makes her the worst.
You can’t truly believe you’re the best if you’re an artist, because being an artist means questioning, disbelieving, wondering, feeling acute doubt.
No one can ever have a richer interior life than anyone else. To be human is to have a rich interior life, and to claim yours is better is to lose a little humanity.
Because being an artist means abdicating your specialness in favor of your commonness. Your ego wants you to be special, and demarcated, and showily, painfully different. Your ego wants you to have a richer interior life than anyone else. Bragging and self-deprecating are two halves of this coin. Anything that says “look at me! I hurt and you wouldn’t understand.”
But the point of art isn’t to rub people’s faces in stuff they wouldn’t understand. It’s to convey stuff everyone understands — as instantly as possible.
It’s pretty easy to make art about your own rich inner life — it’s all right there, waiting to be harvested. And it’s all about you — your favorite subject!
But the fight for artists is to understand that what’s common is more interesting than any of your rich inner life bullshit. The fight is always to connect, to realize how unimportant we are, that 98% of my rich inner life is contained in all of us.
You become an artist when glimpses of our rich interior life begin appearing all around you.
It’s why credits matter so much. Credits don’t mean experience – you could have a 3 mile long IMDB page, but if all your credits are shit no one’s ever heard of, doesn’t matter. If you’ve got one good credit on something that’s in the canon – that’s better. Because that’s status and status beats experience.
It’s why women have such a hard time in this town. Because in our culture women inherently have less status than men. And in a town where status is everything – where people hire you because on a gut level they think you’re cool and want to hang out with you – people who came into the world with less status, like women and minorities and those with disabilities, are always going to be picked last for the team.
Writers rooms on TV shows are full of struggles over status – and rightly so, because everyone knows, consciously or not, that that’s the root of what they’re being evaluated on. The following can be applied to how people act in the room, in life — or how you write characters, to show them engaging in these power struggles.
How You Raise Your Status:
Give permission to do things — or withhold it.
Evaluate others’ work.
Keep others at arms’ length while appearing to summon them closer.
Talk frankly about things others find upsetting.
Look with with your eyes down at people.
Speak authoritatively, with or without the expertise to do so.
Make decisions for groups.
Speak cryptically, in code or inside jokes.
Surround yourself with an entourage of any kind.
How Others Lower Your Status:
Correct you, especially in front of others.
Prove how you are wrong.
Tell you what to do.
Give you unsolicited advice.
Approve or disapprove of something about you or something you do.
Pick a fight with you.
Refuse to engage you — act as if they don’t hear you or aren’t concerned enough about you to notice.
Ignore what you’re saying and change the subject.
One-up you. Always top you with something better, or worse, or more absurd, or more dramatic in their own lives.
Win. Beat you at something.
Talk sarcastically to you.
Disregard your opinion.
Announce something great about themselves in your presence.
Make you wait.
Never wait for you.
Taunt you. Tease you.
Violate your boundaries.
Beat you up in front of your friends or rivals.
Make you back down.
I’m not saying I endorse any of this. I’m just an observer, making sense of what I witness. And using it to inform my characters, and you.
As an artist, I threaten the status quo. I test boundaries. I push limits.
Now, that isn’t to say I don’t get along with people or don’t follow directions or don’t take notes. I do. I believe in storytelling as a collaboration, and TV as one of the most collaborative media there is. And I believe in creating stories that are true to the show you’re making, and true to the network you’re on.
But collaborating and staying true to the show’s voice are no excuses for staying in the middle. Or being boring. Not threatening the status quo because that’s safe. You can plod along turning in recycled ideas and you’ll probably never get fired for it — because what are they going to point to? How reliable you were? How you always turned in material that you knew for sure would make it on the air, and that 68% of your audience would kinda like because it wouldn’t upset them and they’d kinda never even notice it go by?
Instead you can become an artist. And you can turn in material that may push the edge of what the show may do — and make the show bigger, and deeper, and bolder, and funnier, and more interesting, and more lasting. You’ll still turn in stuff or pitch stuff that you know is safe — because that’s part of your job, to repeat — but part of your job too is to get dangerous.
One of my creative writing professors in college — Joyce Carol Oates — used to draw lines through words, sentences and entire paragraphs of our stories and write above the rejected pieces: “cliche”.
This was very painful.
We wanted nothing more than to please her — we admired her.
I admired her. I wanted her to like me and approve of me and say I was a good writer.
So when she wrote “cliche” on my stories, I found it upsetting.
She told us “a cliche is anything you’ve ever heard before.”
This definition seemed too harsh, too limiting to us. We protested. Wouldn’t there come a point where you were just writing stuff you hadn’t heard before, to avoid cliche?
Indeed, she told us a reviewer once wrote of her that she writes as if to avoid cliche. Still, we had no excuse to lapse into lazy habits.
Joyce was brisk, fresh, controlled, and she expected the same of us.
I often walked home from her class stirred up. I was either elated because she had praised my work, told me I was a good writer, or despondent because she had marked it all through, dismissed it.
But the power of seeing her strike through those words with her pen — that awful little word cliche that made me feel like I was lazy, average, common — that feeling stayed with me.
Now I’m on high alert for it. I wince when I find it in my own work. Other people have told me I’m too harsh in pointing it out everywhere. But that’s how we get better —
Because it’s an easy test. If I or you or anyone has ever heard or read or seen it before, it’s a cliche. And it doesn’t have to be painful — getting better is liberating. It might tweak your ego a little in the moment, but that’s good. Notching your ego and making your art better makes you bigger, not smaller.
Your story’s world is a reflection — a result — of what’s happening inside your characters.
The world doesn’t create the character. The character creates the world around her. You create the world around you.
Like a prism refracting colors or a digital projector — the image starts with the emotional footprint inside your main characters. You project this inner image outside them. That becomes their world.
Here’s how it works: I believe I can be successful, that I deserve success — so I act in ways that confirm that belief. I filter what I see for stories that confirm that belief and fail to see those that don’t. I set up my world in ways that support this belief. I gradually adhere to a system of rules that affirm this belief. Rules like if you don’t hold on to what you’ve got, it may be taken away from you and you don’t deserve success, you earn it. These rules build out and become my world. I don’t even recognize parts of the world that don’t agree. I know I’m in Julie-world because Julie-world is defined by these rules — rules that started inside me and served me at one time, and then, because I gave them power-of-attorney over my life, grew strong like a sentient computer program and jumped outside my head and started governing the world around me. Now, not only do I walk around following these rules in my head — but I insist on seeing the world as if this is how the world operates too. Because Julie-world starts inside me and is projected, reflected out. Julie-world is something I inflict on the world.
Many storytellers will start world-building by asking themselves tons of questions — how does this place work? what are the physical laws, political laws, cultural rules of this period — what does this place look like? —
Start by asking how these characters work — what are their internal physical laws, political laws, cultural rules — these answers will tell you what this place looks like. If your characters are haunted by past lives they can’t shake, their environs will be haunted. They may even have established an elaborate system of rules, laws, customs, moral strictures disallowing the past from sticking around — this started inside them. If your characters are liars, they will inhabit a world of false fronts. If your characters love, they inhabit a world that loves.
Worlds aren’t built top-down (what galaxy is this?), bottom-up (what does a wedding ring look like?) — worlds are built inside out. What don’t you know about yourself, that we can see all around you? What rules are you following unconsciously? These rules limn your world.
You build their world by establishing the rules that govern them.
The world IS the rules. And the rules are a by-product of the emotional life of your main characters — a structure organizing their hopes and fears. Because deep down they think that by following these rules they’ll get what they want.
Worlds are anchored, buoyed inside our main characters’ guts. The more the characters’ guts direct their outer world, the more we feel the piece. The bigger emotional impact. Bigger experience. The more we feel like we live in this world. These are people in our world.
A given character could walk into my house and her world would still be different from my world. Because her world isn’t bound by geography, it’s bound by the rules she feels she’s bound by. They feel they’re bound by.
The world is symptoms helping us diagnose what’s going on inside the character. Eczema doesn’t just exist and then a person finds himself inside it: he produces it. We see the skin rash, and that’s how we know what’s going on inside him. This strange place exists because they do, because they are the way they are and their world can’t be any other way. When they change, their world changes. Often, that’s how we know a character has changed — we see their world change.
Hesitant, cautious, careful, wondering — no one gives a shit. I can get that anywhere, from anyone. From everyone.
I want to see audacity.
People warn you not to be audacious for fear you’ll get hurt, you’ll look foolish, you’ll hurt them. They speak to their own fear, to the voice that says they must follow the rules. They don’t. You don’t. Rules exist for other people’s convenience, not yours. They’re there to comfort and guide those who don’t know how, or don’t have the balls to create rules of their own.
Somewhere along the way we absorbed limits. This catalogue of stuff I’ve already seen in T.V. and movies is allowable to pitch, on the list. These stories and images and references are on the approved list. This is what we can draw from. We stay within these limits so we won’t be laughed at, so we won’t be challenged. So when we’re in the room and we pitch gay robots and people sneer or laugh we can feel okay about ourselves knowing they already did gay robots on Battlestar or wherever the fuck. So I know I’m not a complete fucking loon.
But you know what, they hired you to be a complete fucking loon. I mean, not completely. You have to understand the map before you veer off it. And if you’ve got a map that’s working, no need to bring in a new map. Especially if you’re working for someone else. But no matter what the map says, you always have the option to grab the wheel and drive off-road. Don’t be safe. Be audacious. That’s what people remember — both people who hire and people who watch. They — we — don’t care about how well you stay within the lines, follow form. That does not interest me at all. What we crave is stuff that thrills us. What thrills us is when you break rules. When you get big and then you fucking explode and take the ship down with you, leaving us feeling real fear and empowerment at once — those were all his options. Now what? That’s what storytelling is.
Know your craft, know the form you’re writing, the genre, make sure we’re rooted and hooked from minute one and then — blow shit up in our faces. Set up our expectations and defy them. Slow down when it’s time to speed up. Throw away jokes, as Jane Espenson says. Go psychological when all convention says it’s time for action. Surprise us. Be brave. Be bold. Shoot your wad — the more you give, the more you’ll get.
As the firemen say — the hotter you are, the faster we’ll come.
What followed was a few years of the publishing industry stringing me along, keeping me on the hook with the hope that my novel would be published if I would revise. It ended in wasted years of my life that could have been better spent elsewhere. I wish I hadn’t spent so long revising one book because editors and agent told me if I did it would be published. I wish I hadn’t spent so long living in poverty. Because that did something to me, that imprinted on me in a way I can’t shake. I wish that hadn’t been acceptable to me. I wish that for myself as a child. Most of all — I wish I could let this go.
I tend to lapse into self-pity.
When I see others whom I perceive have had it easier than me, my habit is to tell myself the story of that injustice over and over, rehearse it. Going “see?” is an excuse for why I’m not doing better, evidence that injustice exists in the world, or … I don’t know what it is. A bruise I can’t stop touching. My fear is that by constantly being on the look-out for these stories, feeling them so keenly and obsessing about what they mean for me and my life —
I create this. My behavior conforms to my expectations. I am so keenly sensitive to this that I subtly reproduce it. That’s the working theory anyhow.
“But why has is it taken me so much longer than so many other people to succeed?” whines the childish, self-pitying voice.
I quiet that voice by reminding myself of a mantra I read August Wilson posted above his desk. I find this mantra comforting and remind myself of it often, because no matter how hard this life might feel to be — I get to spend my life writing. I create works of art. I keep my mind loose and uninhibited because I like it that way. Because the work likes it that way. I have work that gives my life meaning and that is in itself meaningful. And all I have to do to earn the joy I get from doing it is to do it.
What August Wilson posted above his desk is a Buddhist mantra —
I just finished the best job I’ve ever had, which means I’ll have plenty of time to blog and Tweet and get sucked down rabbit holes and stare at my own navel and you’ll be the happy beneficiary of all that.
One thing I’ve decided to do is blog more often — take more of a shoot from the hip approach, which is something I’ve already moved toward in my professional writing. And it’s working out for me.
Part of why I wasn’t blogging that often was the same reason I used to get stuck in the trap of doing multiple drafts, seeking notes — I’m a careful writer. I believe every word counts and should count for more than one thing at a time. I believe there should be a story being told beneath the surface of the story being told. So my blog posts were carefully worked, considered, deliberate. I spent time on them because they were meaningful to me, important.
As I’ve learned in my professional writing, time and care and deliberation don’t fortify your meaning. They threaten to overload it, make it ponderous. I’m trusting now that what’s on the tip of my tongue is safe and okay to share with everyone. I don’t have to think too hard about it. Because if it’s fresh and raw and true, it’s worth sharing.
So I’m going to start firing shit off more. It’ll still be important to me, just faster.
The following I copied from a series of direct messages I sent to a Twitter friend today. I think he’s very talented, and I was trying to encourage him. I think many of you regular readers are very talented, and I want to encourage you. Here it is:
One thing I’ve learned after doing this a while is the key to all this is trying and failing, and doing that a bunch, and not spending too long on any one thing. Work fast, have an idea, put it out, “ship it” as Seth Godin says, get it out in the world, because it’s the getting seen by someone that will get you the job/contract/work, not the laboring over it, perfecting of it. I wasted years thinking that my talent as a writer would get me work. Now I know that talent and hard work is very little of it. It’s about getting access — which is not about who you know necessarily, but about how quickly you can have an idea and get it out in the world so hirers can see it and say — “you.”
It’s really that simple. Have an idea. Get it down in some form. Publish it, produce it, send it out. Get it out in the world. Fucking fast. Then do it again. That’s all you have to do to be successful as a storyteller, gain experience and get heard.
I love you all very much. I want to see you succeed.