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A few years ago I decided I might like to try my hand at writing a screenplay. I adore movies, and I thought that writing one would be a good addition to my many projects. The problem was: I didn’t know how to write a screenplay. I wasn’t sure how to transfer my novel writing style to a screenplay style. How much action did I put in? Should I describe the setting or the characters? Did I need to place any indications of how words are said? What did I write down and what did I leave up to the director or designers?

I sought out answers in the form of a three-day screenplay writing workshop being offered at my school. I showed up early, excited and ready to get a head start on learning this new form of writing.

We spent the entire first class dissecting the hero’s journey. 

I can’t even tell you how many times I’ve dissected the hero’s journey before, in both writing and literature classes. I didn’t need to know how to plot a story. I didn’t need to know how to tell a story. I already had that part down. I need to know how to write a script

Needless to say, the next two classes weren’t much help either. (I did learn that there were different types of script depending on what stage the movie is in that has variations on how much detail is in there. But this was briefly mentioned and what those differences were or how to utilize them was not covered). I felt discouraged. Even more so when I picked up a screenwriting guide book a few years later for a different class, only to find much of the same thing.

Here’s how to tell a story.

Thanks. Got it.

Clearly I wasn’t going to find the knowledge I sought. I decided to do what all great people do when faced with the looming fear of not being able to figure out a problem: I quit. (Okay all great people don’t do that {at least not often} but let me dream). 

And I stayed quit for about two years. I stayed quit when my dad bought me another screenwriting craft book that might be useful since it was written by William Golding. It’s still sitting untouched on my bookshelf. I’ve been hurt too many times before. 

But then, the internet came to me, speaking words of wisdom. I received a piece of practical advice on writing. Granted, I already knew this trick of the trade, but there was a glimmer of hope in the future. A book. A craft book. On rhetoric. That had taught this other person what I figured out by futzing about. 

I bought it. 

If this was a tragedy, it would have been full of terrible advice or things I already knew and would have thrown me into despair at never finding anything useful. Thankfully, that didn’t happen.

I did get angry, but more on that later.

This book was a dang eye-opener. It was simple, and told in a relatable and easy to understand way. I think Mark Forsyth was born to teach. (I also think he’s my spirit animal. Or I’m his. We’re connected somehow). Every other line made me laugh. He referenced things I never thought I’d see referenced in a craft book. He actually explained why things work and how to make them work for you.

I very nearly wept with joy.

(Didn’t help with the screenwriting issue but I’ll solve that one day I guess).

After I finished, I told all of my writer friend’s to get it. I gushed about it on Facebook. I even talked about it to people that didn’t write. 

Then I got angry.

Why the heck did most of this not come up in my classes? I even took a rhetoric/composition class in my freshman year as part of the mandatory general education classes. Where was this information? Sure we talked about egos, logos, and pathos, and all that. But who was out here telling me that making a deliberate grammatical/spelling mistake was called enallage and is actually a real thing that will draw attention to an important sentence? Probably not the teacher whose job was to teach us grammatically correct writing forms.

But my writing classes? The upwords of five workshops I took? The six or so literature classes I endured? I read “Heart of Darkness” twice (don’t ask) and no one thought to mention that hey, that line at the end with the missing word is one part ESL kid speaking off but also a purposeful tactic to make that line and moment hit harder?

(Well, maybe they think to mention it but didn’t/couldn’t for whatever reason).

And how many times did I suffer the snooty comment of “Well, [inanimate object] can’t actually be [human emotion].”? How often did I try, and inevitably fail, to argue that it’s a form of personification before giving up and changing the line? Why did I not know that applying an adjective to the wrong noun is a transferred epithet and makes the world around the characters come alive? Oh, how many times I could have left that discussion powerful and certain of my actions rather than weary of writing another word in the future.

Writing, to me, is a bit like a math problem. Stick with me on this.

You have a problem: write the story.
You have a solution: story has been written.

In math this is the equivalent of saying something like 2x=6. X=3. 

But if you turned that in to your teacher you’d get the C grade with the comment ‘show your work’. Anyone can stumble upon the right answer in a math test. Anyone can stumble upon a polyptoton in writing. 

Except in math you did learn how to divide each side by 2 to find what X is. If you’re like me, you didn’t learn that in writing, at least, not in a way where it was specifically explained to you in detail. Someone asks you why X=3 and you’re standing there going, “Well, uh, cause it does,” which is not a very convincing argument and leaves you stuck with that C. 

Rhetoric devices are so commonly used, we kind of tend to just pick up on them, is the thing. So maybe that’s why people don’t think to point them out or discuss them. It’s a lot like the english rule of adjective order. We all know there’s a proper order, because it sounds wrong when out of order, but not many people could tell you it off the top of their heads. 

But being able to explain your choices in writing is necessary for many reasons. It lets you win arguments against people who think they know better. It lets you explain yourself and teach others these tricks. Most importantly, if you figure out/know how you did it once on accident, you can do it again, purposefully, in the future. 

All of this to say:

If you want to learn to tell a story, pick up a writing craft book or take a class.
If you want to learn to write a story, study rhetoric.