Thursday, April 19, 2007

The 17-Syllable Script Exercise

An old writing buddy of mine cajoled me into taking part in a poetry reading the other day. I haven't written poetry on a regular basis in years, but she wanted me to read some stuff she liked and remembered. I was terrified, but managed not to embarrass myself too badly on a card with several other far more experienced poets.

One of the poets read some translations he'd made of the Japanese haiku master Santoka. He read one in particular, which went something like this: Why is a road lonelier without curves?

I'll post his translation if he gets back to me and allows it. I found some other translations online, but they didn't seem to catch the essential hook here -- the idea that a straight road is somehow lonelier than a curved one. Somehow curves keep a road company. It doesn't make much sense if you try to explain it, of course. That's why it's good.

What struck me was just how visual haiku can be, and how close it is to screenwriting in many ways. In case you don't know, haiku is typically a poem made up of three lines, with five, seven, and then five syllables to them. They evoke a strong sense of place with as few words as possible.

It's that economy that allows a haiku to feel so clean, so immediate, so real. A novelist could try to add something like this to his work, but it would inevitably end up functioning as characterization, or an internal thought, or something somehow... mediated.

What happens in a screenplay? First, we have a huge advantage here. We can put that lonely road on screen. We can rely on that reality being immediate and visual. And we put some characters walking down it. One says:

GEORGE
Why's a straight road always so lonely?

MAIZIE
No curves to keep it company, I guess.

We get to be immediate and we can develop our characters at the same time.

Just like haiku, our goal is to be evocative rather than just descriptive. We need to inspire the reader to engage their own creativity, rather than try to just paint a picture on the page. We've got a broad canvas, and the key is to be sparing with your brushstrokes.

So many screenwriters make the mistake of writing a novel where they need a haiku. Let's try adding a few choice details here, and see just what we can do with our lonely road.

George, 49, carries his daughter MAIZIE (6) on his shoulders as they walk a barren stretch of road. He holds an empty gas can in his hand.

GEORGE
Why's a straight road always so lonely?

MAIZIE
No curves to keep it company, I guess.

The dialogue tells us volumes about the father-daughter relationship. Now try this one:


GEORGE
Why's a straight road always so lonely?

MAIZIE
No curves to keep it company, I guess.

Maizie pulls her coat around her against the breeze.

GEORGE
What's the matter?

MAIZIE
Nothing's the matter.

Maizie's accidentally said something flirtatious, and confirms this when she unconsciously tries to cover her body.


MAIZIE
Why's a straight road always so lonely?

GEORGE
No curves to keep it company, I guess.

MAIZIE
Not in a million years, George.

They walk on in silence. A mile down the road, the red neon sign of the DEW DROP INN flashes against the horizon.

You got yourself a vision of a longtime friendship. You understand the rules, get an idea of their past, and the probable central conflict between them.

If you find a moment like that, let it speak for itself. Use it, but never, ever explain it.

Try it yourself! I'm going to suggest using these two lines of dialogue:

CHARACTER #1
Is this to go?

CHARACTER #2
Nope.

If you'd prefer, try one inspired by Santoka himself. You can find some decent translations of his haiku here. Look at how they evoke a very particular sensation. Find one you like, and play.

Feel free to post what you come up with in the comments.


3 comments:

Janis said...

Here is my stab, based on one of Santoka haikus from the link you posted:

Jake, grizzled barkeep, wipes down a bar that won't come clean. Winken, Blinken, and Santoka are at the counter. Jake stops and stares out a window to a HOWLING dust storm.

JAKE
Unpleasant days.

WINKEN
Days I don't walk.

Blinken toys with an empty glass.

BLINKEN
Days without booze.

Santoka, haggard beggar, glances up from a weathered wooden bowl.

SANTOKA
Haikuless days.

Rich said...

I like it! Strong use of visual. The directness that the characters speak with suggest that they're close friends, and more than just your average drinking buddies.

The Moviequill said...

Garrett drops the hagis into the box with a PLOP.

GARRETT
Is this to go?

Felcher grins and snatches a handful of ketchup packets.

FELECHER
Nope.