On Writing #3

A new fortnightly newsletter of writerly advice I've come across...

Dear friend

Welcome to issue three of On Writing, a fortnightly collection of writing advice I’ve found from across the internet.

I read a lot of writers talking about writing and I listen to a lot of podcasts about writing and I thought, why not share the love a little with these short links for you. I hope it’s of interest to you. I plan to keep this newsletter free but will be dropping in links to where you can support me and my work, if any of this resonates. Any links to buy books will be through my affiliate link at bookshop.org. Obviously buy your books wherever is easiest for you or get them from the library, but bookshop.org does give a chunk of every sale to independent bookshops and a small commission to affiliates like me.

1) Craig Mazin On How To Write A Movie

Craig Mazin wrote the hit show Chernobyl and a bunch of films and hosts a podcast called Scriptnotes with John August. In episode 403, he breaks down how to write a movie screenplay. It’s a must-read for writers for screen and novel alike because it take the rules you’ve read a hundred or so times and explains why they exist. His theory is that structure is great but it should always follow character and not the other way round. You want a characterful piece of writing more than you want a well-structured one.

I was particularly struck by this quote (which I’ve nabbed from the transcript):

‘Yes, screenplay is structure, but structure isn’t what you think it is. Structure doesn’t say this happens on this page, this happens on that page. Here’s a pinch point. Here’s a stretchy point. Here’s a midpoint. Structure doesn’t tell you what to do. If you follow strict structural guidelines in all likelihood you will write a very well structured bad script.

‘Structure isn’t the dog. It’s the tail. Structure is a symptom. It’s a symptom of a character’s relationship with a central dramatic argument. Take a moment. Think about that for a second. I’ll repeat it. Structure is a symptom of a character’s relationship with a central dramatic argument. Structure isn’t something you write well. It’s something that happens because you wrote well. Structure is not a tool, it is a symptom.

‘When we think of rigid structural forms I have to tell you there’s nothing honest about them. There’s nothing true about them. They’re synthetic. There’s never been one single great writer who created one single great screenplay following a structural template. Not one.

‘What real writers follow are their characters. And what great writers follow are their characters as they evolve around a central dramatic argument that is actually meaningful to other human beings. Let me stop for a second and tell you that we are going to get into real practicals but for a bit now we’re just going to talk a little bit of philosophy. First, let’s consider what we call basic structure. There’s a Syd Field point of view. You have your three acts, your inciting incident, act break escalation, magical midpoint character shift, third act low point, and kick off to climactic action.

‘We also have the Chris Vogler Hero’s Journey, ordinary world, call to action, refusal of call, acceptance of call, and blah, blah, blah. Save the Cat is a lot of stuff.

‘There’s a lot of what to do but where’s the why? Who came up with this stuff in the first place? Why is it there? Why are there three acts at all? Why is there a low point? Why do we like it when there’s an inciting incident? Why do we like it when there’s a low point? If we don’t know why those things are there how are we supposed to know how to write them? Because we process the world through our consciousness and our consciousness is sort of a natural storyteller, all of us are actually walking around doing this right all the time. We just don’t know it. We’re narrativizing our own lives better than most who try and do it on purpose on Fade In or WriterDuet, or Highland2. I don’t know any other software.’

The full transcript is here or stream the episode on YouTube below.

2) Hilton Als

In an interview with The Creative Independent, the incredible writer, thinker, theatre maker, essayist, Hilton Als said two things that struck me.

‘What I am trying to do for myself, always, is honor the delicacy of complication—the idea that people are not really one thing or the other, that there is this amalgamation of all sorts of nerve endings and truths.’


‘I believe that one reason I began writing essays—a form without a form, until you make it—was this: you didn’t have to borrow from an emotionally and visually upsetting past, as one did in fiction, apparently, to write your story. In an essay, your story could include your actual story and even more stories; you could collapse time and chronology and introduce other voices. In short, the essay is not about the empirical “I” but about the collective—all the voices that made your “I.”’

Read the full interview here

3) Viet Thanh Nguyen on Writing Like You Are The Majority

I recently interviewed Viet Thanh Nguyen for Guardian Live and one of the things he spoke about was about decolonising the gaze through which we write. Which reminded me of a quote from this interview he did a few years ago:

‘If you are coming from a background outside of [the majority] as some kind of disempowered, marginalized, minority population, you may feel the pressure to explain yourself and your culture, to translate yourself, your languages, your customs, and so on and so forth — this is something that must be absolutely resisted by any writer. When I say write like a majority, I don’t mean like a white person, I mean write as if we ourselves are speaking to ourselves, and let everyone else catch up. That’s where you get interesting art, and even hopefully, great art, to come from.’

Read the full interview here

Buy his new novel The Committed here

Okay that’s enough from me. I’ll drop into your inbox in a few weeks with another one of these. If you like this newsletter, please share with your writing friends; please buy some of the books mentioned; please subscribe; please support my work, either by buying one of my books or by buying me a coffee through this nifty site

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