Category Archives: Writing

Musings about the writing process

Making A Scene

American play scripts tend to have a scene-setting direction before the start of the play, then the play starts with an “at rise” direction.  Whilst I often dislike the way this looks, I think the structure is hugely useful.  Let break this down.

Setting the Scene

A scene heading should indicate a change of time or place.  (There may be exceptions to this: in abstract theatre, with little or no set, where the action changes in time and space without any formal indication, arguably, you don’t need scene headings.  On the other hand, where there are separate blocks of dialogue it may be useful to break the text up into scenes. However the latter is for the purpose of rehearsal and is usually the director’s job rather than the author’s.)  So in normal circumstances, it can be useful to state the distinguishing feature of the scene (the time or place that has changed) in the scene heading.  So:-

Scene 1 – Monday Morning
Scene 2 – Monday Afternoon
Scene 3 – Twenty Minutes Later

All those happen in the same place, so (unless a later scene happens somewhere else), the location doesn’t distinguish one scene from another and there’s no need to put it in the heading.
Hang on a minute!  Where’s this play set?  And, come to that, when?  It’s all very well saying that it’s Monday Morning; I don’t want to wade though three pages of puzzling dialogue before I discover it’s 1744.  The readers needs that information; it’s not in the scene headings, so where do they find it?  This is where the scene-setting direction comes in.  One or more scene-setting directions should follow every scene heading.

A Time and A Place for Everything

The opening of the first scene-setting direction should tell the reader about geography and date.  The geography may be very specific (“a one-room apartment in Brooklyn”) or, if the country and city don’t matter, just the outline description of the setting (“a castle dungeon”).  The date can be vague (“the 1920s” or “the present day”) or specific (“June 6, 1944”).
The reason for my preference for this in a scene-setting direction, rather than (as in many American scripts) before any scene headings is that if the location or time changes, this can be described in a scene-setting direction for the specific scene).  Note, however, that you only need information at this level if and when it changes – so if all scenes are in that one-room apartment, you only need the information once.

Everything In Its Place

The stage is set.The next level of detail is a (brief) description of the set.  What does the reader (the director, the actors) need to know? What are the essential features of the set?  How many exits are there? Where are they? What and where is the essential furniture?
(There is an argument to be made here for including essential properties, particularly those that are at the boundary between set and props and tend to stay in the same place.  It is better to learn that there is a land-line telephone on Marjorie’s desk before it rings.)
Again, this level of detail is stated once and remains in place until there is a change of set.

Getting A Rise

Finally, the ‘At Rise’ direction says what happens when the curtain (or lights) go up.  Who is on stage?  What are they doing?
If the next scene uses the same set, then the opening direction merely needs to say what has changed between scenes (which should just involve characters and props: “Gerald is alone, seated on the chaise longue, reading a newspaper”).

And now you’re ready to make a scene.

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The Headline Act

Recently, someone was asking how to start writing a script.  I think they were looking for process advice, but I’m going to stick with the facetious: start with Act 1, Scene 1.
The reason I want to say that is to point out that it ain’t necessarily so.  Acts and Scenes are hierarchical.  The only point in act and scene headings is to distinguish them from others of the same type.  Consequently:-

  • If you’re writing a one-act play (one-act in terms of formatting, rather than terms of dramatic structure), then you don’t need the Act 1 heading.
  • If your play has two acts, but only a single scene in each act (no changes of time or place within the acts), then you don’t need scene headings
  • If Act 1 has multiple scenes, it needs scene headings.  However, if Act 2 of the same play has only one scene, it does not need scene headings.
  • If your play is a single scene, then you don’t need a Scene heading, because Scene 1 is only relevant if you need to distinguish it from Scene 2.

The last point may look slightly odd. Does the play just start without any headings?  Possibly.  However, when Lazy Bee Scripts publishes single-scene plays, we will often restate the title before the opening scene-setting direction.

Ready to open the curtains

Is The Mouse A Creature of Great Personal Valour?

(And did Benjamin Britten talk like Terry Thomas?)

This week I listened to the episode of In Our Time (BBC Radio 4) about parasitism.  As usual, Melvyn Bragg’s guests included his go-to geneticist, Professor Steve Jones.  Jones the Genes is always good value.  Good value for his erudition, but also for his characteristic aphorisms.  This time the Jonesisms included “Words like ‘positive’ and ‘good’ don’t belong in biology” and “We owe our sex lives to our parasites.”

The programme reminded me about Toxoplasma (which I’d first come across in The Selfish Gene).   It’s one of the sort of parasite that has a lifecycle that takes it through multiple hosts, in this case, rodents and cats.  It needs both stages to complete its lifecycle.  To facilitate this, the parasite has evolved to modify the behaviour of rodents.  Normally rodents avoid cats (and avoid the smell of cats), but when infected with Toxoplasma, a mouse will become careless or even attracted to cats by their smell, thus increasing the risk of predation.  Jones stated that up to a third of the human population is also infected with Toxoplasma, even though that is of no benefit to the lifecycle of the parasite.  Apparently it has an impact on (“causes” may be too strong) mental conditions such as schizophrenia and depression.

christopher_smartThat got me thinking about Christopher Smart.  I hope that when you read the title of this post, you remembered Betteridge’s Law.  That’s the one that runs “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”  However, the 18th century poet and writer Christopher Smart would have answered “yes”.

I have encountered Smart through singing – attempting to sing – Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb which uses extracts from Smart’s poem Jubilate Agno as its libretto.  Smart was an involuntary inmate of an asylum when he wrote it, and when you read it, you can see why.  It is, at heart, a religious poem, but it wanders from its path, partly, it seems to me, playfully, and partly rambling bizarrely.
It starts with a general purpose:

Rejoice in God, O ye Tongues; give the glory to the Lord, and the Lamb.
Nations, and languages, and every Creature, in which is the breath of Life.
Let man and beast appear before him, and magnify his name together.

It then goes on to name pairs of biblical men and beasts, generally by association with their biblical tales, so we get (amongst many, and with Smart’s capitalisation)

Let Abraham present a Ram, and worship the God of his Redemption.
Let Balaam appear with an Ass, and bless the Lord his people and his creatures for a reward eternal.

(Balaam, you will recall, appears in the book of Numbers having a conversation with his ass.)

Let Daniel come forth with a Lion, and praise God with all his might through faith in Christ Jesus.

Ascribing faith in Christ Jesus to Daniel seems odd, being 600 years too early.  (There is also an oddity with Britten’s score at that point: he sets the word “lion” against a single note, whereas most of us would pronounce it with two syllables.  It can, of course, be pronounced as a single syllable, but only if one affects a voice like that of Terry Thomas.)

Later, Smart gets on to words and sounds.

For the relations of words are in pairs first.
For the relations of words are sometimes in oppositions.
For the relations of words are according to their distances from the pair.
For there be twelve cardinal virtues the gifts of the twelve sons of Jacob.
For Reuben is Great. God be gracious to Lord Falmouth.
For Simeon is Valiant. God be gracious to the Duke of Somerset.

And so on, pairing the sons of Jacob with English nobility for no apparent reason.  Then he has a paean of praise for his cat Jeoffry.  Having thought of the cat, he rambles on to mice:

For the Mouse is a creature of great personal valour.
For — this is a true case — Cat takes female mouse from the company of male — male mouse will not depart, but stands threatning and daring.
For this is as much as to challenge, if you will let her go, I will engage you, as prodigious a creature as you are.
For the Mouse is of an hospitable disposition.

Hang on a minute!  I doubt that Burns’ “Wee, sleekit, cowran, tim’rous beastie” is a creature of great personal valour, but Smart emphasises “this is a true case”.
I don’t doubt his observation, but that’s not normal mouse behaviour.  That’s a description of a mouse with a Toxoplasma infection.  (Which makes me speculate about the ultimate cause of Smart’s incarceration.)

That which we call a rose, by any other name…

This is a tip for authors.  Specifically it’s for playwrights, but it might be applied (with caution) to other fields of writing.

Our editors and proof readers keep finding inconsistencies in character names.  It’s not just an issue for first-time writers; we see this from experienced writers as well.  There are, of course, some identifiable causes.  During the writing process, names may change over time.  A character may have an official name, but (legitimately) be addressed by other characters using a nickname or diminutive.  A name may, in the wild, have multiple spellings; the writer may use several variations in the course of a script.  Misspellings of names are not necessarily caught by a spell checker.  The result is that speeches for the same character get assigned to multiple names.  Whilst a decent proof reader or editor will catch most of them, they may not catch them all, and, in any case, they should not have to.  It is the writer’s job to decide who they are writing about, to choose a character name, and stick to it.  (It’s the writer’s choice; a writer in two minds should not force the editor to arbitrate.)

So, what can a writer do to check a finished text for name consistency?
This tip assumes that you are using Microsoft Word.  (I’ve created the examples using Word 2007.  Other versions of Word will behave similarly.)  Other wordprocessors will do similar things, but you’ll need to find the controls for yourself.  (It also assumes that you’ve written a play!  If you work in another genre, you’ll need to decide how to apply this.)

Overview

What we’re going to do is to find every instance of every character name that should be in the play and we’re going to colour it red.  Any name that is left (in a speech assignment or direction) that isn’t in red is likely to be a mistake of some sort (either a mistake in the character name or a character missing from the character list.)

Find and Replace Basics

Open your script in Word and go to the Characters’ page – the one with the list of character names.
Open the Find and Replace window (hereafter, with Microsoft spelling, called a Dialog).  The keyboard shortcut to do this is Ctrl H.  It will probably look like this.

findandreplacedialog
Expand the dialog by clicking on the [More >>] button.  That will get you to the options we’re going to use.

Find the Lady

In our example, we’re going to find Cinderella.  So we type Cinderella into the Find box.

I’ve also checked the “Match case” box.  In some cases, this may help.  (Firstly it may help you identify character names with case errors.  Secondly, if you have a name that is also a common word or part of a common word, it avoids most instances – for example the syllable “King” may be a character name or may be part of “thinking”.)

findcinderella

The Lady in Red

Now we’re going to replace Cinderella with Cinderella – but we’re going to format the text so that it appears in red.

replacedarkred
With your cursor in the “Replace with” box, you can change the replace formatting by (obviously) clicking on the [Format] button and, from there, select “Font…”

Another dialog pops up, in which you can set the font colour.  (Although of course the dialog wants you to set the font color.)

replacefont

I happen to have chosen Dark Red.  Chose something that stands out for you – and a colour that you haven’t used for any other purpose.  (And what other purpose would you have for coloured text?)
Click [Okay] to return to the main dialog.
Click on [Replace All] and all your Cinderellas will blush dark red.

Rinse and Repeat

Follow the above steps for all the characters named in your character list.
When you’ve done that, you are ready to look at the text.  What you should see, is red text at the start of every line of speech (and everywhere else a character name is mentioned).  However, what you may see is something like this…

misplacedcinders
What stands out there is a different name for the same character.  Correct it!  Check the whole script, correcting as you go.

Clean up

Finally, when you’ve checked and corrected, go back to the Find and Replace dialog.  This time in the “Find what“ box,  clear all the text but set the Find [Format] to find the font colour Dark Red (or whatever you used.)

In the “Replace with” box, clear the text and set the replace font colour to “Auto” (usually another word for Black, assuming that Black is your default font colour).

replaceauto
[Replace All], and you will have cleaned up all the ruddy text.

Apostroplexy

McMillan & Goss
The Bard of Barnsley & Luke Carver-Goss

I’ve recently (and accidentally) been exposed to some differing views on apostrophes.
I went to see a performance by Ian McMillan (poet and host of The Verb), appearing with the excellent musician Luke Carver-Goss.  They did a piece called Apostrophe Amnesty Day.  McMillan’s point was that, for the most part, punctuation is artificial and doesn’t matter much.  (Nobody articulates punctuation marks, therefore they are a feature of the way we choose to transcribe the language.)  McMillan argues that those of us who criticise greengrocers for their failing’s (sic) in advertising their cabbage’s (sic) are just wasting our time (and sneering for the sake of our own aggrandisement, rather than for the benefit of greengrocers’ customers).
A piece in German from Nicholas Richards reminded me that the German language doesn’t use apostrophes for possessives.  I then got into a social discussion with an retired teacher who expected apostrophes to become the norm for plurals as well as possessives.  He laid the blame on the influence of Richard Hoggart’s The Uses of Literacy for being the start of a fashion in education that encouraged expression over precision, rewarding creativity and not pouncing on every mistake.  (I’m not sure that this is a fair representation of Hoggart’s legacy).

So if apostrophes can be used everywhere, don’t they become meaningless?  If German can do without them (for possessives), can’t we?

Many features of punctuation came from printing conventions.  Take the use of the capital letter I for the personal pronoun; that only arose as an attempt by printers to give the word due weight.  Compare it with the its Western European piers: je, ich, ik, io, yo and jeg do not take capitals.  Then look at the word shan’t.  It’s an abbreviation of shall not.  If the absent vowel deserves an apostrophe, why isn’t there one for the double ell?

The conventions are artificial, so for the most part, I’m with McMillan in believing that content (meaning) takes precedence over punctuation.  However, they are also a matter of established custom and practice, and I’m a publisher.  I’m prepared to shrug at unconventional usage when writing is there to lead to another subject (cabbages, for example).  On the other hand, when writing is the deliverable, clarity matters; sloppy punctuation distracts the reader and gets in the way of  the meaning.  That’s why I see occasional rants about apostrophe abuse from the likes of Damian and Dawn.  Don’t expect any leniency from proof readers.

Medalling with English

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean –  neither more nor less.”

Lewis Carol, Through the Looking Glass

Historian, internationalist and writer Séan Lang recently took to twitter condemning a specific aspect of Olympic Games commentary:-
SeanRetweet

I agree with Séan that this is deplorable usage.  There is no need to turn the noun medal into a verb when perfectly good alternatives are available.  (In my view it also puts the emphasis in the wrong place.  The athlete’s objective is to win the race; the medal is a recognition of success, not, in itself, the purpose.)  Furthermore, in this case it sounds like another verb; when the Russian Athletics Federation meddled in the 2012 games, they were doing something entirely less honourable.

Where I depart from Séan is the statement “medal is not a verb”.  English is not a prescribed language.  We do not have the equivalent of l’Académie française to say what is and what is not proper usage.  Our dictionaries are compiled on the basis of the way the language is used (and has been used), not on the way it should be used.  Thus Peter John Cooper joined the argument, quoting the Oxford English Dictionary:

Medal (verb trans) To decorate or honour with a medal. 1822. “Irving went home medalled by the King” Thackeray.

Séan disagreed with the suggestion that this gave the permission of precedent for medal to be used as a verb.  He pointed out that in the OED citation it is being used adjectivally (describing Irving’s state).  All of which is to say that medal as a main verb is a recent coin; the OED points to its popularity amongst American sports commentators.  But all verbs were new once, and there is a lot of cross-over between the American and British forms of English.

I think I have a good feel for the language, and can make a reasonable guess at when and where particular words emerged, but I am often wrong; words that I think are neologisms have a long history and some I take for granted may be relatively new.  Fowler’s The King’s English (1906) has a whole section on Americanisms (which were to be avoided).  Amongst those, I was surprised to find standpoint, placate and antagonize, all of which, in spite of Fowler’s objection, seem now to be part of standard English.  One day, unfortunately, the verb form of medal may be as acceptable as the verb form of target.

This exercises me particularly because Lazy Bee Scripts edits plays for publication.  Plays deliver reported speech, so if a character is given a speech using forms that I deplore, what should I do about it?  That is the way the character is using the language to deliver a particular meaning.  The character does not know any better and, following Humpty Dumpty’s descriptivism, I should not correct it.  But does the author know any better?  Ay, there’s the rub.  One particular form that causes outrage in the Lazy Bee office is the use of “you better”.  This is becoming the dominant form.  It seems to be based on a mishearing of “you’d better”, a contraction of “you had better”.  The modern form seems to me ugly and lacking something, but what it is lacking is hard to describe.  (I think it lacks implicit conditionality, but what do I know?)  Try analysing “you had better”.  It seems to embody a grammatical case of the future looking back on the present: “your future would have been better if you had [taken a particular course of action]”.  Regardless of how that old form arose, the modern one sets my nerves on edge.  Nevertheless, we will accept it if the writer puts it into the mouth of someone who would use that form.  To do otherwise would be to render every script into grammatical sterility.  (On the other hand, give such a phrase to the wrong character and we will bat it back to the author or, in extremis, refuse publication.)

So if a word is used as a verb, then it is a verb, and I have to live with it.  (In some cases, this involves gritted teeth.)

Ceci n'est pas un verbe
Ceci n’est pas un verbe

A linguistic menu, including brussels sprouts, champagne, Cornish pasties and french windows

(A game of spot the odd one out)

Opening for a set-designer
Opening for a set-designer

One of the most frequently heard questions in the Lazy Bee Scripts office is “should this have a capital letter”?   The proof reader, usually Sue, has stumbled over a word which either has a spurious capital of an absence of an upper case lead.   Mostly, the answer is clear, but sometimes we have to scratch our heads.

The most common errors concern forms of address.   If you are speaking to your father, you address him as Dad with a capital because you are substituting for his name (Eric).   Similarly, Your Majesty takes capitals as it stands in for Liz.   On the other hand, “my dad” refers to an example of a generic type (the class of fathers), so takes lower case.

The real head-scratchers are things like the ones in the heading.   Can you spot the odd one out?   No, it is neither the windows nor the pasties.   The anomaly is champagne.

The examples all take their name from a geographical region.   The rule should be that if the item can only come from the particular area, then it is using the region as a proper noun.   That’s why Cornish pasties have the capital.  That style of pasty – the semi-circular enclosure, with a thick crimped crust on the curved part of the perimeter – is recognised as a regional delicacy.  (The thick rim is there so that miners with dirty hands could grip something whilst eating the more gastronomically interesting filling.)  The pasties with the ridge down the middle – like a small, edible Stegosaurus – are Devenish pasties, or oggies.

In the case of french windows and brussels sprouts, the items can be made or grown anywhere, so the name is an indicator of the style, rather than specific origin, and takes lower case.  The same applies to cheddar cheese (to Sue’s distress, as she grew up close to Cheddar), since the documentation of a standardised manufacturing system allowed the cheddar method to travel the world.  (If you are interested in this from a cheese-making viewpoint, rather than a purely linguistic one, then try, for example, The Somerset Rural Life Museum in Glastonbury.)  Sampling the case of champagne, we find that it really ought to be capitalised, because it comes exclusively from the Champagne region, but the word has been so long in English as a generic that it has been allowed to stay that way.