You’ve heard all that shorthand. Those editorial catch phrases that are supposed to kindly—and sometimes not so much—help the writer turn their screenplay/manuscript/article into a more readable—or dare I say it, more commercial—composition. Here are some of my faves.
Hit the nail on the head.
Needs a little gardening.
Get to the punch line.
Put a button on it.
Reads a little fat in the middle.
Land the airplane.
There are lots more. And I may drop a few extra between here and the end of this. But there’s one that I especially love to use that appears to be somewhat less well known. It also might be the difference between your work going from being good enough to submit to must publish, must get this made, or action, cut, print that take!
So, here it is. Not just my favorite advice, but perhaps the most versatile.
Make a meal out of it.
That said, for the life of me, I can’t figure out where I first heard the suggestion or from whose lips it came. My guess is one of the smarter producers, development executives, or book editors I’ve had the opportunity to work with. No matter, it has stuck with me for a cornucopia of reasons. I’ve used it too many times to count and continue to surprise myself at the incredible elasticity of applications. So, let's see what I can do about making a meal out of this article.
Though I may not recall the exact circumstance where I’d heard the suggestion, I’m pretty certain of the circumstance.
I cut my teeth as a screenwriter, working my way up from an unproduced studio baby, fresh out of college, to an in-demand journeyman. It wasn’t overnight. My education in the Hollywood trenches was an exercise in as many setbacks as successes, from facing a never-ending blank page to rewriting on the set with a crew of two hundred plus waiting for my freshened dialogue—and pretty much everything you can imagine in between.
And the editorial notes, I’ve heard it all. Good and bad, listening to, along the way rejecting and collecting key phrases and a lexicon of shorthand as the years and endless drafts piled in my wake.
I’m thinking my first make a meal out of it moment came when my screenwriter obsession with sparseness and brevity in order to move the story along—ergo the reason why they’re called movies—encouraged by a comment that I’d possibly hurried past what was perceived as an important moment. I say perceived because in storytelling what is important and what is not can be pretty damn arbitrary when it comes to a reader’s perspective. Keeping that in mind, I was clearly in agreement, though I probably had to seek more clarity on the note’s underlying meaning. In the end, I’d somehow missed an opportunity. And that’s what this is all about. Finding those missed opportunities and turning them into the kind of gold that elevates the whole enchilada.
Right. Time to dial back the food references.
New writers often get overly wrapped up in the basics of story structure, plot, character, theme and such. None should ever be ignored, each bringing its own magic. But—and this is a significant BUT—what sometimes makes for a readable passage or a memorable scene is none of the above. I don’t recall once reading or hearing of a class teaching how to identify that amazing moment yet to be unearthed. It’s a gut a thing—an emotional divining rod that vibrates the second you hit it, like learning to trust the follicles on the back of your neck.
But before we go counting actual hairs, I want to define what a moment is. It’s something fully realized. A passage. A scene. It could be some basic description that suddenly blooms or a screen direction that leads to a more potent experience for the reader or even an inspired performance by an art director, cinematographer, or actor.
Here are a couple of examples:
In one my early novels, I’d underwritten a particular suspense sequence. My instinct—or lack thereof—was to not belabor the moment, accelerating the action until the climactic conclusion. Someone suggested I was releasing the tension to quickly, that I had room for play. I took the leap and enhanced the sequence, slowing down the action and marinating in the details. I made a meal out of it, and it worked to amazing effect.
Or there’s my movie Bad Boys. I’d written some mock scenes for casting purposes only. The pages were faxed to casting directors in Los Angeles and New York, and days later, videotape of selected performances landed in our Miami production office. The incredibly talented Michael Imperioli, who would later fill our appointment TV screens as Christopher Moltisanti in "The Sopranos," was auditioning for a single-scene bit with maybe five lines. He riffed, revealing more to the lowly part of Jojo the Tire Man than I’d imagined. Out of nowhere, I was seeing the character in new colors, building more than one scene for him and penning some very funny interplay—with help from the actor—between Jojo and the movie’s stars. In essence, Michael Imperioli gave himself permission to make a meal of it, inspiring me to make a feast out of it. Sometimes a smart indulgence begets a greater indulgence.
Of course, there’s a downside to so much meal-making. Sometimes the moment needs to be an eye blink. The old saw of less is more or keep it simple, stupid. And believe me when I say it’s going to happen, which is why we rewrite then rewrite again and again, all along the way adjusting your internal tuning fork into seeing what’s missing before it’s missing at all. It’s always going to be an intuitive act because there’s not yet a search function for finding these untapped fountains of awesome.
My examples not quite landing with you? Let's talk Quentin Tarantino. Whether you like his work or not, he is without a doubt the screen's most recent master of the moment. From script to screen, he has an uncanny ability how to realize when there’s true magic in his creation. And instead of taking it for granted, he pours over it, lovingly watering it, teasing it into fully realized fruition.
When people talk Quentin Tarantino, they wax about this scene or that as much as his movie as a whole. Think of your favorite QT scenes. Some of mine are in Inglourious Basterds, three of them featuring the ingeniously cast Christoph Waltz. If you recall the movie’s opener, it’s a scene where the Jew-hunting Hans Landa appears with soldiers at a farm in the French countryside. The character invites himself inside, asks for a glass of milk, and engages the uncomfortable farmer in polite conversation. Underneath the farmhouse floorboards are Jews in hiding. Not only did QT make a literal meal out of the scene, he trusted his brilliant actors to do as much, milking the suspense to a masterful crescendo.
Making a meal out of it is sometimes discovering there is so much more to be bled from a moment. And it can come as a result of the worst idea coming from the most inane note delivered in the least articulate critic. Yet the bad idea can inspire a different perspective leading to a hidden doorway that once cracked open adds oxygen and life where I hadn’t seen it before.
Comedians and comedy writers—often one in the same—are pros at making a meal out of it. They know that a simple one-liner could be the beginning of a bit, which is a series of jokes around the same subject. That bit, if explored, can turn into a whole routine. Or even an entire movie. There was this one late night where I turned an off-handed joke into a couple of more giggle-worthy thoughts. An hour later, I had the whole picture worked out.
In retrospect, I’d made a meal out of it without even knowing. Because if you think about it, that’s what fiction writers do. A germ turns into a notion that turns into an idea and so on and so forth. This isn’t news. It’s a practiced mindset that is somehow forgotten in the effort to be efficient and breezy or if the fear of the story bogging down becomes a paramount concern. I can’t tell you how many writing samples or manuscripts I read where my primary note is to fill out certain passages or scenes with life or imagery or conflict or drama.
Details are important. Painting a picture is important. That difficult trick is to know where and when and why.
You’ve heard about less is more? It’s mostly true. But doing less can often be easier than more. Especially when wondering how much more? Again, I’m going to rewrite and get further reads so hopefully it doesn’t matter if I need more or less. If I have to, I’ll paint the Sistine Chapel until I’m told, hey yo that’s way too much Sistine Chapel.
I realize this advice is anything but a shortcut. If anything I’m advocating for more work—more trial and error. Yet it’s the difference between walking and soaring. So much of what you adore when you read or watch is the result of an author, screenwriter, actor, director, stepping out onto a limb and offering you more.
I’m pretty gray now and am in the process of revising my newest manuscript. Already my editor is helping me see how and where I need to trim and places where I need to serve more dishes. Even more amusing, my tenth novel is a dark look backward at a certain period of my life in show business. I am literally making a meal out of all the meals I’ve had over my blessed career.
Yeah, it’s a kinda meta, but it’s also very true.
*Feature Photo: Inglourious Basterds (2009, Universal Pictures)