The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

P is for "Poetics"

If someone wakes you up at five in the morning
after the wildest bachelor party of your life, and
asks you what a story is, you should be able to
give a coherent answer. The most basic aspects
of your craft should be so deeply engrained that
they live at the level of "Unconscious Competence"
--the same place that basic walking, bike-riding,
or bladder-control skills reside. If that seems
odd, please remember that, once upon a time,
you had none of these. They are all learned, and
only when you had learned them thoroughly
could you move on to more advanced behaviors,
skills, or responsibilities.

For a decade, I had considered "Story" to consist
of an interaction between plot and character.
Then my good lady wife, Tananarive, convinced
me to add a third: Poetics.

By this I mean two major things: the sounds of
the words as they interact, and the music of
the imagery. In books and stories, you write
in multiple sensory modes: taste, touch, smell,
sight, hearing. Your characters experience the
world in all of them, and you have the opportunity
to create a harmonic flow that can be absolutely

In film and television, you have two senses:
visual and auditory. And eighty percent of
the audience's experience is visual in nature.
Film, especially, is what you SEE. So the "poetics"
of film is found not just in the language, but in
the use of visual images, the way that they play
off one another, resonate with each other.

When writing your first draft, it might be smart
to leave out dialogue altogether, to see how
close you can come to telling the story with
pure images--as a silent film. Then comes
dialogue. In your first draft, simply have the
characters say what is on their mind. In
subsequent re-writes, search for ways to
move text to sub-text, to have characters
talk "off the nose" so to speak. What they
DON'T say can be more important than what
they say, because it forces your audience to
engage with the process of communication.
If you've done your job right, the poetry is
created in their minds, as they search the
visual images, the sounds, the words said
and ideas unsaid...and find their own
meaning in your scenes.
But to teach yourself this, I suggest reading
a poem every day. Every single day. Learn
to understand the poet's craft on a level
beyond language. Language is the TOOL
that they use to accomplish an intent. It
is the medium, not the message.

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