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Monday, October 22, 2007

Are You Smarter Than a 5th Grader? Great.

By Andrew Zinnes

Irascible. It’s a great word. Easily provoked to anger. Testy. Touchy. Short-tempered. I can get down with irascible for as I mentioned in my The Waiting is the Hardest Part blog, I’m an Aries and patience, well, that virtue never made it to my brain.

Irascible. It’s what my uncle would’ve called a $20 word. As in “that word cost $20 of your education!” It’s a big word; a word that someone who knows words would use. Someone like a writer.

I’m only getting on this soapbox because I just put down a screenplay that had so many $20 words in it I thought it was either the author trying to show us how smart he is or reminding us of sure fire winners in Scrabble. My guess is that it was the former. Irascible was the one that stuck out the most to me because that’s how I felt after I read it.

But here’s the problem – humans rarely use a word like that in everyday speech. In fact, if you listen to a normal conversation between two people most of the words would either be one or two syllables in length. It is only when we are being expository like giving directions or discussing something incredibly specific that we start to crank out the dictionary and thesaurus. And since the best dialogue sounds as if it is coming from a live human being, the words that your characters should use should mostly contain one and two syllable words. It’s been said that most screenplays are written on a 5th grade reading level and this is exactly why.

Now you can throw a big word in there every now and again, but as in real life, when someone goes for the $20 word, those listening remark on it in some way. For example, take THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION. There is a moment when Andy DuFresne learns that there is evidence that supports his innocence claim and he tells the warden about it. The warder shines him on stating there’s no point in checking – it’s a waste of time. Andy calls the warden “obtuse” and gets thrown in the hole for two months to think about his impertinence. At the halfway point of his sentence, the warden comes into the hole to tell Andy that his young protégé has been killed and that the scams will continue or else Andy will have all his privileges revoked. “Are you getting my drift? Or am I being obtuse?” the warden smugly replies. He’s thrown the big word back in Andy’s face because he wants him to know he’s just as smart as Mr. Dufrense – and it works brilliantly.

Please remember, I am not advocating dumbing down your screenplay in terms of plot or character development. I am merely saying that much can be done to convey intelligence through the reality of who we are.

All of this reminds me of the best exercise I ever had in film school. We were told to go to a local café and eavesdrop on others’ conversations. You learn tons about vocabulary, slang, intonation and subtext doing that. You also learn how freaky people are - including yourself. Try it, but don’t get sanctimonious or pietistic doing it.

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Margaux Outhred said...

And we wonder why that show is so popular?

Anonymous said...

Well, I try to use too many $20 words in scripts, it tends to upset execs and producers--I mean, they're all ready jealous that I know how to write and they don't. No need to annoy them any further, y'know?

I'm joking...well...I think I am anyway.

Anonymous said...

I thought you wrote 'pietastic'. Then I got hungry. Now I'm feeling depieved.

Julie Gray said...

lol pietastic!