P=Perret, Gene (Feb 17)

Or Before You Sit to Write . . . )

If you write jokes, they will come // Yallalaughs

Einstein had his theory of relativity, e = mc2 .  Spielberg made blockbuster films for decades.  For each, in their place and time, no one was better.  In a quieter way, so was Gene Perret.

Perret wrote jokes.  He wrote them for legends (like Bob Hope) and award shows (like The Academy Awards).  His prowess at jokewriting drew the best to him like moth to flame.  He also drew the curtain back to show other writers how it was done.

Perret wrote Comedy Writing Workbook as both a detailed set of instructions on joke assembly and an open love letter for the craft of writing.  Much of this applies to writers like you.

First off, note what you like.  Perret encouraged jokewriters to collect their favorite jokes, funny quote, best jokes from their favorite comedians and humorous cartoons.  You can do the same: collect your favorite pieces in a folder or online.  Explore your favorite writing, celebrate it, and examine it under glass.  Look for patterns of character, phrasing, and structure.   Figure out what makes each tick. 

You will also find that once you do this for writing you love, you can figure out the magic behind any piece of writing.

Learn your genre.  In his book Perret gave detailed instructions on all kinds of joke patterns (see MCKEE for patterns on story) as well as ways to turn ordinary statements and questions into jokes.  He taught how to string jokes together to form a bit.

He also gave ways to generate the nuts and bolts you need to form a joke: the “handles”, asking the 5 W’s of whot-what-where-when-why, words with double meanings, and more.   

It’s weird to think of a master of a game as its most devout and earnest student, but — above all — this was Gene Perret.  And to some degree, this needs to be you. 


Focus on one genre of writing: poetry, screenwriting for film, comedy, nonfiction, short fiction, flash fiction, or another that you choose.   Come up with ten exemplars that connect with you down to the bone – pieces of writing that move you.  Examine all ten.  Write down any patterns you see as far as topic, structure, word choice, and theme.  Do these ten have any common thread?

USE: Starting by mapping out these general threads, write your own piece in the genre of your choice.  For draft one don’t worry about quality.  Just use the threads you have found in your own writing.


O=Oedipus The King (and Structure)(Feb 16)

Sophocles wrote Oedipus the King in 430 B.C. Aristotle cited it as being in many ways the perfect model of a tragedy.

The play unfolds with great power as the hero’s flaw exposes his fate, even though his motive is pure: to save his city from a rampant disease. At the same time, the play has a flaw. And while far from ruinous, it shows just how difficult structure is in writing.

The idea of structure is that all the parts of a work should fit together; nothing should be extraneous. This provides the reader with a sense of order.

But in Oedipus the King, it is the pursuit or order that unleashes chaos. Clues keep piling up that Oedipus has unknowingly fulfilled a prophecy, made when he was a baby, that he would kill his father and mate with his mother. Upon hearing this prophecy his horrified parents, rulers of the city of Thebes, gave him to a shepherd to be left in the woods to die. But the shepherd took pity and handed Oedipus to an intermediary who brought him to the ruling couple of Corinth, who were childless and who raised Oedipus as their own.

Years later, an oracle conveys the prophecy to Oedipus anew. Not knowing he was adopted, he flees Corinth in order to avoid his prescribed fate. In a rash and sudden highway quarrel he kills a stranger who unbeknownst to him is in fact his natural father, Laius. Later Oedipus saves Thebes from the Sphinx and becomes king, marrying Jocasta, his father’s widow.

That’s quite the backstory. All of it happens before the start of the play and is explained as events proceed. The play begins with Thebes having fallen prey to an outbreak of plague. To save the city, someone must appease the gods by uncovering Laius’s killer. Oedipus steps up to the task and stubbornly persists even as others around him realize the peril and warn him to stop.

This is a tricky plot, because it must be credible that the truth about Oedipus dawns on others before it dawns on him. But here is where the flaw creeps in. As the clues accumulate, Oedipus’s last hope is that someone else killed Laius. That would clear him from the prophecy. As Jocasta remembers it, a herdsman travelling with the king said Laius was beset by several men; but Oedipus knows that he was alone when he had his highway quarrel. So the herdsman must be heard anew.

OEDIPUS: Yes, all my hope upon a herdsman now, and I must wait until he comes.

JOCASTA: But when he comes, what is it you want to hear?

OEDIPUS: Just this: if his account is yours, I’m clear.

JOCASTA: But what was my account? What did I say?

OEDIPUS: Why, several bandits in your account, he claimed, cut down the king.

If he will keep to several, I, as only one, am not the killer, not the same.

But if he says it was a lone man journeying — ah, then! — the verdict tilts too heavily to me.

(translation by Paul Roche)

And then, when the herdsman arrives, they don’t even ask him about this. Seriously. It turns out that this is the same herdsman who handed baby Oedipus to the intermediary who forwarded him to the Corinthian couple. Oedipus, in squeezing this information out of the herdsman, realizes that his parentage is not what he thought and that he must have fulfilled the prophecy. He forgets entirely about the question of how many men fell upon Laius and rushes off to poke out his eyeballs.

So, why did the herdsman say several men originally? Was it a misunderstanding, did someone mishear him, was he ashamed of the defeat?

We don’t know. The thread stays loose. That is a flaw, and it shows that even for a great writer, structure is a difficult puzzle (on the other hand, it is fitting that a play about an imperfect man should contain an imperfection). For normal writers the lesson is: Remove bits that don’t support the whole. And when you can’t figure out a way to do that, keep the story moving so quickly that people don’t notice. It worked for Sophocles, and, in modern times, it worked for every season of 24 and every Avengers movie. If you can’t be perfect, be fast.

LEARN: Read Oedipus the King — it’s a great work.

USE: Figure out a way the herdsman could have weighed in on the number-of-bandits controversy without hampering the story.

Answers from N: holocaust; splash; vexes/vexed.

N=No Second Cousins (Feb 15)

The right word is like a white suit – a perfect fit for Twain // Shutterstock

Sometimes you can’t find the right word and it would make all the difference. It’s like having the wrong size battery in your flashlight: what doesn’t fit will not illuminate.

Mark Twain, in the midst of an essay deploring the stories of James Fenimore Cooper, offered a series of rules for writing that include: “Use the right word, not its second cousin.”

One way you can tell you are using a second cousin is that you stick a qualifier in front of it. More and more we are seeing these qualified constructions as media outlets lay off the editors who normally would snuff them.

Here are some examples of “qualifier+ second cousin” followed by a better word choice, though usage will depend on context:

Extremely surprised -> shocked

Quite irritated -> annoyed

A bit sad -> subdued/sober

Very excited -> thrilled

Very disappointed -> crestfallen

Somewhat disappointed -> disappointed

(Sometimes the solution is to keep the word and lose the qualifier.)

These are easy fixes. In the old days you could poke around in the pages of your faded copy of Roget’s Thesaurus, but now online thesauruses offer answers in a flash.

LEARN: Read Twain’s essay on “Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offenses” here.

USE: Pick the right word for these three passages:

1. From The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald: It was after we started with Gatsby toward the house that the gardener saw Wilson’s body a little way off in the grass, and the [xxx] was complete.”

2. From a haiku by the 17th-century master Matsuo Basho: “an ancient pond / a frog jumps in / the [xxx] of water”.

3. Emperor Commodus in Gladiator: It [xxxs] me. I’m terribly [xxx’ed[.”

Answers posted tomorrow – at the bottom of ‘O’

M=McKee on Screenwriting (Feb 14)

Robert McKee’s book Story emphasizes the importance of having a clear plan, like Agatha Christie did.

The most famous thing a screenwriter ever said about Hollywood came from William Goldman: “Nobody knows anything. Not one person in the entire motion picture field knows for a certainty what’s going to work. Every time out it’s a guess and, if you’re lucky, an educated one …”

Often this is reduced to “Nobody knows anything”, expressing the notion that creativity is indefinable and mysterious, like fog.

Robert McKee has tried to see through the fog. Decades ago upon arriving in Los Angeles he worked as a screenplay reader for NBC and UA (United Artists). Over and over, he saw screenplays sinking under the weight of the same technical flaws. He began to teach a weekend course on writing, which led him to write the book Story, published in 1997. Today McKee’s principles guide a far-flung legion of aspiring scriptwriters. They move creativity from nebulous to concrete. Story’s key ideas, useful for several kinds of writing, are:

1-Use words sparingly. Show, don’t tell: in a visual medium you can let the image speak, through setting, gesture and expression.

2-The stakes must be very high for the main character, and he or she must pursue them to the end of the line.

3-Conflict drives a story forward. Acts and scenes should constantly oscillate between positive, negative and neutral. A loss is followed by a bigger gain is followed by a bigger loss, etc.

4-When you boil it down, McKee’s biggest lesson is: Think before you write. Have a plan. Know the instigating incident, the mid-act climax, and the ending. You should probably write these scenes before any others, along with a sketch of your act/scene structure. This is useful advice for any longer writing project. Authors from Agatha Christie to Margaret Mitchell to John Irving have started books by writing the ending first.

McKee’s ideas, spread through his book and lectures, have become so orthodox as to invite a backlash. The need to constantly ramp up tension is very hard to sustain for 90 minutes. A lot of TV shows and movies cheat, and halfway through the show we discover that the bad guys from the first half are not the ultimate bad guys: Ohmigod, it’s not the Russians, it’s their alien overlords! And then the second half is just a repeat of the first half but with the new bad guys as the antagonists, and the initial antagonists now aligned with the good guys (or dead). Or else the mission in the first half culminates with Oh no it’s a trap!, and in the second half they repeat the quest but avoid the trap. 

Still, McKee’s advice is sound. His ideas are tested against decades of experience and thousands of scripts. Read Story in combination with a book that provides nuts-and-bolts structures for screenwriters, such as The Screenwriter’s Workbook by Syd Field.

LEARN: Read the Story chapter “The Structure of Story”, with its analysis of a turning point in the taut, twisting Chinatown script.

USE: Imagine a basic romantic comedy. Using McKee’s principles, outline any or all of these scenes: the instigating incident (they meet), the mid-act climax (their crisis), and the ending (their resolution). This is not easy to do well. Think, then write. Perhaps reflect on your own experience for ideas…

L=Look Away(Feb 13)

Here is a simple tip used by generations of writers.

If you’re not happy with a sentence, read it on the page. Then look away and try to repeat it, either out loud or in your head. Out loud is better.  Often the way that you say it while looking away is better than the way that you wrote it.

LEARN: Try the exercise with the passage below, an introduction to the works of Nathaniel Hawthorne from the Norton Anthology of American Literature. Do it one clause or sentence at a time, and notice where you vary:

“Above all, his theme was curiosity about the recesses of other men’s and women’s beings. About this theme he was always ambivalent, for he knew that his success as a writer depended upon his keen psychological analysis of people he met, while he could never forget that invasion of the sanctity of another’s personality may harden the heart even as it enriches the mind. He knew that there was ‘something of the hawkeye’ about him, and that the line was vague between prurient curiosity and legitimate artistic study of character. At his best, he was a master of psychological insight … “

USE: Use this technique on your next piece of writing.

K=Know When It’s Over (Feb 12)

Now let’s go from that very spark to the very end.

No idea is ever “done”.  Art is never finished.  Instead, you just stop working on it.  This is a paraphrase of many famous artists (for one, it is said that George Lucas said this when deciding when to walk away from Star Wars). 

In a sense, this is a relief.  You don’t have to be perfect.  The biggest issue, it seems, is when to walk away.

Often “done” is connected to a deadline.  My co-writer once joked that 97% of all news stories are filed four minutes after deadline.  And deadlines do help.  Having a time limit forces you to focus (otherwise you may be JOTTING AND JAMMING forever).  It demands that you pull your disparate ideas together into a flow that a reader can follow and understand. 

But it doesn’t answer an essential question.  How do you know when something is done?

In writing the idea of “done” changes from genre to genre and section to section.  Take a research paper as an example.  There are three clear sections.  In the first, you ask yourself questions.  Have you cited all relevant research, both prominent and obscure?  Did you also show how that research, though valid, has left something undone, some stone unturned? 

For a story, the easiest measuring stick is this: is the journey done?  Has the character on that journey changed – and do we the audience feel it?

A good joke transmits an experience and ends on a punch.  When it does, it’s done. 

In a similar way, a sensory image in a poem should convey an emotion.  Can you name it?  Can you feel it?

The metaphorical finish line for writing can be a day away or years.  The real finish line is this: do the words move a reader where you, the writer, want them to go?

LEARN: Watch Jerry Seinfeld discuss his writing process for a single joke:

Then watch a final version of the joke:

USE: Write a single page narrative describing a single event from your childhood – start with the who / what / where / when and go! Tell your story then finish with the why; that is – what you took from the experience.   

As you write, do two things only: either advance the story (from one part to another) or color it (add specific sensory details to add detail to the most important parts),

Once you finish, put the paper or file it away for one day (this foreshadows tomorrow’s lesson!).  Bring it back the next day.  To tell your tale within a single page, ask yourself as you re-read: what’s important?  Let that question be your guide as you rework the story toward a satisfying end.

J=Jotting and Jamming (Feb 11)

Every day you recognize things worth writing about. Don’t wait – jot them down.

On “Mitch All Together” comedian Mitch Hedberg said, “I sit at my hotel at night, I think of something that’s funny, then I go get a pen and I write it down.  Or if the pen is too far away, I have to convince myself that what I thought of ain’t funny.”

The glint of inspiration is ephemeral; it’s there, then gone.  Worse is how we sometimes treat it.  We question that flash.  Dissect it.  Like in the joke above, we convince ourselves that true inspiration isn’t worth the two seconds it takes to capture it.  Between laziness and self-doubt, we dis-believe.

So believe.  Believe in yourself.  Believe in your ideas.  Honor them – by jotting them down.

Technology helps us.  You don’t have to be Hemingway, jotting on a Moleskin.  An app like Evernote goes where you go.  So do voice notes. Post-Its and receipts and bar napkins work as well. You might call these flashes kindling for the fire or a spark in the darkness – whatever phrase resonates with you. It’s what has to be there to make fire. 

Say you have a spark that you suspect is a story.  Finish each sentence and ask yourself “what happens next?”  For the basics on this, take another look at IT HAS TO FLOW.

Always – write onward, from the five senses and the heart. 

Save the inevitable lust for results for later.  To begin, just flesh out the ideas. 

LEARN:  Write down five things you experience this week that inspired you. This can be either to do more or to be better.  Write this in a notebook, so . . .

USE: Buy a notebook (I just did before I wrote this).  Make the notebook a small one, one you can find it in a back pocket or nook of your bag.  Take five days and jot down any idea that could be of use. 

I=It Has to Flow (Feb 10)

Does this flow?: ““So we beat on, borne back ceaselessly into the past, boats against the current.” // Shutterstock

‘Flow’ is when “every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one.” This description by psychology researcher Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi gets at a mental state where everything can be followed with ease.   This whole series on writing is, in one way or another, about flow.

In the GARNER lesson, we looked how sentences flow grammatically.  Now, let’s focus on how the topics (and ideas) connect via this flow.

First of all, the topic must be clear.  It can be in a sentence (on a page) or utterance (in a script) or panel (for a comic) or premise (for a joke) or ideas and feelings (in a conversation).   Next, there must be something the writer wants to tell the audience about that topic.   Give the audience a subject, then add what you want to say about said subject.  Educators such as Joseph Williams define this structure as TOPIC + COMMENT.

Once you have TOPIC + COMMENT, there are two ways to continue.  A writer can use parallel progression by taking the same topic and add a new comment.  Or a writer can use sequential progression by taking the comment in one sentence, then saying what happens next.

That’s it.

Flow can also combine the parallel and the sequential.  A writer can bring up a topic, make two or three comments about it, then progress from the first topic to a second one.   Your audience expects, even demands, one of these two moves. 

Keep in mind that different languages have different ideas about flow. In 1966 linguist Robert Kaplan looked at how writing flows in different languages. It turns out Japanese writing often flows differently than Arabic. Both have a slightly different flow than English.  

Don’t worry about that now. To write sentences and paragraphs (and chapters and scenes), just focus on two steps going forward: the parallel and the sequential. Then your ideas will connect – and flow.  In improv, this concept is called Yes …And – meaning you accept an idea and add to it. In writing, Elmore Leonard wrote Get Shorty by moving ideas in the same way.

The only thing left, then, is heart  (see our earlier lesson, DRIVE TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER). What do you really want to say?  What feeling do you want to convey?

LEARN: Read these five passages from world literature. In four, the word order has been re-arranged. Try to figure out which one was left intact, and try to recast the rest as the author wrote them.

1. “God created the heaven and the earth, in the beginning.”

2. “So we beat on, borne back ceaselessly into the past, boats against the current.”

3. “Terry held the pistol at arm’s length on a level with his eyes – the Russian Tokarev resembling an old-model Colt .45, big and heavy. The shots left a hard ringing sound within the closeness of the brick walls. Terry made the sign of the cross with the gun over the dead.” 

4. “Ivan Nikiforovitch is rather shorter in stature, but he makes it up in thickness. Ivan Ivanovitch is tall and thin. Ivan Ivanovitch’s head is like a radish, tail down; Ivan Nikiforovitch’s like a radish with the tail up.”

5. “Before reaching the final line, however, he had already understood that he would never leave that room, for it was foreseen that the city of mirrors (or mirages) would be wiped out by the wind and exiled from the memory of men at the precise moment when Aureliano Babilonia would finish deciphering the parchments, and that everything written on them was unrepeatable since time immemorial and forever more, because races condemned to one hundred years of solitude did not have a second opportunity on earth.”

USE: Check if you got it right. Here are the originals:

1. In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. (first line of the Bible) 

2. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.” (F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby)

3. The shots left a hard ringing sound within the closeness of the brick walls. Terry held the pistol at arm’s length on a level with his eyes–the Russian Tokarev resembling an old-model Colt .45, big and heavy – and made the sign of the cross with it over the dead. (Elmore Leonard, Pagan Babies)

4. Ivan Ivanovitch is tall and thin: Ivan Nikiforovitch is rather shorter in stature, but he makes it up in thickness. Ivan Ivanovitch’s head is like a radish, tail down; Ivan Nikiforovitch’s like a radish with the tail up. (Nikolai Gogol, How the Two Ivans Quarrelled)

5. No changes in this one, the last line of One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Marquez.

H=How to Write a Press Release (Feb 9)

Michael Jordan’s team knew that when you have big news, you don’t need to pump it up. // Shutterstock

There are two ways to write a press release: flattering or factual. Which way you go depends on whom you consider to be your client. This illustrates the principle that no matter what sort of writing you are doing, consider it from the audience’s point of view.

Typically a press release is written internally or by a public relations agency for an organization such as a company and distributed to members of the news media.

Sometimes these releases describe the organization as the embodiment of the current corporate virtues – innovative, dynamic, world-class, pioneering. This reflects a view that the organization is the client.

But if you think of the news media as the client, then your writing must adapt. Journalists want facts, not fulsome or abstract phrases. When they read a release they are searching for a fact that is new and significant enough that they can use it as a headline. Otherwise it’s just spam. In short: verbs, nouns and numbers, not adjectives.

The factual route removes the feelgood factor for the organization but it does demonstrate that they are confident enough in their news that they needn’t puff it up. When you have important news, you can let it speak for itself. Consider the press release issued in 1999 when Michael Jordan returned to pro basketball. It did not go on about his greatness, stature or titles. After a brief intro from the PR agency, it merely quoted Jordan as saying:

«I’m back.»

That was all, and that was enough.

The catch with all this is that nowadays news spreads online mostly; the old gatekeepers are few. This new method of dispersion is influenced more by keyword-seeking bots than by humans. But for access to the remaining bastions of “quality media”, and the prestige associated with them, you need to provide meaningful facts.

One more thing: while the text of a press release often runs through several drafts, typically far less thought goes into the subject line for the email that conveys the release. That’s a mistake. Journalists receive hundreds of releases a day and the subject line is often the only part they look at; it’s your headline. A good subject line should include time sensitivity and a peg, eg: «Company X to unveil new product on Tuesday morning».

LEARN: Read up on the 1912 Titanic sinking here …


USE: … and then write the first paragraph of a press release on the disaster, viewing your client as either the shipping company or the news media.

G=Garner, Madison, and the Art of Writing (Feb 8)

Good writing lifts the fog and makes everything clear // Shutterstock

In document #39 of The Federalist Papers, James Madison stated that communication fails for three reasons: (1) the language is inaccurate, (2) the brain behind the language is cloudy, or (3) the object or idea itself is indistinct.

There are marketers and PR people for the last; there are meditations and substances for the second. 

You as a writer can only control the accuracy of the language – that is, how it is used.  Thoughts about this range from proper-is-best-forget-the-rest to anything goes . . . as long as the words can be understood as the writer intended.  Author Bryan Garner tries to bridge this gap, and provides a guide that points to how words work in reality. 

Garner is a lawyer by trade, and his book Garner’s Modern English Usage is one attempt to define how writing and language is most effective.  The physical book is a tome; outside of language, it is best used as a building block for housing or a cinder block for cars. Contrast that with another, more famous book, Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style.  The slim book’s minimalist approach (in such maxims as omit needless words) reduces instruction on how to write into its simplest terms.  Both books are excellent references.

Both books get at what it means to write well.  So what are the elements of good writing?

Rather than focus on what could go wrong (a la Madison), we prefer to spotlight, in general, how to write well (like Garner and Strunk & White).   A good writer will vary sentence structure, sentence length, and paragraph length.   Topics will connect from sentence to sentence and from paragraph to paragraph (for clear ideas on this, see below). 

In terms of ideas, describe physical things from the senses (reveal how the thing tastes-feels-looks-sounds-smells) and mental things in terms of how they manifest, either in terms of behavior or thought process.   Usually the more relatable the example, the better . . . and give people the background info they need to understand each point. 

Good writing is more than choosing, as Twain said, “the correct word and not its second cousin (we’ll address this in our lesson for the letter N).  Yes, FIRST IMPRESSIONS COUNT, but then what?  A piece of writing is you, putting your words together in a way that is immediate and intriguing.  Whatever the subject, you want your readers to follow your words and the ideas they convey.   Below are six rules (which we’ll explore in detail in our W essay) to make sure the ideas flow well:

(1) Make the person doing the action into the subject of your sentence. 

Note: Choose humans over institutions.

(2) Conditions for the main sentence (when, if, before, after, because) come before . . . but make sure the condition is no more than eight words long.  In addition, if the condition is the most important part of the sentence, move it from the beginning to the end.

(3) Know the psychological subject of each sentence – that’s what you connect to the sentence before and the sentence afterward.

(4) To move from sentence to sentence, there is (a) parallel structure: when the next sentence has the same topic as the previous one, and (b) sequential structure: when one action causes the next action to happen.

(5) Every sentence has a topic and a comment; every paragraph has a topic sentence and a discussion.

(6) If you write a long or complex paragraph, add a summative sentence at its end to either (a) connect the end to the beginning or (b) restate the main point of the paragraph.

In the end, reading or hearing people talk about writing is good . . . but writing is better. 😉

LEARN: Read the six rules again and think about them; then read the following sentences: 

  • In the end, a writer puts together ideas with a combination of style, word choice, and arrangement.
  • Let’s talk about style, first of all.
  • Style comes from knowing your audience and your purpose – that is, your intention as a writer.
  • What are you trying to do?
  • An expert in your topic can understand high-level vocabulary and sophisticated explanations; a reader who is not an expert cannot.
  • This affects word choice, as an expert has the background to understand more about your subject.
  • For example, someone who knows comedy knows what punching up is while this must be explained to a reader unfamiliar with the term.
  • Joking about someone with more status or authority than you is what punching up means, for the record.
  • Finally, we come to how to arrange your ideas.
  • Just as a DJ arranges beats to flow smoothly from one song to the next, a writer must do the same.
  • In the end, as a writer, you want your ideas to flow in that same smooth way.

USE: Re-arrange two of the above sentences to make the paragraph clearer.