Creative Scriptwriting and Copywriting

WARNING: These Men Are Liars!

In copywriting, scriptwriting, writing on December 10, 2009 at 4:49 pm

It’s only words, and words are all I have to take your heart away, ” trilled the Bee Gees in their 1968 hit, Words.

As a professional freelance writer of nearly twenty years standing, I like to claim a little expertise on the subject of words, and my considered judgement is, Liars!

The cold hard truth is that the Brothers Gibb select from a whole arsenal of weapons in the war of stolen hearts. As composers, they’re armed with melody, rhythm, and the mesmerising power of disco. As singers, their trademark falsetto can register heights of soul and emotion. And what’s all that coiffured hair and designer dentistry for, if not taking hearts away? In fact, it’s likely the squillionaire pop superstars could be talking any old crap, and still be a fair hit with the ladies.

The uncomfortable reality for writers, who pride ourselves on our command of language, is that words are not as always powerful as we think.

For further proof, drive out of Birmingham on the M42, but keep your wits about you. Junction 9 is a real-life version of Dr Kawashima’s Brain Training, but the price of failure is not a disappointingly low brain age on your Nintendo, but a bloody pile-up strewn across the carriageway.

The northbound approach offers two possibilities: the NORTH EAST (M1) and the NORTH WEST (M6 Toll). But, confusingly, the sign for the North East points to the left (or more or less due North West), and the sign for the North West points right (almost directly North East). What’s more, you’re sure you were travelling towards Nottingham, which is in neither the North West or the North East, so where the hell are you supposed to go? Your eyes tell you one thing. Your gut tells you another. The words themselves couldn’t be clearer, but the message is still confused. And please, brain, decide quickly because there’s no time to re-read that first sentence when you’re hurtling towards the point of no return at way over the speed limit with some Brummie trucker right up your arse…

BAARRRRPPP!!!

(THE ANSWER, if you’ve arrived here via Google, searching for directions : Follow signs to NORTH EAST (M1), then the A453 to Nottingham.) Simple.

So how does this feed into creative scriptwriting or copywriting? Like this: it’s easy as a writer, to think you can “word” your way around a problem. But words, despite what the Bee Gees tell us, are not all we have.

In screenwriting, there’s the basic truth that image and behaviour always triumph over words. You are writing stories, not speeches. (It was Hitchcock who said first he writes the script, then he writes the dialogue.) So, if a character behaves like a nice guy, the spoken revelation that he once kicked a puppy won’t have much of an impact. If the guy kicks puppies, let’s see the guy kick the puppy.

More specifically, within the context of a script, it pays to check that you’re not asking the reader to change mental lanes at more than 70 miles an hour. If I am introducing a character with a mean disposition, I won’t choose to describe his generous mop of hair, his deep understanding of forensic accountancy, or how he draws himself up to his full height when he enters the room. Meanness isn’t associated with generosity, fullness or depth, so I don’t want to casually use words that subconsciously suggest that.

It’s the same in copywriting. If my client has “low, low prices” I’ll try to avoid words or phrases – up to, above, over – that make some part of your brain think about height. Or, if I’m writing about a company’s real, human personal service, I’ll try not to do so on a homepage that’s a deluge of small-print copy deliberately search-engine-optimised to draw the attention of Google and not real human persons.

Of course, like all “rules” in writing, this one begs to be broken. If the place with Low, Low Prices has a shop on the High Street, maybe I’ll play with that, and use the linguistic contrast to my advantage. Perhaps a mean guy with a generous build makes for an interesting image. What’s important, though, is that professional writers should be awake to secondary meanings, ambiguities and potential confusion.

As should motorway planners. And Bee Gees.

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  1. Great post! I always thought I was pretty careful about the words I chose to describe things in my scripts but I’ve never thought about it quite so analytically before – or thought about why some words just feel better than others. Now you’ve said it makes perfect sense.

    Now I’m going to have to go through my whole portfolio and tinker with all my scene descriptions.

    Which I really don’t have time to do.

    So thank you sir, but also curse you for dragging me out of my blissfully ignorant state.

  2. Thanks Michelle. As I say, if you miss any, you can always pretend it was a deliberate stylistic choice.

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