Exercise in Literal Translation IV

Click for a PDF of Alvin Sargent's (first draft?) screenplay

Click for a PDF of Alvin Sargent’s (first draft?) screenplay

Only when I finally sat down to watch Robert Redford’s film of Ordinary People did I realize the true purpose of the exercise I’ve described in this series.

Analysis can and does support creativity even though it’s not an end goal in itself. In this instance, my sense of the possible film, the literal translation, helped me to establish an essential distance from the actual film and to find a balance between thoughtless absorption and critical detachment.

I watched the film twice. I took notes. I drew charts, listing scenes and sequences (groups of related scenes). I noted what I learned and at what point, comparing the film’s and the novel’s deployment of exposition, as well as what moved me and why.

Adaptation, I realized, confers upon the screenwriter responsibilities and rights, most significantly:

• the responsibility to retell, as much as possible, the story conveyed by the source material;
• the responsibility to strive to recreate the emotional experience evoked by the source material, what likely made the adaptation desirable in the first place;
• the right to make changes in order to carry out the above responsibilities and to establish and maintain the unity of the film.

By writing out and reading over the cards, I’d familiarized myself with the novel’s scenes to such a degree that changes by the screenwriter jumped out at me like 3-D projections.

I might just as easily have noted the considerable amount of material lifted directly from the novel, such as dialogue between Conrad and Dr. Berger, a character defined by his eccentric sense of humor. Then again, what endured wasn’t particularly surprising; I watched to discover what had changed.

At first glance, some of the alterations seemed inevitable, others arbitrary. Later I recognized that even one major modification creates the need for more, if only for consistency’s sake.

The parts of a film are specific in a different way than the parts of a novel; instead of description, we get incarnation. My Conrad, your Conrad – now he’s a young Timothy Hutton making his feature film debut. And all the different versions of Cal? They collapse down into a far less grizzled Donald Sutherland.

I’d wondered how screenwriter Alvin Sargent would approach the challenge presented by Beth, Conrad’s mother, whom we only see through Conrad’s and Cal’s eyes in the novel. One might say that Sargent brilliantly surmounted that challenge — Mary Tyler Moore won an Oscar for her portrayal of the character.

One might also say that Sargent circumvented it: He gives Beth her independence, but brings us no closer to understanding her. She’s something of a cipher in the novel and remains so in the film. Where is the line that distinguishes mystery and obscurity? I’m still not sure.

As I conclude this series, I take another step forward, but also one back: this exercise, as designed, points to both the value and the limitations of the literal translation.

Just as I have with Ordinary People, I can break down The Journeys of Socrates into cards and scenes so as to reveal another possible film. Of course, there will be no an actual film with which to compare it — not yet anyway. Exercises, like booster rockets, must fall away.

What, then, can give me the distance that I’ll need from the literal translation?

Comments Off on Exercise in Literal Translation IV

Exercise in Literal Transation III

In the last entry, I listed a series of questions that I wanted to answer by way of breaking the novel Ordinary People — and not yet the film — into scenes, recorded on color-coded index cards.

The cards turned ideas into objects with heft and weight; they pointed me toward a material discovery: The number of cards (that is, scenes) assigned to the teenaged Conrad (73 out of 115 total) helped me to recognize him as the story’s clear protagonist.


In contrast, reading the novel had left me with the impression that Conrad’s father, Cal, (with 27 cards) might be a dual protagonist — Judith Guest tells her story in the intimate third-person, but she alternates between Conrad’s and Cal’s points of view.

On the flipside, while Conrad takes the lead in the overwhelming majority of scenes, his mother, Beth, takes the lead in only 15 of 115, and his psychiatrist Dr. Berger appears in only 9, yet both characters’ actions make the story’s arc possible.

Ultimately, it seemed like a good idea to approach any story as a potential ensemble piece because the amount of screen time characters receive doesn’t necessarily determine their importance and shouldn’t limit their ability to make a deep impression, no matter how transitory.

When you strip away description and narration from a novel — even those so-called “plotless” ones — you’re left with what my dad and I call the story’s golden thread. And, no, it’s not just another name for the “barebones central plotline”:

Unique to each story, it defines not just what happens but why it happens.

By finding and following the original story’s trajectory, adapting screenwriters will stay true to their source material.

The cards connected me with the golden thread of Ordinary People, and helped me to identify the inciting incident, turning points, and midpoint (of the novel):

Inciting Incident:    Conrad’s agreement to call Dr. Berger once he’d spent a month at home, after returning from the hospital.
First Turning Point:    Conrad’s decision to quit the swim team, marking his growing willingness to accept that he must change in order to grow.
Midpoint:    Conrad’s budding romance with Jeanine and the new closeness he finds with Cal.
Second Turning Point:    Conrad’s discovery that Karen has killed herself, forcing him to finally confront his own role in the accident that killed his brother.

The novelist and the adapting screenwriter may (and often do) make different decisions as to which events to include in their versions of the story and how to order them, but the key events listed above have the best chance of surviving the leap from one medium to another, because they define the story to which both writers are committed.

That said, new scenes, new events may be required to ground the key events in the ecosystem of the film.

A novel, in contrast, possesses its own ecosystem, one strongly influenced by the authors’ choice of narration. Ordinary People plants the reader in Conrad’s and Cal’s minds and emotional lives. We see Beth — mother and wife, respectively — only through their eyes.

We may not understand the choices Beth makes, but we share Cal’s and Conrad’s perspectives on them and her; because they don’t hate her, we’re more likely to accept her as a flawed human being.

As presented by the cards, however, the literal translation of the novel into film starkly exposes Beth, who takes little initiative in much of the novel yet has a disproportionate effect on Conrad. Such a film, if manifest on screen, might easily distort the delicate balance achieved by the novel. It tells a story of “ordinary people” doing their best, if not always the best, to cope with tragedy.

In this series’ last entry, I’ll compare the artistic translation — the film itself — with the literal translation suggested by the cards and consider how screenwriter Alvin Sargent dealt with the challenges presented by Beth.

Comments Off on Exercise in Literal Transation III

Exercise in Literal Translation II

In the first entry of this series, I presented a literal translation as a waystation toward an artistic one, both for students seeking to learn the way of speaking from a foreign film — and screenwriters bent on translating a book into a film.

I first connected the two types of translation when a working screenwriter-director, on learning that I’d be undertaking an adaptation, suggested I begin by recording what happens in each chapter of the original book on index cards.

Index Cards

Not quite ready to work directly on the text of The Journeys of Socrates, I decided to turn the proposed technique into an exercise and assign each scene in the novel Ordinary People to one card. (Quick reminder: a new scene begins with change in either time or location.)

Another screenwriter had previously advised me to color code my cards, assigning each major character a different color.

Ordinary People has three major characters: Conrad, a teenager; his father, Cal; and his mother, Beth. It also has several important supporting characters: Dr. Berger, Conrad’s psychiatrist; Karen, Conrad’s friend from the hospital; and Jeanine, the new student he meets on returning to school.

I only had four different color cards, so I assigned blue, yellow, and green to Conrad, Cal, and Beth, respectively, and saved pink for the two love stories, one romantic with Jeanine and the other platonic with Dr. Berger.

I numbered them to reflect the order of scenes in the book. As you can see in the picture (below), the first card, or scene, belongs to Conrad; the second and third to Cal; the fourth and fifth to Conrad; and the sixth to the love story (Conrad and Jeanine). Beth doesn’t take significant independent action until the tenth scene.

Ordinary People Index Cards

In doing this exercise, I hoped to strip away description and dialogue and lay bare what my dad and I call the “golden thread” of the story — more on that in my next post. I also wanted to answer some key questions:

     • Which character appeared in the most scenes, therefore      identifying himself (or herself) as the natural protagonist of the      story (as presented by the novel)?

     • Which characters (if any) appeared in few scenes but still had a      major impact on the plot (and vice versa)?

     • Where did the inciting incident, the turning points, and the      midpoint scenes fall in the cards and how would that correspond      with the conventional wisdom on screenplay structure? In other      words, to what extent does a good novel resemble a strong      screenplay?

     • How were scenes in the novel ordered so as to introduce      characters and their relationships to one another?

     • How did the novel arrange scenes into sequences, groups of      related scenes, that might translate into film?

Let me say now that the exercise enabled me to answer these questions and illuminated some important challenges that the actual screenwriter Alvin Sargent had to overcome in order to succeed with his adaptation.

Perhaps you’ll want to try out this exercise yourself? Regardless, you can now read the next post in the series.

Comments Off on Exercise in Literal Translation II

Exercise in Literal Translation I

The unexpected connections between high school French and grown-up adventures in screenwriting


When I studied French in high school, I didn’t yet understand how to learn a language. Watching French movies with English subtitles only encouraged me to believe that the characters were speaking near word-for-word equivalents of the sentences I read.

At their best, subtitles represent a loose rendering of the actual words spoken by characters in a foreign language film, and there’s good reason for that: a literal translation simply wouldn’t convey the style, emotion, or even meaning of the dialogue in its original tongue.

Good subtitles draw upon different words to support the illusion that, in this case, the French and English viewer are seeing the exact same film. (Same story, different texts – as my dad and I explore in much greater depth in The Creative Compass.)

Likewise, a great book-to-film adaptation manages a small miracle: it at once fulfills devoted readers’ expectations of familiarity; makes them feel as though they’re discovering, for the first time, territory to which they’ve already staked a claim; and welcomes viewers not familiar with or even necessarily interested in reading the original book.

The most successful examples of such adaptations leave the first group of fans mostly unaware of the many, many changes required to stimulate someone’s exclamation that a film was “just like the book!”

To return to the original analogy, however, in order to learn a language, I needed to pay greater attention to that literal translation, because it’s an essential intermediate step.

By my mid-20s, I’d studied several other languages and I had a better grasp of how best to go about doing do so: I watched dozens of hours of Arabic soap operas without subtitles and it forced me to focus on the words spoken. The ones I did know helped me to guess at the meaning of those I didn’t. I deconstructed the dialogue in my mind so as to build on a dictionary-like database of words, phrasings, and expressions.

I needed the parts in order to to build my own whole. I needed to be able to make sense before I could hope to make art. In my ongoing efforts to learn the language of cinema, I’ve turned to a similar strategy.

Read the next post in the series.

Comments Off on Exercise in Literal Translation I

Your Story in 25 Words (or Fewer)

If you’ll be in the DC area come May, please mark your calendars:

GBook Festival

On May 17, I’ll be presenting, signing books, and offering a free one-hour workshop at the Gaithersburg Book Festival: Your Story in 25 Words (or Fewer).

What if one magical sentence could help you define and strengthen your story, as well as anchoring a plan for revision? In this one-hour workshop, you’ll learn how to formulate a What If question and discover how 25 (or fewer) words can transform both your latest project and your writing process.

If you’ve read The Creative Compass then you’re already familiar with the What If Question — and the workshop will help you practice generating creative questions with a like-minded group.

GBook Festival 2

In the meantime, you can read more about where I find my ideas, what I do about writer’s block, and what my presentation has to offer you in this Q&A:

Where do you go to find your ideas?

     The net of my mind dredges the riverbed of my everyday      experience and brings up all kinds of treasure — dreams, notions,      questions and answers, most of which I can’t use. The ideas that      ultimately give rise to stories, articles, or other projects, the ones      that stick, will reveal themselves only over time and through      experimentation.

     These ‘sticky’ ideas (explored in greater depth in my book, The      Creative Compass) have one element in common: they matter to      me on some deep level. They matter enough to return again and      again, whether in the same or different guise. It’s as if there are      certain rivers that periodically intersect with mine, so that I become      familiar with their cargo. And, at the right moment, it becomes      mine as well. And the pattern that emerges over time points not      only to what I write but who I am.

What do you do when you have writer’s block?

     I can always write something, of course. But there are plenty of      times when I don’t particularly like what I’m writing, and that      brings both frustration and relief . . .

Read more here.

Comments Off on Your Story in 25 Words (or Fewer)

On Doing What Works

The Zeigarnik effect!

This past weekend, I stumbled upon scientific support for the method that helped me to draft The Creative Compass. In an earlier post (on drafting), I wrote:

At first, I aimed to complete one chapter per day, but I quickly fell back on an older strategy: In two to six hours of daily writing, I aimed to produce only the first 300 words of that day’s chapter, knowing that it would be easier to pick up from where I’d left off as I completed each draft the following day, producing about 1,000 words total [end of one chapter, beginning of the next] for the day.

This strategy worked for me, and it turns out to have a psychological basis in the Zeigarnik effect, which I read about on The Bulletproof Musician (via Harmonious Bodies).

Ph.D. performance psychologist Noa Kageyama describes how study participants who successfully completed a difficult puzzle in the given time “were far less likely to resume working on [any of] the puzzles in their free time than those who did not complete the puzzle.”

The bottom line:

[W]hen interrupted in the middle of a task, not only were participants more motivated to resume working on that task, but they also continued working on it for much longer.

Kagayama draws upon these studies to make some great suggestions for getting started — and his thoughts prompted a personal revelation.

Sometimes it’s easy to miss obvious connections — only now do I realize that it might help me to consciously draw on the Zeigarnik effect in each of my projects, whether practicing singing or guitar or even my daily workout. I’ve always thought I craved a sense of completion in each day’s work, but maybe I actually need the sense of a task undone to bring me back to it the following day (or sooner). More on this once I’ve tried it. (Or perhaps you already have? Let me know by email or twitter.)

In this case, I know this strategy works because it has already worked for me: it helped me to produce a published book. As I continue to document my own adventures in screenwriting, however, I’m going to be writing about untested strategies — and when I say untested I don’t mean that I won’t try them out myself and report back, but that it may be a while before I see the success that generally confers a halo upon any work that led up to it.

So, in the meantime, why should you try out any of these strategies? It’s a fair question.

My answer: You should do so only if the strategy intrigues you, and you should keep doing so only if it actually works for you. By ‘works’ I mean: Does it produce results? Does it make you want to keep going? Does it lead to new discoveries? Does it synthesize with other tested knowledge? If it doesn’t work for you, then that’s really all that matters — not whether it worked for Mozart or Michael Jordan or Meryl Streep. Or me.

Psst! It’s going to take me one more week to return to the question I raised here. Thanks for your patience.

Comments Off on On Doing What Works

Five Stages of The Creative Compass


Just a couple of months ago, my dad and I wrote a series of blog posts in which we put our own model to work to describe the process of creating our book. If you’re new to the blog or just want to revisit the series, for your convenience:


Dan and Sierra’s First Collaboration

Collaborating on The Creative Compass

Beginning The Creative Compass


Dreaming The Creative Compass


Drafting The Creative Compass


Developing The Creative Compass


Refining The Creative Compass


Sharing The Creative Compass

Comments Off on Five Stages of The Creative Compass

Dreaming for the Silver Screen

Best reminder that it's not about the dialogue? A film that doesn't have any (well, not much).

Best reminder that it’s not about the dialogue? A film that doesn’t have any (well, not much).

Since we all dream in movies, whether awake or asleep, it seems like it should be the easiest thing in the world to put one down on paper. Except that I’ve never found it particularly easy to write down my dreams.


In The Creative Compass, my dad and I write about what we call the Dream stage, that circle of concentration in which we pluck tantalizing ideas from the dark corners of our minds and cultivate them.

We also talk about the need to translate those ideas into a language that can be understood and felt — the act of writing for others. This translation requires multiple levels of fluency. My own experience of the movies reminds me of the many people I’ve met who grew up listening to Arabic or Spanish or Chinese, understanding it well enough, but not speaking it much, because their parents and communities didn’t force them to do so.

Watching movies, reading critical reviews, going to Oscar parties — all great fun, but they don’t teach us to speak the language of cinema. What will? Let’s continue this discussion next week.

Comments Off on Dreaming for the Silver Screen

The Opening Image

Jim Sheridan’s film In the Name of the Father strikes me as having a particularly strong opening. It’s not the literal opening image — a corner pub — that tells us anything especially significant but the brief sequence it introduces.

Before we see anything, we hear (Bono & Gavin Friday). The music sets the mood for the film. It is at once distressing and enticing. I first saw the film on video, but if I’d been in a movie theater, I imagine I would have felt as well as heard the music – sound is touch, after all.

In The Dramatist’s Toolkit, Jeffrey Sweet writes:

Many of the great dramatists had a flair for heightening the effect of their scenes by choosing unusual or particularly dramatic objects.

Terry George and Jim Sheridan chose a simple object to connect us with people almost immediately snuffed out: a purse. First, they need to make sure we see it: a nameless woman hits her companion with it. Next, we see it illuminated as she enters the pub. Seconds later, the pub explodes and we see it once more when it hits the ground outside, this potent image within an image.

After less than a minute of screen time, we know why the film begins at that moment and we’re asking the only question that should matter at that moment: What’s going to happen next?

Comments Off on The Opening Image

Your Opening Moves

Every writer needs an Algonquin Round Table, if you know what I mean

Every writer needs an Algonquin Round Table, if you know what I mean . . .

A brief round-up of the most useful-sounding advice I’ve received, whether from people or books, on what we should do before we draft:

1. Watch great movies (with a stopwatch!):

It’s not enough to just watch movies or read screenplays, so say the practitioners. A great screenplay transcends formula by fulfilling viewers’ expectations in a novel way, but screenwriting has a formulaic element. As viewers, we expect, for instance, an illuminating sequence that will introduce plot, characters, setting, theme, and mood, and a three-act structure, formed from two major turning points and a midpoint, each of which will meaningfully change the values of the plot.

The click of a stopwatch — whether every minute or two, or at that point we think might form a turning point — forces a pause in the movie we’re watching and reminds us to analyze what’s happening and when it happens. It prompts us to ask: What’s the form, pace, and rhythm of the action otherwise streaming by on screen? And it encourages us to draw our own conclusions as to what’s satisfying and why, insight we can take back to our own work.

2. It’s never too early to start thinking in images:

Just as cooks handle food but must think in flavors, screenwriters set out to build images (and experiences!) with words. And I’m realizing that the word ‘image’ stands in for a multitude of ways that films strive to bring together visuals and sounds so as to stimulate all the senses, an idea I’ll expand upon in a future post.

3. First, build your story. Then, write your screenplay:

No, it’s not necessarily any easier if you’re working on an adaptation. A novel tells one version of an author’s story, but film must often tell another; different mediums, different needs. The same story, in transition from one medium to another, requires a different telling if the story is to evoke the same power when seen as when read (for instance). I wrote about the essential first step, defining your story, in The Creative Compass, and my thoughts are expanding and evolving as I continually experiment. More on that too later.

4. When it comes to adaptation, it’s helpful to first consider the ‘literal translation’ from source to script:

First, what’s a literal translation? When playwrights or screenwriters turn translator, they don’t always know the source language, so they might commission a sentence-by-sentence translation from a linguist; then it’s their job to transform functional prose into dramatic poetry. Likewise, it’s possible to excavate scenes and dialogue directly from a novel or other source material so as to consider which elements of the story in its original incarnation easily translate into film and which will require major developmental revisions.

And it’s not only adaptations or screenwriting — the metaphor of translation is a potent one for all writers, one to which I will return soon.

But why ‘useful sounding’ advice? you might ask.

I’m making my opening moves now, and I’ll report back on my own learning curve in the hopes that my experience, once processed, contributes to yours.

Comments Off on Your Opening Moves