Lessons from Lyric Poetry for Screenwriters
Lessons from Lyric Poetry for Screenwriters
I started my creative writing journey as a hybrid poet and storyteller. I remember sitting in the back of my parents’ car at the age of 7 or 8 writing haiku poems in my notebook. I loved the beautiful but intense creative pressure of the haiku form -- trying to capture the essence of things in 17 syllables is extraordinary. Later, as I learned more about poetry, I moved into sonnets and villanelles -- both forms that have strict syllable counts and metrical requirements. But I also have come to love imagist poetry, which has no formal structure and focuses instead entirely on capturing the feel of a moment frozen in time.
As a screenwriter, there are so many valuable lessons I have learned from the study of lyric poetry. If you never fell in love with lyric in school, I’m so sorry -- and I’m going to do my best here to share some thoughts on why picking up an anthology might sharpen a few of your most important skills as a writer.
On that note, I want to take a moment to reflect on what it is we actually do when we write. We are artists and architects -- we build worlds out of words. A painter has the tools of brushes, colors, and canvas and the techniques of perspective, light and shadow, and composition. What about a writer? We talk all the time about our technique -- the “rules” of dramatic writing, the principles of character and worldbuilding, the elegance of story structure and scene design. Comparatively, we spend very little time talking about our most important tools: syllables, syntax, and the blank page. But the more we appreciate and understand our tools, the more we can craft pages that not only serve as the blueprint for something beyond themselves, but also stand artistically on their own merits.
Lesson 1: Economy
“Economy” is a terrific word. It comes from two Greek words originally, oikos (“household”) and nemein (“to manage”). When we think about an “economy” of language, we really are talking about “household management”: providing what is needed, eliminating wastefulness, and creating an environment where growth and flourishing happens. We have to work within a budget: in a haiku, you get 17 syllables, and in a feature screenplay, you get 90 pages. You have to allocate your words carefully or you will run out of real estate.
But surviving on the page (staying under budget) is not the same as thriving on the page.
A study of lyric offers us the exciting opportunity to develop an awareness of our maximum impact per word. In household management terms, this is probably the equivalent of “stretching a dollar around the block”. If I choose my words carefully, I can get everything I need -- nothing more or less -- and stay under budget. The challenge -- and this is where lyric study really takes us to the next level -- is to make our lean writing beautiful and powerful. We don’t want to use “cheap” words. We want to use the best words.
You might have heard this expression before: “never use a quarter word when a nickel one will do.” This usually refers to pretentious vocabulary -- the kind of words you pull out when you want to win a game of Scrabble with a triple letter and a double word score. We don’t want to be pretentious, but we do want to be precise. We want to say exactly what we mean, and because lyric is such a compressed medium, it teaches us how to make smart decisions with our word choice.
The easiest place to start practicing this kind of economy is in your choice of verbs. Here’s an experiment to show you just how powerful verb choice can be. Let’s replace the phrase “walks quickly” with a single verb.
Draft: Kimmy walks quickly through the store.
- Kimmy strides through the store.
- Kimmy rushes through the store.
- Kimmy flits through the store.
If you look at these sentences, you should notice two things. First, I’ve saved myself real estate on the page. It doesn’t seem like much, but it adds up: I was just doing line edits on my new pilot script last night and these kinds of tweaks (along with eliminating unnecessary phrases) saved me an entire page over the course of the script. But secondly, and more importantly, I’ve now charged the sentence with emotion. I convey volumes about Kimmy just by changing a single word -- and I don’t have to “direct on the page” to communicate this, either.
For an example of the power of precise words and powerful verbs, here are a few lines from Thomas Hardy’s gorgeous poem, “The Darkling Thrush”:
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
Hardy could have chosen a different single syllable verb in place of “scored” and preserved the meter of the line, but the word is precise: to score something is to etch lines into it. Combined with the likeness to broken strings in the next line reinforces the feel of the entire poem: a winter world without song, and therefore without hope.
This is the power of economy when combined with our next lesson: figurative language.
Lesson 2: Figurative Language
Poetry is the language of “figures”: that is, likenesses and forms. It conveys these forms through many different vehicles, but the two most familiar types of figurative language are metaphors and similes.
Metaphors and similes work by putting two unlike things into relationship with each other. Similes use “like” or “as”, while metaphors assert a relationship of identity: x is y. In the example from “The Darkling Thrush” above, the tangled bine-stems are compared to broken lyre strings. As I said, the importance of this image in the poem as a whole is that it reinforces the narrator’s feeling that all the music in the world has died. This connects us to theme.
What about an outstanding example from a screenplay? The second sentence of Aliens (James Cameron) is this: “The stars shine like the love of God...cold and remote.” And in that one sentence, Cameron establishes the entire thematic universe of the story, as summed up in the film’s tagline: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” As you read scripts in your genre, pay attention to how the writers use figurative language not just to capture the feel of an image, but to gesture towards the story’s intangibles: emotional feel and theme.
Because of their compression, similes and metaphors work to communicate layers of information in just a few words. But figurative language encompasses more than these two devices. For example, if we want to convey sensory impressions, we can use onomatopoeia: words that sound like what they mean. Read the opening of A Quiet Place for an outstanding example of the use of this device. This film is all about the interplay between sound and silence, and so the writers use precise and powerful words to communicate the sound effects they’re trying to capture.
The final two lessons I want to share move us from words to our other two most powerful tools: the arrangement of words (syntax) and the blank page.
Lesson 3: Rhythm and Musicality
If you’ve spent any time studying lyric, you’ve probably had to mark off a poem’s meter: that is, the length and number of the syllables in a line. In my experience teaching lyric, most students have a love/hate relationship with scanning metrical lines: it either comes intuitively and easily, or it feels random and confusing. We’re not going to get into the weeds on this, but it’s important for prose writers to be aware that syllables have length, and that therefore words and phrases have a rhythm. Writing phrases and sentences is in many ways like writing music without the use of pitch.
I can change the entire feeling of a sentence just by choosing words with different syllabic lengths. I can change the feeling of a paragraph by shortening or lengthening my sentences -- this allows me to manipulate the reader’s pacing through the passage. This is, in my opinion, one of the tell-tale signs that a writer knows the full capability of her tools: if she understands how to make the words work on the page -- not on the level or meaning, but on the level of musicality -- then I know I’m in the hands of a true master of the craft.
Most writers develop a feel for this musicality intuitively. Phrases or lines of dialogue start to “feel” right or wrong, but we might not be able to say why. Reading lyric can help you develop your ear for the rhythms of words -- just like listening to enough music helps you feel the beat whenever a song comes on.
Why should we work on this skill? This is one of those intangible advantages you can give your writing. Your reader might not be able to say what it is that makes your writing a “page-turner” and a delight, but your sense of musicality and your ability to put words, phrases, and paragraphs together that flow and create an emotional effect will leave an impression.
Lesson 4: Managing the Margins
The final lesson we can learn from lyric has to do with the way we manage the white space on the page. I mentioned above that manipulating sentence length is a way to manage the reader’s pacing through a passage. The same thing goes for the management of the space on the page. As a great example of the use of the white space on the page to reinforce or layer in meaning, George Herbert used line lengths to create picture-poems -- check out his poem “The Altar” to see how this works.
The balance between action lines and dialogue creates a dynamic of flow. Think of the white space of the page like a river. Where there are obstacles protruding into the water from the riverbank (the description paragraphs), the current slows down. Where the river can flow more freely (dialogue), the current moves more quickly.
We should pay attention to the dynamics of the page. Again, this is one of those intangibles: ultimately, if done well, a reader shouldn’t realize that you’re making conscious choices in this regard. They’re just along for the ride -- and the feelings they experience on that ride are as carefully controlled as the physics of a roller-coaster.
If you look at a random page in your script, are there sticks protruding into your “river” all over the place? Do you alternate scene description and dialogue in a dizzying back-and-forth way? If so, can you smooth out the experience of the page by consolidating lines of description and allowing lines of dialogue to flow without interruption? Alternatively, are there long passages of dialogue where we blow through too quickly, without a moment to catch our breaths and experience a moment of emotion? All of this is in your control as a writer. Be aware of how the eye moves down the page, and craft the effect you want for the emotion of the scene and the feel of your story as a whole.
Remember -- while a script is not really the end goal of your story (the end goal is the visual medium of the screen), it needs to capture a reader’s imagination, and the only tools you have to accomplish that are the words you use and the blank page.
The study of any other medium of writing is a chance for us to empower ourselves through a better understanding of our tools. Lyric poetry is an incredible school for learning the possibilities of words beyond their meaning. Read poetry like you’d listen to music: a little bit each day will go a long way to developing your ear for the music of the words you write.
If you want to take your skills to the next level, try writing some poetry of your own, just for you. It’s a great playground for exploring your own preferences for images and sound combinations. And it’s a lot of fun!
I’ll close with one of my favorite haiku poems -- “A Poppy Blooms” by Katsushika Hokusai.
I write, erase, rewrite
Erase again, and then
A poppy blooms.
About the Author
S.K. is a screenwriter, author, and editor. Writing is in her blood and she's been penning stories since she was in grade school, but she decided to take an academic track out of college. She received her Ph.D. in Medieval Literature from the University of Notre Dame and has spent many years teac...