What Is Better Than How

As a writer with several projects in active rotation, I learned long ago that ‘How’ matters much less than ‘What.’

The how is cool — we all like it when the style of a project (whether that be the way people dialogue, or a cool approach to screen direction or script narration) is well put together. But the ‘what’ of a story — the scene weave substance (AKA – this happens, then this happens, then this happens) — is always the boss. In fact, a beautiful script filled with wonderful turns of phrase is junk if the ‘what’ is weak.

The reality is that there are two kinds of scripts: those who are meant to impress readers, get an agent, get financing, etc., and those by established writers who don’t have to worry about ‘style’ on the page. The Coen Bros, for instance, aren’t worried about how the script reads — they know they’ll be okay because the script is already in, so to speak. Mortals like myself, however, have to constantly impress to raise financing, get an agent, get a project off the ground. So we pay attention to style. Maybe too much attention.

It’s pretty obvious, but you’d be surprised how many of us fall into this trap. I’ve spent lots of time making sure my scripts flow well — that the events in them are pleasing, almost poetic in their revelations and developments of themes. Also, that that they flow off the page in a well-turned phrase, or are free of typos, or have a pleasing look. And in trying to impress readers, it’s way too easy to put the cart before the horse.

Many times the ‘what’ — the true content of a story — is overlooked or even treated as secondary. But a quick glance at various scripts of great movies will often reveal typos, clumsy turns of phrase, and incomplete or poor formatting. The ‘what’ — the meat of the story, the scene weave — however, is usually dynamite (usually).

It’s a bit akin to a great cinematographer working hard to make a shot the most beautiful he can … but the contents of his shot is less than impressive. There are so many good-looking but vacuous indie films out there, films in which all of the work went into the presentation and not enough went into the content. They pass by like postcards, in and out in a moment with nothing left behind.

The same is true of writing on the page — sometimes, so much energy is spent making a sentence pretty, but not enough time is spent on what the sentence is about — the content of the thought

But next time when you sit down to write, make sure the What is first and foremost as good as you can make it. Then worry about the How.