Production 212: The Internship Continues

Production-212-Logo-1By Dave Foxx

So far, reaction to this ‘intern’ idea has leaned to the positive. Only a few responses, which is not unusual, but they’ve been pretty much a ‘thumbs up’. One grizzled radio producer (his words) in Virginia even asked if his career would suddenly be brilliant when we’re done. I make no promises but can assure you that as remedial as this all is for some, there will be a nugget or two you can take away. I’ve even surprised myself a few times. Just the act of sitting down and writing out things I know has exposed some ideas I had only suspected were there.

The offer continues to have you write with questions or better insights to set me straight. My email is dave@davefoxx.com, and I won’t quote any message without prior permission. This month’s column also includes a small piece of homework. You can feel free to submit it or not. I think you’ll benefit most from just doing it on your own.

Here then is the first Tool you need to know and understand: Writing.

Intern’s Syllabus II: Writing With Style

Before anyone can hope to successfully communicate anything to an individual, group or mass audience, one must master the tokens we use to express ourselves, words.

The late George Carlin took great delight in shocking his audience by talking about the seven words that ‘polite’ society and broadcast media simply forbid. While I was wiping away the tears of laughter, I got his underlying message that words are really just tokens, the currency of communication. If society decides that the word “bologna” means a processed bit of beef that makes a nice sandwich, pretty much everyone can say “bologna sandwich” and know that every listener will understand what he or she is talking about. Bologna isn’t the bit of beef. It’s just a noise we use to communicate the idea of bologna.

Every word in every language is a token that denotes a person or thing, an action, the object of an action, or is an accepted descriptor or connector. When you string a bunch of words together, they individually have meanings and also take on new meanings from the words they are around. The first meaning a word has is the denoted meaning. By itself, bologna means that bit of processed beef. Surround the word bologna with the right words and it can mean ‘false information.’ When you surround a word with other tokens, each with its own meaning, that word takes on a new connoted meaning. The connotation of words is where good writers spend most of their energy.

Writing, “See Dick run,” tells the reader to look at Dick while he moves rapidly. While the economy of words is wonderful, it certainly doesn’t create much of a picture beyond stick figures in the reader’s mind. Add a few adjectives and adverbs like, “See fat, surly Richard, panting and gasping, trying to keep up with the pack during his morning run,” the picture changes completely. It also makes the sentence a LOT longer. If you’re writing a book or column like this, it hardly matters. The story is much more important than the geography you take to tell it.

As broadcasters though, we have to live by a different set of rules. Books, magazines and newspapers are all block media; they are presented all at once in a big block and it is left to the reader to decipher what the writer meant. Movies, television and radio are linear media. All the words or pictures come out one at a time. More importantly, the time we’re allotted is limited, so we must choose which words we’re going to use very carefully and construct them even more carefully.

Regrettably, one of the greatest lost arts is writing long form programs for radio. The radio comedies and dramas of the ‘30s and ‘40s were so perfectly written for that age, people who lived through it still talk about how amazing it was to gather around the radio and listen to The Green Hornet or The Burns And Allen Show. The dialogue was terse, to be sure; short and to the point, but it was far from “See Dick run.” One of the greatest writing achievements ever, was Orson Welles’ (and others) adaptation of H.G. Wells’ War Of The Worlds. The presentation Mercury Theater On The Air gave in 1938 took a novel set in the late 18th century, which would take several hours to read aloud, re-set it in then present day New Jersey and wrapped it all up in under an hour. Though stories of the panic it caused are somewhat overinflated, one speech and dramatic arts professor I had, who in 1938 was an announcer on KSL-AM, related that he left the studio for home in Salt Lake City just as the show began on the Columbia Broadcasting System. When he came into work the next morning, the switchboard operators (from the night before) were still there, answering call after call, after call, calmly reassuring listeners that it was just a radio show.

This is the power of these little tokens we call words. (Well, if you insist, the sound effects might have helped a little.) About two-thirds of that broadcast was presented as news bulletins, which certainly lent an air of reality to it, but listening to it today, you can hear the economy of words. The dialogue was snappy, using one word where many would use two or three. The only thing I can point to today that is written on that level is some television dramas. Tom Selleck’s series Blue Bloods on CBS springs to mind. The dialogue is most often very snappy and quick. Elementary, another CBS offering starring Johnny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu fairly crackles with the repartee. On the comedic side, Big Bang Theory, still another CBS show is hugely popular because the lines go by so quickly, the jokes start to pile up. (I’m not really sure why ALL of my examples are on CBS, but I suspect the network is always looking for writers who can deliver that wickedly fast paced dialogue.)

The fast, clever and yet intense dialogue on these shows is exactly how you should be writing your promos and commercials. If you’re thinking, “But Dave, that’s all dialogue between two or more people. I’m writing a monologue… one person speaking to an audience.” That is precisely the problem with almost every bad commercial or promo out there. You’re writing a monologue? Not. Even. Close. If you want to communicate effectively, you must enter a dialogue.

Remember the first two types of communications we described in beginning of this syllabus? They both depend heavily on feedback from the listener. It is only the third type of communication, broadcasting – where there is no feedback. However, to be truly effective in communicating, you have to at least behave as if there IS. You must be so blindingly clear with every word you write, that the feedback will always be completely predictable.

A bit of homework to illustrate my point on a completely personal level: Write one full page of dialogue. I want you to write the dialogue between two people talking about your favorite movie. For this assignment, assume that one person has seen the movie and the other has not. Since it is your favorite movie, you can make the person who has seen it yourself. The person who has not seen it is someone you’ve just met. Jump past all the introductory stuff and get right to, “Have you seen __________?”

Take your time and avoid giving the plot of the movie away, but still make the movie seem very enticing. You should also assume that the second person is at least mildly interested in the beginning. By the end of that page, he/she should be ready to go see it immediately.

When you have finished, take out ALL of the second person’s words, leaving just yours. If you have written well, what you are then holding will be an excellent script for a commercial for your favorite movie. You would probably replace some of the second person’s words with actual sound clips from the movie, to help illustrate what a great movie it is if you were to actually make a commercial out of it. The point here is the truly amazing commercials and promos you hear will always be wrapped around half of a dialogue.

Here’s the trap though. It must be absolutely believable dialogue. Too many clichés, too many worn out phrases will weaken your dialogue to the point where it is not believable at all. The weaker your dialogue, the less effective your communication becomes. Effective communicators on a personal level seldom use clichés. If they do, it’s usually to set up an explanation they want to make. They will never simply use a worn out bon mot and let it stand. One truism I’ve discovered in life is that most people actually misunderstand clichés. You assume they’ll know what you mean, when in fact they have no clue, but they’ll think they understand because they’ve heard that phrase before.

Like anything else in life that is worth doing, writing takes practice. Many times, a young author will be described as ‘brilliant’ when they release a bestseller. But if one goes back and reads earlier works by the same author, it’s often disappointing. If you truly want to keep this tool useful, you need to constantly sharpen it by writing. Write something every day, even if it’s a simple diary or journal. Write scripts for commercials or promos regularly, even if someone else has already written the script you have to use. Take their idea and refine it, hone it to perfection and make it bristle with energy. Then file it away for a day when someone needs you to do the writing. Even if it needs a complete re-write by then, you’ll have a substantial head start and will deliver a superior bit of work quickly and with seemingly little effort.

Next time, we’ll look at your tool called music.

For this month’s audio, I am presenting a promo that was completely written and mostly produced by my intern, Becca. She’s almost done with her internship now. Of course, instead of waiting a month for each installment of this syllabus, she’s getting it every day, three or four days each week. We spent several days talking about writing in the beginning. Of course, writing is the river from whence all good production flows, so we were even more thorough than I can be in one column. I also must be candid though and tell you that she came with some talent in this department to begin with.

All I gave her to work with was a bullet point memo, outlining what needed to be included. The phrasing, the energy and flow are all her. All I really did with the production was clean up a few misplaced musical edits. I’ve gotten several bits of praise for this promo, but now the world knows… Becca did it.

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