in which four Russians give a master class on writing, reading and life |

(Photo: Random House)

Every Friday I write an original Filmmaker’s Bulletin, which is free for everyone. Always original and not archived on the site, they consist of various thoughts, musings, link recommendations and sometimes even early versions of parts that appear later here. And while yesterday’s “Top Ten News Posts of 2021” was determined using Google Analytics, I chose today’s “Top Newsletter of 2021” on a purely empirical basis. Forget the Mailchimp opening rates, this newsletter on George Saunders’ book on Russian writing and literature, A swim in a pond in the rain: in which four Russians give a master class on writing, reading and life, is simply the one on which I received the most direct feedback. Readers emailed me thanking me for recommending the book, and executives from two well-known companies both wrote to say that in one case the book was already in circulation among executives around the world. story while, in another, the manager quickly ordered it.

This slightly reissued 2021 pick is particularly timely because, in addition to purchasing the book, readers can also join its expansion: Saunders’ new Substack, Story Club with George Saunders. By publishing about twice a week, Saunders continues the educational momentum of the book, mixing comments on its own process with breakdowns from other works, starting with Ernest Hemingway’s story, “A Cat in the Rain.” . There’s also a community of readers who speak up in the comments, and, kudos to Saunders, he’s actively responding. The Substack is free for the moment, but a paywall will be set up soon. – SM

It had been a long time since I read a book on screenwriting. My first job in film was as a reader for New Line Cinema, and prior to this job I made sure I read the standard text of the day, Syd Field’s Scenario. Despite the fact that all the executives at the time were taking Robert McKee’s two-day course and raving about it, I waited until I read the Adaptation– the gurus represented Story… Until I finally do. But the two readings were a long time ago, and if someone asked me what to read today, I wouldn’t have an opinion on Save the cat! or any of the other books that have arrived in the years since.

But I just finished a book that I would recommend for writers, even though I didn’t know I would feel that way when I started it. The book is George Saunders’ short story A swim in a pond in the rain: in which four Russians give a master class on writing, reading and life. It is essentially a book version of a writing course on Russian literature that he teaches at Syracuse University, and it consists of six stories by Chekov, Tolstoy, Gogol and Turgenev, associated to Saunders’ description of how these stories work. This last clause is important: it is not, sometimes confusingly, a literary criticism with a cultural or historical tendency. It’s about the craft – how these stories produce the effects they produce in the reader. As such, Saunders’ observations of how the character is drawn and then modulated, how storytelling creates suspense and surprise, and how larger themes inform the action are solid instructions that can be applied. to the writer of all kinds of fiction, including screenplays.

More than novels, which are a bulkier form, short stories are particularly suitable for cinema. Or, perhaps, dissecting a short story can produce revelations that extend into the critique of a script. In his comments on Chekov’s “In the Cart”, for example, Saunders discusses the writer’s specific portrayal of a peasant woman heading into town before landing on this almost simplistic but nonetheless important observation: We call increases “Parcel”. Think about how many scripts you’ve read and read mechanically, not because the story rhythms are boring, but because the protagonist is so generically drawn that the beats don’t have enough psychology and backstory. to bump. And speaking of structure, from the same analysis, Saunders contributes this elegant aphorism: “We could think of structure as simply: an organizational scheme that allows history to answer a question that it has led to. ask the reader. “He continues:” One could imagine the structure as a form of call and response. A question arises organically from the story and then the story, with great consideration, answers it. If we want to create a good structure, we just need to be aware of the question we are asking the reader to ask and then answer that question. (Years ago editor Jim Lyons told me something similar about his process of editing feature films, attributing wisdom to Roland Barthes S / Z.)

A more blunt and funnier saying is Saunders’ phrase on “avoiding ritual banality”: “If we deny ourselves the crappo version of our story, a better version will present itself.” And then there’s maybe my favorite discussion in the book, which has to do with what Saunders calls “controversy” but which I think applies to a lot of scripts I read. These are scripts that take a protagonist on a tortuous journey to an overly simplistic resolution, which looks too tidy on the page. Saunders writes: “[A]In technical matters, fiction does not support controversy. Because the writer makes up all the elements, a story is not really able to “prove” anything. (If I make a dollhouse out of ice cream and put it in the sun, that doesn’t prove the notion, ‘Houses are melting.’) ”That’s not to say that a work of fiction can’t make political points, just that a story shouldn’t just be “a delivery system for [the author’s] ideas ”, a point he makes in his discussion of Chekhov’s“ Gooseberries ”.

But what I liked most about the book – aside from the opportunity to visit and revisit these classic stories – is Saunders’ emphasis on complexity, contradiction, and irony. As much as he breaks down the mechanics of writing in the service of things like character and theme, so much so he ultimately values ​​elements of a story that are almost ineffable, correctly identifying them as those that make it great. The last story discussed is that of Tolstoy, “Alyosha the Pot,” and Saunders admits that his own attitude towards it and his interpretation of the ending have changed dramatically over the years he’s taught the course. It is by no means a failure; it is this mysterious ambiguity, what Saunders calls the “wisdom of omission,” that has kept history alive and moving us decades later.

Either way, I could quote this book all afternoon but it’s about time I hit send, so I’ll do it now. Suffice to say, if you want to look at your own script with fresh eyes, consider reading this book and letting Saunders and his Four Russians inspire revisions to your next draft.

See you next week.


Scott Macaulay

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