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Friday, August 04, 2006

This article in Scientific American talks about how chess masters perceive the board differently than novices -- in chunks, not pieces, the way you and I see words, not bundles of letters.

I think I do that, in my field. When I have a screenplay in my head, I sort of "feel" it. I don't think in terms of beats, though beats are what I write down. I think in terms of story structures. In other words I don't see a beginning, a middle, and an end; I see a beginning-middle-and-end that all go together. If you're doing it right, the end has its seeds in the beginning, and the beginning defines the end, so you can hold it all in your head more easily than if you're doing it wrong. Comedians do the same thing. Ken Levine wrote in one of his posts about how Jim Brooks would come up with entire pages of dialog on the spot. It wasn't that he was having one insight after another. He had ONE BIG INSIGHT that gave him the whole run of jokes.

The article also mentions the notion that it takes 10 years to master any craft, whether science or chess or writing; but it's 10 years of "effortful" study, not just doing it. Most people learn how to do something well enough, and then stop learning. You're not really trying to learn to drive better every time you sit down at the wheel; you're just trying to avoid another fender bender. Your mind is not really engaged.
The one thing that all expertise theorists agree on is that it takes enormous effort to build these structures in the mind. Simon coined a psychological law of his own, the 10-year rule, which states that it takes approximately a decade of heavy labor to master any field. Even child prodigies, such as Gauss in mathematics, Mozart in music and Bobby Fischer in chess, must have made an equivalent effort, perhaps by starting earlier and working harder than others.

According to this view, the proliferation of chess prodigies in recent years merely reflects the advent of computer-based training methods that let children study far more master games and to play far more frequently against master-strength programs than their forerunners could typically manage. Fischer made a sensation when he achieved the grandmaster title at age 15, in 1958; today's record-holder, Sergey Karjakin of Ukraine, earned it at 12 years, seven months.

Ericsson argues that what matters is not experience per se but "effortful study," which entails continually tackling challenges that lie just beyond one's competence. That is why it is possible for enthusiasts to spend tens of thousands of hours playing chess or golf or a musical instrument without ever advancing beyond the amateur level and why a properly trained student can overtake them in a relatively short time. It is interesting to note that time spent playing chess, even in tournaments, appears to contribute less than such study to a player's progress; the main training value of such games is to point up weaknesses for future study.

Are you writing like that? Writing well enough, but not striving to erase your flaws and leverage your strengths? Five years ago my character work was weak, so I challenged myself to write more character based material. Now my stuff is mostly character based, and I can't stand to even watch procedurals any more.

What are your flaws? What are you doing to fix them?


Great article. Fits in well w/ what we know about the way that continuous practice of certain disciplines from an early age can actually alter the physical structure of the brain. Playing a musical instrument is the chief example.

Also goes a way toward explaining the success of people who crossover to screenwriting from some other writing or performance medium. Shakespearean actors, popular novelists, standup comedians, journalists, may have an advantage in solving the types of story problems faced by screenwriters.

By Blogger odocoileus, at 4:48 PM  

At last, some hope to those of us who have yet to become "overnight" successes!

My most glaring flaw at the moment is story planning/outlining. I get so excited about a new idea that I plunge into the script without having a firm idea of exactly what happens throughout the journey. I've managed to produce one script and many fragments this way but it still means that I have a huge amount of corrective rewriting to do.

In my quest to fix this and other flaws, I've read crates of screenwriting books (naturally, Crafty is my fave). I've also been reading lots of produced scripts, both good and bad, and comparing them to the finished product. DVDs with a screenwriter's commentary are immensely helpful in showing me how they "think" visually.

I hope to get training in screenwriting somewhere outside of fly-over country. Until then, all I can do is work.

By Blogger Abigail Prescott, at 11:03 PM  

good post, thanks! Not too many years to go if I just keep on working (and playing chess - it also keeps you alive, you know)

By Blogger Sal, at 4:32 PM  

I can't remember where I read it, but another thing is called the '1500 hour Rule'. It takes that many hours to master a skill. That means to reach the point where you do not actively think about it but just channel it. As any job is a series of skilled tasks then it makes sense that it would take 10 years to assemble enough base skills to become a Master.

By Blogger Hawise, at 6:11 PM  

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