IT DEPENDS: Choosing the Medium - How You Tell Your Story Has Consequences

One of the first decisions a writer makes it choosing what medium to tell your story. Christopher Schiller highlights the dangers that could lurking in your choice of medium.
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One of the first decisions a writer makes it choosing the medium to tell your story. Christopher Schiller highlights the dangers that could lurking in your choice of medium.

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Stories are flexible things. Gathered around the campfire the same story can change dramatically with each new telling. Stories that are told by a storyteller have a different character than the same story written in a book. Act it out on a stage and it will be different again and so on with movies, television or any other medium. The medium chosen informs the message, colors it, gives it character and nuance different from all other ways of telling the story.

Sometimes a story works best in one particular medium better than all the rest. Consider the failed, unproduced stage play Everybody Comes to Ricks that worked out much better as a film with a different title. It wasn’t just changing the name of the piece to Casablanca that made the difference. There’s some magic that happens when you find the right form to tell your story in just the right way. But, like everything written about in these columns, there can be dangers lurking in the choice of medium. As always, it depends.

For your story, the medium is (a large part of) the message

Though Marshall McLuhan may have gone a bit far by dismissing the value of content so handily, he was onto something about the importance of choice of medium for the message your story intends, at least to get to the best audience for your work. How many of us have read a wonderful novel and gone to see the movie made from it only to be left disappointed? The story must change to fit the medium and the choices made in those changes can be benefits or detriments to the audience’s enjoyment. Matching medium and story is an art and is not always a straightforward choice. And the same story told in a different medium requires a different fit and polish.

Some stories need strong character structure that certain media can excel in. Other stories thrive in an expanded universe whose scope and breadth can only properly (and economically) be expressed in a medium that allows the audience to use their imagination to fill the details. Some stories are light and fluffy tidbits, some are dense, serious and thought provoking. Every story benefits by finding the medium that best fits its shapes, though it is rare that any story fits the medium just perfectly.

Pitfalls for each story form choice

There is no perfect storytelling medium. It could be surmised that stories vary so much that no medium is shaped perfectly to fit all variations (square peg, round hole syndrome.) I like to think that stories are actually bigger than the medium they’re told within. They flop over the sides and while most of the story can work well in the chosen medium there is always the possibility of the story fitting as well, just differently, in another medium (those novels that really do make good movies, for example.)

Even if you find an adequate medium to tell your story that’s a decent enough fit, there are issues you need to be aware of that comes with each choice of medium that can affect the telling, reception and audience reached by that choice. And there are legal and business consequences to each medium that tag along to make things difficult.

Example story, fitted to different media

Let’s take a single story idea that can take different shapes within the bounds of different media but still be recognizably the same story. Then let’s apply this story in many different media to derive the problems and issues we’ll need to address if we choose to tell that story in that chosen medium. We’ll leave aside, for the sake of simplicity, the known difficulties of adapting a story into the different media as an exercise in creativity. We’ll focus on the practical aspects and consequences of medium choice.

A very flexible story type that works and conforms well in many different media forms is the biography. Let’s assume our story is the lifelong tale of a particularly interesting, real life individual. How does the form of storytelling medium affect the end product?

Medium - Novel

The medium with typically the least number of participating entities involved in getting a story to market is the non-fiction novel. In a simplified world there is the author, editor, and the publisher. Of course we don’t live in a simplified world and our chosen story adds its own inherent complexities as well. Still, it’s a place to start.

Since the story is based on a real person we would have to deal with acquiring life rights, not only for the main character but also for all the significant or significantly impacted or exposed surrounding people in their life. We have dealt with what life rights are before in these columns, so you can brush up on the details if you’ve forgotten. How many people’s life rights you might need to acquire is never a fixed number and depends a lot on how risk averse your buyer (in this case, publisher) might be. Immediate family, business associates, extended family, exposed third parties to less than complementary depictions, etc. all should be considered as potential lawsuits waiting in the wings if you don’t preemptively acquire a binding promise not to sue.

Mind you, it is possible to negotiate for life rights for only a novelization of a person’s life, but, that’s probably not a good idea. If you either change your mind of what kind of medium would work best or have a best seller and Hollywood comes knocking, you’d really hate to not have the rights in place to move forward in those other categories. That’s why you see the seemingly silly, all inclusive language used in these types of transfers, e.g. “in all media now existing or to be invented, in all territories throughout the universe,” or some such. They really do try to cover any and all possibilities. But between you and me, they still trip up and miss some big ones now and then. In the aftermath, the language gets broader still.

Let’s assume you’ve gotten all the rights of the involved parties sussed and you’ve negotiated an iron clad contract with your publisher. They in turn have sewn up the contracts and rights assignments and/or work made for hire details if employees of the publisher, of the jacket artist, the editors and printers, etc. and all the international deals are up and up with all their countries’ rights and responsibilities correctly arranged. (Don’t forget about droit moral when checking all the boxes internationally.)

Depending on how the novelist’s contract divvies up the copyright of the work, the writer should be set to enjoy the fruits of the medium and the reading audience have something new to savor. And if someone wants to take that novel and explore it in a new medium we’re all set to follow that path.

Medium - Stage play

Now that we’ve sketched out the main issues that need attention in one of the smallest spheres of media, let’s broaden that scope a little and bring the story onto the theatre stage.

The writer’s creative approach to writing for the stage is much different than writing for the page. There are limitations that constrict, but, also opportunities to enliven characters with flesh and blood depictions that might be incredibly hard to accomplish in a book. And as for the legal and business implications of taking the story in this new direction, the surprises and complications are multiplied as well.

Of course all of the concerns of rights acquisition and ownership in the novel context are still in force for theater work. Traditionally, the stageplay author is empowered with control over all aspects of the developing work. All changes have to be initiated or approved by the writer and the writer usually retains the copyright of all input into the final depiction. That adds a complication layer since a great new idea of how to play a character by an actor may add issues in the rights that were granted from the person being depicted. Fictionalizing a real life character can lead to the realm ofdefamationor other forms of reputational harm. And if the changes originated from someone other than the writer who has been granted the appropriate life rights waivers, the grant may not cover the actor’s inventive approach even if- or maybe because- the writer owns the rights to all inventions that end up as part of the play.

The audience imagination depended upon in the novel is embellished by interpretations of art and set design, costuming, music and all the accouterments of a modern professional production. All of those artistic contributions need to be contractually handled properly. And their interpretation in the original life rights schema need to be considered. People can sue if the set built didn’t look as grand as the real home did, or even if it looks too grand. Better make sure that broad coverage language in the rights grants is really broad and fully covering.

It’s not all dire for creative expression when dealing with real life elements. Freedom of speech exists in some form in most countries and allows some flexibility of the telling of stories that are rooted in real life events. Real life is mostly boring. Inventiveness, in moderation and not altering the true story too much, is allowed to keep the audience entertained. But it must be moderated within the bounds of acceptability, otherwise you’re taking a big risk.

One saving grace with theatre is that it is of the moment. It is live on the stage and then a memory. A performance can quickly be shut down if offense is found. This sounds like a tragedy and not a grace from a creative’s standpoint, but, the ephemeral nature and limited public exposure of each instance is a significant factor when judging the damage done when gone astray. It’s a much bigger issue in media that have a much broader audience attentive to each viewing and that continue to exist beyond their creation date.

The permanent media

Though a novel is a permanent fixture, its traditional audience is limited to one at a time. A successful stage play may have a captive audience of hundreds at a performance, but, after that few hours of magic little remains behind other than a few Playbills and a commemorative t-shirt or two. Moving a story into the realm of fixed media with much larger and longer lasting potential audiences such as those available to film and television opens up even more complications of legal and business ramifications to be considered.

For the same reasoning that the law used to separate the crimes of slander (talking bad about someone) from libel (writing bad about someone), the size of the audience and timeframe in which the offense can exist increases the damage that can be done. So the protections for reputational harm amplify accordingly to length and breadth of the exposure to the harm.

And film, television and the Internet reach wide audiences and hang around a very long time.

Medium - Documentaries

First let's look at one of these broad and wide media that, by its own internal limitations, have less expectation of reputational harm. Documentaries can be loosely defined as the telling of true tales. There is a truth level expected in a good documentary. The facts are expected to be researched and presented as truthfully as possible. It may be a biased presentation, but, it is expected to be factual. Fiction is right out. Therefore, well-researched and well-formed documentaries are by nature more factual and therefore more difficult to be hit with defamation lawsuits. Though a documentarian still needs to be aware of telling hidden truths, never before revealed to the public. These efforts, though tantalizing, could run afoul of a variation of defamation called making public private facts. Unless found to be of a protectable level of newsworthiness or sufficiently within the scope of public figure or limited public figure matters of interest to the public, the documentary could be in trouble.

Usually documentaries also don’t have to deal with actor portrayals so can avoid the mine fields those may bring up in “interpretation” as above. But there is a modern trend in many docs to re-enact scenes that are difficult (or boring) to depict in other ways, leading to the same headaches that narrative works face in depicting real people and events.

Medium - Screenplay for film

A narrative screenplay depiction of a true life event and the people involved takes on all the headaches of most of the previously discussed media conundrums. It has the flexibility that stage plays have of freedom of speech allowing certain liberties to be taken to make the story, still mostly true, just more interesting. For instance take the film Fat Man, Little Boy (1989)that depicts the true life events around the creation of the first atomic bombs built and used during World War II. One of the main characters whose life experiences take us through all the dramatic events of history, never existed! He was made up for the film. He interacted with portrayals of real people doing the real things they did back then, but, creative license was taken in order to string the disparate events together into a narrative whole.

Similar techniques have served cinema since its inception. That’s why you will often see “true” stories described in the credits as, “based on” or “inspired by” or some other qualifying language that reflects the deviation taken by the authors to tell the truth while staying entertaining. Then there is the all inclusive credit language at the end of all films that supposedly depict real events and real people that starts off something like, “Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or to actual historical events is purely coincidental...” Even when the film is intended to be- and marketed as- based on real life events, you’ll see this coincidental language. It’s de rigueur catch all phrasing foisted on the filmmakers by the legal staff to attempt to head off any, “Hey, that’s me on screen and I’m offended!” law suites. It sometimes works.

The fact that a film is released (hopefully) to an exceptionally wide audience and is often around and available for decades after production is wrapped amplifies the impact any misstep or misstatement may have. So you need to be extra careful because the potentials are so much bigger.

Medium - Television series or limited run

When you step into telling the story in the longer form media, there are even more complications that ensue. Although creatively, the expanse of opportunity to tell even broader and more complex story elements during the course of the television series run is enticing, it is also intimidating. Over the course of time characters and ideas can change, evolve and grow into something that was not envisioned in their inception. If based on real life or real events, is this evolution problematic?

Consider the television series M*A*S*H(1972-1983). The story behind it is based on real life. There really were mobile Army surgical hospitals during the Korean War. It is also a story that has transformed through multiple media tellings. It was originally a 1968 novel, MASH: A Novel About Three Army Doctors by Richard Hooker. It then had a raucous retelling in the Robert Altman hit film MASH (1970) before settling for decades as a quality television staple.

M*A*S*H’s evolution resulted in lots of changes. You not only had a novelist’s interpretation of the characters to start with, you had multiple actors interpreting the same character in the different iterations. And as the TV series continued, how those characters were depicted changed and evolved. Did the doctors and nurses who served in Korea at those hospitals recognize themselves on screen in the characters portrayed? Did they feel kindly reflected or made fun of?

The fact that the television show ran for much longer than the original war did allowed for an incredible amount of change and evolution, each one potential for offending someone who identified themselves with the depiction. The fact that reruns of M*A*S*H can still be seen daily across the globe keeps the potential of descendants of those doctors and nurses to be influenced by the depictions and ask of their relatives, “Which one of those people was Grandpa?”, leading to some potentially awkward conversations.

And the evolution of complications doesn’t end with traditional broadcasting-style storytelling media.

Medium – Online and new media variations

The new forms of storytelling media evolving from online and technological advances can be staggering. Both in the potential for new ways of telling stories and new ways those depictions are being experienced opening up new potential avenues for offense.

Games based on real life sports characters have already run into trouble with unlicensed depiction of recognizable personalities. Video games that depict characters that have similar characteristics to famous people have come under fire as well. Even dance moves that were made famous by others have been sources of trouble when depicted in games recently.

And considering the broadening of experience amplifying the steps from the reliance on imagination of novels through the ever more realistic physical depictions of characters on stage and screen, are the hyper real depictions found within Virtual Reality (VR) systems going to amplify the impact and potential offense even more?

How will the consequences fall? As technologies evolve and we find more and more new media with which to tell stories as always, it depends.

More articles by Christopher Schiller

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