Jay Thornton opines how screenwriters must be storytellers who master multiple mediums, not slaves defined by them. Dive in for Jason's novel writing tips for screenwriters.
I was asked by Jeanne to take part in a recent #scriptchat that focused on #nanowrimo and screenwriters writing prose, but—thanks to a disengaged icemaker supply hose and a month of balmier-than-usual-for-Wisconsin-in-October weather (shoutout Global Warming!)—I was unfortunately suited up in a Tyvek HAZMAT suit and respirator like one of the goons boosting Bob Hope’s stool sample in The Salton Sea as I went to the aid of my Mother-In-Law by hauling out and shitcanning three and a half decades’ worth of photo albums and quilts and Cabbage Patch Kids and roller skates and rock collections and untold other precious memories and keepsakes of my wife’s childhood now desecrated by the hirsute hand of pubescent black mold. That said, I caught up on the chat and still wanted to throw down some thoughts (mostly on the motivational front), so here goes:
Let me preface this all by saying that as counterintuitive as it may sound in this age of specialization, I firmly believe that if we are to survive and thrive in the era of cross-media we must move away from entrenching or pigeonholing ourselves as screenwriters (let alone drawing a line between features and television) or novelists or poets or filmmakers or documentarians or comedians or orators and the like and henceforth start considering ourselves, ultimately, storytellers. We must be storytellers who play in and exploit and sometimes master these mediums, not slaves defined by them.
What do I mean by “storyteller?” As George Orwell astutely pointed out in his essential 1946 essay Why I Write, the primary compulsion to write is always sheer egoism. However, while ego may be what initially drives us to write, growing into a master storyteller is in its essence about altruism. It is about thinking of others, of the audience… always. It is about weaving for them a tale to inspire, to frighten, to caution, to titillate, to think outside of themselves, to see the universality in the human condition and hence unite us in a common spirit, to educate, to illuminate and—first and foremost if you are worth a damn—to entertain.
Are there differences in the mediums? Of course. But if you approach the art and craft of writing fiction with that pure intention, to entertain above all else, then all constraints and demarcations that delineate these seemingly disparate mediums start to fall away. In other words: even if you’re playing in different sandboxes, you’re still playing with sand. Be it screenwriting, prose, poetry—these scribblings are all merely time and space-transcending stand-ins for a group of people seated around the sacred fire as you hold court and spellbind them by way of a story. Yes, in their mechanics these mediums have different ‘rules’ by which you play, but to say a screenwriter cannot write the ‘Great American Novel’ is to say an urban firefighter would be useless in a forest fire. The fundamentals remain the same: deprive the flames of fuel and kindling and it is extinguished. Spellbind the audience and they are yours.
Okay, now that we’ve established that ‘storytelling is storytelling’ and pointed out what all mediums have in common in order to alleviate any fears you might have in making the jump from one to another, let’s discuss what makes them unique in form and function:
Screenwriting is a visual and auditory medium. When firing on all cylinders, a great film or series can use those two senses to excite the human brain in very powerful, visceral, experiential ways that prose or verse cannot. But in the end, cinema is a form of assault. It’s a hostage situation, albeit a participatory one, and a spoon with which you force-feed the audience at your desired pace and fury. Prose, however… prose is a meal laid out before them. They eat at their own pace. They can ponder and revel in the savory flavor of a passage, they can ruminate on its meaning and notes before moving on when they feel satisfied and have been intrigued and compelled to stay seated at the table eating long after they are full. While you use words to create the blueprint for a film in the form of a script, in cinema you use sound and images to introduce your audience to a world you’ve built. In prose you use words to help an audience build that world themselves, in their own minds. In screenwriting I advocate the simplicity of “see the film in your head, and transcribe that film.” In prose you have to dig much deeper, as there are less constraints or obstructions on you as a writer and hence more freedom (that’s the beauty and fun of it, and why it can be such a liberating—if daunting—experience for screenwriters).
If you are locking someone into the roller coaster car of your movie—be it a scenic, lazy teacup ride or a two-hundred mile per hour suspended highwire act—you dictate the terms. You owe it to the passenger to build suspense, to keep the landscape and speed with which they traverse it exhilarating and tailored to the thematic intent and tone of that particular ride. You can’t give them eighty barrel rolls in a row. But strategically place your barrel rolls and loops and slow builds and plummets and you will have some satisfied customers when the air brakes hiss and the ride reaches the terminal. They might even get right back in line to go again, this time appreciating on an even deeper level exactly how you manipulated their senses and mesmerized their minds.
Conversely, as opposed to being held captive on the moving train of cinema, to venture into a novel is more akin to wandering into a dark cavern that portends of mysteries (hopefully) held deep within. Sure, at times a reader might find themselves swept up in thrashing white waters or caught on the speeding abandoned mine cart of a prose set piece, but there is a freedom and luxury of time you are afforded as the writer and are likewise affording them. Take advantage of that when working in the medium of prose. Exploit it, have fun with it. You have much more leeway to dabble and experiment with point-of view (choosing the right POV is in fact a crucial opening battle in any prose campaign). You can take departures that would be for the most part untenable in film… you can engage in the senses of taste and touch and scent by mere word, second party through the reader’s complex neural network (how trippy is that?!). You can dive into a character’s thoughts and feelings in prolonged asides and, assuming you’re employing an evocative voice and still entertaining the reader, all will be forgiven. Hell, it will be relished. The spell will remain intact. The reader will still be yours (within reason… as Hannah elucidates to Grady Tripp in Curtis Hanson’s wonderful adaptation of Michael Chabon’s Wonder Boys, the reader does not need to know the genealogy of everyone’s horse—no matter how darling the language employed in such an egregious aside).
Now, in that #scriptchat I saw a lot of talk of turning novels into films. In my estimation, though there are of course exceptions (especially in genre fare, as Stephen King has shown time and time again), before putting your cart before the horse, consider: a short story might be the better parallel of a film. They share many similarities in structure, in focus on succinct and easily divined beginning, middle, and end. Sound short stories, like good films, make their points and are done with it. They are intended to be devoured in a sitting. They tend to have more satisfying endings that often work like punchlines (or sucker punches), whether well-drawn or ambiguous. While one might intuitively liken or transpose a short story to a short film, I tend to think short films work even better as cinematic equivalents of flash fiction or experiential poetry (see more avant garde experiential/experimental short films that totally work as shorts but would be utterly impossible to tease out from minutes into hours, such as the works of Stan Brakhage, Maya Deren, Bruce Connor, et al).
I personally find that the richness and detail inherent in novels often make for better transpositions into television (myriad examples abound). And that’s good news for us. TV is where the writer (and character) is currently king, and where much, much, much more opportunity lies both now and as we move into the future. Television has the room to make for much more faithful adaptations of novels as well—we’ve all either heard choruses or even voiced our own complaints about the great number of great novels given short shrift in film adaptation. So, to those in the chat who expressed problems when trying to turn your busted specs into novels, consider that those old specs might in reality be short stories or novellas at heart. That is actually a good thing, as the short story is an outstanding place to dip your toes into prose. You’ll find that it’s an extremely rewarding medium in which to work and a great way to avoid the ubiquitous burnout so often experienced when trying to tackle a full-blown novel—writing short stories is like taking hikes to prepare for climbing Mount Everest. Baby steps, people. Hell, there’s a case to be made that #nanowrimo should in fact be National Novella Writing Month.
Now, I also noticed much talk in the #scriptchat thread of writing a novel as a means of branding intellectual property, a way to game Hollywood’s infatuation with IP—but let’s not fool ourselves. While there are cases of this tactic successfully working (Rex Pickett and Sideways comes to mind), of course not all IP is created equal. At this stage of the craze, the kind of IP Hollywood is really after is that with a large, proven, built-in audience that helps alleviate the Atlas’ boulder-like burden of marketing costs and gives them a shot at making a billion in profits. No power producer or studio is going to give a rat’s scrotum about your self-published or (with very rare exceptions) galley property from an unknown writer with no hungry horde of followers.
If you venture from screenwriting into prose, you should do so for the right reasons. Again: numero uno should be because you want to use this particular medium to find and entertain readers in a deeper and arguably much more cerebral way than screenwriting allows. That’s one of the truly beautiful benefits of taking the departure… far too often in screenwriting one can’t help but feel like a storyteller seated at the sacred fire, ready to mesmerize with a tale—only to find out this is a table for one… but in writing prose, even if you only sell a handful of copies of your self-pubbed opus you have now directly connected with readers. This is an amazing thing. You will have found appreciative eyes for your prose (how many elegant, worthy action lines in your screenplays have been lost on the world, even if you’re a produced screenwriter?), and I can tell you as half of a writing team that has self-published two books in a series and only put minimal effort or money into marketing them to date: the first time a random reader you didn’t hit over the head with the thing finds it on their own through happenstance or word-of-mouth and responds to it positively will likely feel more satisfying than any praise you have ever experienced as a screenwriter. This is no mere blueprint… this a finished project, yours and yours alone. You have communicated your vision with them, their life has been enriched by you.
That is special. That is laying the groundwork to building the foundation of a fanbase that one day might make you a more in-demand quantity and brand your work as IP of value that will compel Hollywood to come knocking—but be wary of the trap of thinking “I’ll take this spec and turn it into a novel and it’ll be IP and Hollywood will want it because they love IP!” That’s fool’s gold… but there is most definitely truth in “if you build it (an audience) they will come.”
But again, if you venture to write prose—be it a short story, a novella, or a novel—Hollywood should be the furthest thing from your mind. Piss on Hollywood (love ya, bruh!). Your mind should be on the reader, and on your authorial intention as it pertains to the reader. If you do it right, and do it true and have the chops.... the rest will come. And even if it doesn’t, you will still have a work and a product that stands on its own. When you tell people you’re a writer and they say “Oh yeah, anything I can check out?” you can finally—if unproduced—say “yes, as a matter of fact…” and point them towards your book. Your grandchildren can find a dog-eared copy in a moldy cedar closet and see you in a whole new light, knowing that you were a climber of mountains. That is its own reward.
In closing, a word from Dylan Thomas:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Now plant your ass in that chair and f*cking write.