Screenwriting advice (for novelists?)

In which I alienate still more people who liked Arrival

fadeinThe main thing I’ve been doing other than working toward the climax in the rewrite of Firesage is studying screenwriting. Since The Queen’s Night is on submission and people seem to like the characters (despite my efforts to make them horrible people bent on nothing but pleasure, power, and geometry) I have thought it would make a good movie. A lot of readers and writers think about their favorite books in a sort of filmic way, and when readers get their favorite books adapted, it’s a sort of validation. A lot of the heroic and dramatic can be succinctly expressed in film, and so a lot of us get our sense of the dramatic from the movie screen, and seeing our favorite story on that screen gives it a larger existence. So naturally I thought of adapting the movie myself, and learning about screenwriting in the process.

For a couple reasons, I don’t think I will even try.

The first thing I noticed about screenwriting books is how much they focus on story. In fact, they don’t just focus, it’s all they talk about. They talk very little about style: it should be clear to you how to phrase the instructions in a screenplay if you just read a few scripts. You avoid flowery language and technical jargon, you write clearly what the actors are doing, and you don’t get into their inner thoughts: you use dialogue for that or leave it to subtext. What they focus on clearly is how to structure a story, sticking to the main character’s goal, and what makes a satisfying ending. There are all sorts of details to fill in there, but the main thing screenwriting advice seems to emphasize is the main character’s journey, and how to get that across in sequences (sets of scenes) that make sense to the audience.

Books on screenwriting are way clearer about the important things

So my new advice on writing advice: read books on screenwriting! Many many books on novel writing or fiction writing in general (let’s not forget those short stories!) focus on style, and completely forsake content (i.e. story). They give you lists of rules to follow and stupid things not to do, and say “sit your ass down and write the fuckin thing.” The problem is if you don’t know how to tell a story, where you sit isn’t the problem. When writing fiction, it is easy to mistake the raw materials (the words) for the finished product, and therefore we can fall for the idea that if you just string sentences together, you will end up with a story. Screenwriters, on the other hand, have to go through so many stages with their creation before it becomes a finished film that they recognize what they’re creating: a story.

If you don’t outline your novel (or even give it a “treatment” to borrow terminology from Hollywood), you really can’t be sure if you’ve got a story that works until you are done. Don’t waste your time. Write a treatment, make sure you have a story, and tell it to your friends and family members as if it were a bedtime story or what you did on the weekend (it won’t kill the element of discovery: you’ll improve the story as you go, and you’ll always discover things along the way).  This is what people in Hollywood do, and it’s because they recognize they’ve got to have a good story before anyone films it (at least in the old days; now they have to make sure they have comic book characters that will be recognized in China). Why not make sure you’ve got a story before you try to write it as a novel?

Some stories are just better suited to print, some better suited to the screen

Which brings me to my next problem: it’s going to take a much more experienced screenwriter to adapt a story as complex and conceptual as The Queen’s Night. There’s a story there certainly (or else the novel wouldn’t work), but I’m not sure it’s filmable. Much of it takes place inside Edyth’s head while she’s meditating, or in altered states of existence, and the journey she takes is a psychic one. I spent a lot of time trying to go over the opening shots of this potential screenplay, and then I realized that wasn’t the problem: it’s the middle. When things get deadly for the main characters, they actually head away from the external conflict so they can have their internal conflict out in the desert and watch people die of plague. Introducing enough characters for that to work in 100 minutes seems almost impossible to me right now. I could alter the story beyond recognition, but again a more experienced screenwriter would probably know exactly what to do, and I would rather spend more time becoming a better novelist and short story writer. I haven’t ruled out adapting one of my short stories (like “Stages of Man”), where the objectives are clearer from the get-go, but hopefully by the time I’m done working on this novel, I’ll be working on the next one.

Incidentally, as I’ve studied screenwriting, and read much of the screenplay of Passengers I can see why it makes a more enjoyable movie than Arrival (if you’re wondering why I’m comparing these two movies, see this earlier post). Passengers, as I noted, beneath all the sci-fi “furniture,” is a boy-meets-girl story, as opposed to Arrival, which is highly conceptual. And here’s the thing: getting conceptual is much more clearly done in print. Look at everything they had to resort to in order to get across the concepts of linguistic determinism that finally resolved the story: some of the dialogue was downright clunky, and I resented being told what was going on by the nifty know-it-all characters. I know it sounds like I hated that movie. I didn’t. I’m just trying to get across that some stories really should be in print, and they won’t be as effective as films. Film is a particular storytelling medium and it’s well-suited to particular kinds of stories, just as short stories are different from novels, and operas are different from plays. And musicals…well, nevermind.

Your characters need to have goals and motivation.

Of course I’d love to see my novels adapted, but I’m pretty sure I write the kind of stories that are better in print, and unless I spend a whole lot of time studying the actual craft of screenwriting, i.e. writing screenplays, I don’t think I’m going to see how to craft the ones that are better on the screen. Be that as it may, I’m urging all you writers out there to study screenwriting and read screenwriting books so you can get clear on what a story really needs. The screenwriting books just lay it out there, whereas the message on fiction is quite muddy. Your characters need to have goals and motivation. They have to want something, or else you’re not telling a story. If I could get as far as I did without realizing that, then you can too, when nobody should.

In other news: The Black Witch

I finally started reading The Black Witch by fellow Vermont fantasy author Laurie Forest this week, and I am quite hooked. This book starts by presenting a rather familiar, almost predictable fantasy world but the writing is fantastic and the presentation of the fantasy-world is just quirked enough to seem totally original. For example, the main character is a girl who’s lived on a farm most of her life. Stop right there: how many stories of secretly magical characters start out with her living on a farm where she’s been isolated from her magical comrades? Well at least one other that I started, but that book was stupid from the get-go. The Black Witch on the other hand, does this in a way that totally makes sense. It works. Then when the girl gets into the city for the first time, she sees a stock magical creature, but it’s done in such a way that I didn’t recognize it as a stock creature, and what was much more important than the creature itself was how the girl’s aunt speaks to her about it. The story stays clear and psychologically deep. I like it better than Harry Potter so far.

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