Sunday, June 14, 2009

Screenplay-novel FAQs

What is a screenplay-novel?

It's a novel. But it's written in the form of a screenplay.

How did you get the idea of writing a screenplay-novel?

Over time, it dawned on me that I treated movies the way I treated novels: I would appreciate their stories in a similar way, and talk about them afterwards the way a person might talk about a novel. In fact, I do this more often with movies ... mainly, I think, because nowadays movie-watchers vastly outnumber novel readers and so there are many people you can have a conversation with about a particular movie -- even a very serious movie. It's a lot harder to do that about a particular book.

The epiphany occurred when I was reading the published screenplay of the film version of Out of Africa (I'd read the Karen Blixen original many years before). My wife had a copy of it, and it was lying around the house.

I live in South Korea, and these kinds of scripts are enormously popular here. They're marketed as an English learning tool (English script on one page, with Korean-language "key points" on the other). But as I read the script I found I really enjoyed it in and of itself. And then I thought, if this works as a book form of an existing movie, why wouldn't it work as a book form of a movie that's never been made? In other words, why not use the same combination of stills and script?

[N.B. It's worth noting that some time after reading this book for the first time, I noticed it didn't in fact contain stills plural, but the same photo from the movie over and over. However, the point still stands -- an artistic experience similar to that of a movie can be created in book form.]

And then there's the creative process involved: Unless writing autobiographically, I like imagining scenes as if they were in a movie. My imagination seems to naturally work that way.

Has this idea been done before?

There's a long tradition of writing satire in the form of a screenplay -- you know, some comic scene, for example, an inane conversation in the White House. And there is a tradition of teleromans in some countries. These are basically comics made of photographs, not drawings.

But there are no examples of a literary novel written in screenplay form that I've seen. At least, this was true when the idea first came to me. Since then, people have given me examples. One was a script by Michael Turner entitled "American Whisky Bar". I haven't read the book, so I can't comment on it. But some time after it was published, it was produced by CITY-TV and Bruce McDonald as a live television drama. I saw that broadcast. The broadcast was really more like a 1950s-style televised play than anything else. So I don't know if it qualifies.

Personally, I think people will come up with other examples and this will turn into a long-running debate over who was first. And I doubt it will ever be satisfactorily resolved. Instead, what I'd like to emphasize is I'm calling for the screenplay-novel to exist as a distinct form of novel. In other words, I'm hoping that many serious writers will adopt this way of writing novels -- at least, for some of their work.

So it's a good idea because it's new?

Ideas aren't good simply because they're new. I might be the first person to invent chocolate-flavoured cheddar cheese. That doesn't mean it's worthwhile. Instead, I think this idea is good because it has the potential to be artistically effective. It solves problems for the writer, and solves problems for the audience. Although it should be written with care and craft , because its word count tends to be lower than in a traditional novel, it's quicker to produce and quicker to read. Yet at the same time, it keys into people's imaginations. It is a very effective way of creating the vividness necessary for certain types of narrative, especially those emphasizing dialogue.

Of course, some people don't feel the same way. For them, the screenplay-novel is not a particularly evocative way of writing. They need more in the way of description -- both of the environment and of interior consciousness. I understand this. Because the screenplay-novel is stripped-down, it seems to have certain inherent shortcomings, one of which is less physical description and the other which is the apparent disappearance of interior consciousness.

So it's important to underline the first quality can still exist in a screenplay novel. As in a regular screenplay, there is no necessary restriction on the number of descriptive passages that exist. There are simply conventions about this, just as there are conventions in what might be called traditional screenplay writing; screenplays tend to be very minimalist. However, a screenplay-novelist doesn't have to follow this convention. He or she can include as many descriptive passages as he or she wants.

Evoking interior consciousness is more of a problem. Interior states of mind don't "disappear" in a screenplay-novel. Instead, they have to be evoked mainly by the characters' dialogue. (This is one reason why I tend to use more description of gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice in my dialogue than you'd find in a regular screenplay.)

The screenplay-novel form is not perfect. It has strengths and weaknesses. But let's be honest: the traditional novel has short-comings, too, not the least of which is its increasing tendency these days toward self-consciousness and overripe writing (or over-write writing; a lot of books suffer simply from being longer than they need to be). It is a sad irony of contemporary fiction that just as the novel is facing so much competition from other narrative forms -- from movies to video games -- so many novels that are published are either strait-jacketed by convention or so self-indulgent and flabby that they fall into the category of books that can be opened but not finished. This is one of the real strengths of the screenplay-novel: it is designed to be finished. It is designed to succeed in keeping its audience's attention. There is something shameful and affected in insisting this is an irrelevant goal for the serious writer to keep in mind.

(And I cannot keep repeating often enough: the screenplay-novel does not have to eschew fine writing; belles lettres can exist within its pages -- it is just that belletristic description is kept to small proportions, unless those belles lettres arise naturally in a character's speech.)

You mentioned interior consciousness. This is exactly what I like about novels. How can a screenplay ever compete with that?

This is probably the most complex aesthetic question that one can ask of the screenplay-novel as a form. As I suggest above, interior consciousness does not "disappear" because putative descriptions of it disappear. In other words, interior consciousness -- or rather, consciousness generally -- when evoked in art can be revealed many different ways. A good stage play tells us a lot about characters' interior consciousness; it does this through dialogue that takes place in more-dramatic-than-one-finds-in-regular-life situations. In other words, even though a stage play generally does not attempt to "show" interior consciousness, it can quite effectively evoke enough of the characters of various dramatis personae that we, the audience, develop a sense of both the outer and inner life of the people on stage. (Furthermore, just as staged theatre can, to a degree, and through the artistry of well-written dialogue, tell us something about the interior consciousness of characters, so traditional novels can fail at successfully evoking it. It's also worth noting that a fair percentage of "interior consciousness" that one finds in works of conventional fiction is simply not very convincing. More on this in a moment.)

When we talk about interior consciousness in art, we are not talking about something that reflects with absolute accuracy an already existent state(s) of mind. Instead, we are talking about a mimetic process; an attempt on the part of art to capture something that is "real" -- if consciousness can be said to be real in the way we normally understand that word. Quite often, this mimetic process falls short.

All this would be fine if literary people could reach some kind of genuine consensus about when writers succeed and when they fail at depicting interior consciousness. But they can't. What this means for defenders of traditional literature as a repository of "something that movies can't do" because, so their argument goes, only literary fiction can evoke interior consciousness, is a need to re-think just what it is that allows a work of literary fiction to tell us about various characters' inner lives. Showing inner life is not as simple as claiming one shows it; a work of art has to do more. And this is something screenplay-novels can succeed at doing as well, if they are written well enough.

I've read other screenplays, and they're a lot different from yours. Why?

Those aren't screenplay-novels, they're screenplays. They are meant to be produced into movies. What I'm doing here is a novel meant to be imagined as a movie.

But it's just words. What I like about movies are the pictures.

Books can contain pictures, too.

Why don't you just write a regular novel?

I do. I have. But recently I have become interested in this approach to -- this form of -- writing. It's a method of writing that works for me; that re-inspires me after years of increasing frustration with traditional literary techniques.

So you hate traditional fiction?

No. When it is well done I admire it just as much as I ever did. Traditional fiction (which could be called conventional fiction, but here I really mean to say literary fiction in the form in which we usually find it) has been what formed me: this is true from 19th Century geniuses like John Keats, Charlotte Bronte, Oscar Wilde, Edmund Gosse, and Fyodor Dostoevsky, to the extraordinary richness of 20th Century literature -- including giants such as Franz Kafka, Virginia Woolf, Theodore Dreiser, Evelyn Waugh, Philip Roth, Saul Bellow, Mary McCarthy, Simone de Beauvoir, Doris Lessing, James Baldwin, Ernest Hemingway, Graham Greene, J. D. Salinger, Isaac Bashevis Singer, and Leonard Cohen to lesser knowns such as Bruno Schulz, Tadeusz Borowski, Knut Hamsen, Ole Edvart Rolvaag, Sigrid Undset, Violette Leduc, Elizabeth Jane Howard, David Plante, Daniel Jones, Harry Sonny Ladoo, and Britt Hagarty, to artist/writers such as R. Crumb, Peter Bagge, Julie Doucette, Chester Brown and David Collier, to recent discoveries among Korean writers such as Chai Man-shik, Oh Jung-hee, Chae Yun, and Yun Heung-gil ... the list goes on and on.

In the period described above, there's such an enormous quantity of good writing that at times one might be forgiven for thinking that "good writing" is for the recent historical period like "progress" was in the late 19th Century: something we can take for granted. The early days of the 21st Century, however, indicate an opposite trend. Much fiction that is getting published and praised these days has a tired, predictable quality.

If I were the only person who felt this way, I'd blame myself. But many people who are serious about reading feel the same way. When best-of-year reading lists are drawn up, one often hears the comment that a particular book which won major prizes or was promoted by establishment taste-makers was a disappointment. There is a malaise affecting contemporary fiction, and this malaise is corroding the faith that people at all levels of the literary enterprise have in the process of producing literature. Agents are taking on less literary fiction than they used to, publishers are publishing less of it, and writers are finding their careers stymied when the sales of one book just don't materialize and they find it difficult to sell their next manuscript. (Or else, their careers are stymied by not being published at all -- and yes, this happens to good writers.)

But being a writer has always been difficult. Why complain about that?

It's not so much a complaint as an observation that the cultural landscape is in the process of changing rather drastically. This isn't news. The readership of fiction, especially literary fiction in its traditional form, has been declining for years. Recently, this decline has become alarming. By all means, read traditional novels, and, if they move you, venerate them. But we have to face the larger cultural reality. We have to think in new ways.

So why don't you just watch movies and TV?

I like movies ... TV I'm not so sure about, although there are good programs out there.

The problem with movies and TV is this: they cost a lot to produce. No, let me rephrase that -- they cost an astronomical amount. Apart from the indie movie scene, which tends to be perpetually marginalized, no one individual can make them. They are group efforts, and while this gives them some strengths, they suffer from the near-inevitable tendency of group creations to lose any singular voice. And it's the singular voice that has to survive. It's the individual consciousness, not the group, that maintains contact with life.

And this is one of the great strengths of books: because they're relatively cheap to produce, they can still be made by individuals. (The contemporary trend toward "packaging" a book is pernicious on so many levels, as the Kaavya Viswanathan incident showed. Whether this scandal will be enough to stop the general trend to package books and turn even them into bland, committee-made products remains to be seen.)

Mass culture, with its converging technologies such as TV-receiving cell phones and ubiquitous WiBro reception, keeps moving more and more toward post-literacy. We are in desperate need of narrative forms that both can reach an audience but also allow the artist to retain his or her individuality. The screenplay-novel is a way of "writing a movie".

So you're suggesting we just give up? That because mass culture is so pervasive we are obligated to mimic it?

The screenplay-novel is not a selling out. Think of it this way: there are good movies. There is good TV -- especially outside a North American context. In other words, both mediums are capable of producing genuine works of art, despite their group-made natures. If you write a screenplay-novel, you should try to make something that also has artistic merit. Obviously, it won't possess descriptive passages to the same degree that great traditional fiction does. But this does not mean the screenplay-novel must diminish a good writer's requirement to produce (or good reader's requirement to be sensitive to) linguistic originality. The screenplay-novel is intended, above all, to re-invigorate the relationship that exists between writer and audience.

When reading a screenplay-novel, people can read it as a director might. This is one of the broad-based effects that movies have had on the modern mind: it is possible -- even natural, it sometimes seems -- to think "cinematically". In other words, our minds have already been conditioned to
imagine narratives as if they were movies. Maybe everyone doesn't do this. But many people do, and they do it effortlessly. In this sense, we are all directors now.

The trick is to be a good director -- an auteur, if you will. The need for this is especially pressing these days as the role of the auteur has been severely diminished within the movie industry generally. And that's an irony that stands in favour of the screenplay-novel: movies are becoming too expensive and formulaic for auteurship to genuinely thrive within movie-making itself. Therefore, a creative individual with the sensibility of an auteur needs the book. He or she needs the artistic freedom that the book still can provide.

It's worth noting that the best movies and TV that squeeze through the system are often made in opposition to mass culture. The screenplay-novel is another way of doing that.

But what about reading? If everyone is "being a director", won't reading suffer even more?

People are still reading lots these days. The trend among readers, however, is to buy more non-fiction than fiction.

What's wrong with that?

Nothing in the sense that non-fiction has always been popular, and now simply is more so. However, we still need fiction. It's not a luxury. It's a necessity, as well. It's something of a cliche to observe that cultures rise and fall based partly on the stories they tell themselves. It might be more accurate in a 21st Century context to point out that cultures wage wars -- or passively witness them -- according to the stories they tell. (This, incidentally, is one theme of my screenplay-novel TRUTH MARATHON.)

I still think screenplays suck. Traditional novels are more interesting to read.

Then read traditional novels. I do. But consider the possibility that the screenplay-novel idea is a relatively new one, and part of your antagonism to them may be the result of being conditioned to read fictional narrative one way and not another. Remember that: the screenplay novel is just another form of narrative. One of the main reasons it exists is to re-connect author with audience. If you want an extremely short summary of why the screenplay-novel is worth taking seriously, that's it: it is a form of literary fiction many people will read.

4 comments:

  1. When struggling to find my way to the end of my first novel I hit on the idea of writing it as a screen play; what better way to find the bones in the soup?

    I gave myself 30 days and turned out a 120 page script--with an ending! I also found the screen play format interesting in itself. Everyone goes to movies. We know the conventions. Playing with the shorthand, shaping the conventions for the reader, not as something meant to be turned into a film--discovered a new dimention of possibilities.

    I didn't write the novel in screen format--but I did write several chapters as modified screen play. It's a wonderfully fluid and poetic structure. I'm surprised more writers haven't played with it as you have.

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  2. Finn Harvor6:23 pm

    This is interesting, Jacob. Yes, I think the format is very fluid, and as long as a writer remembers he or she is still writing a novel, it solves a lot of artistic problems commonly faced by a writer while speeding up the narrative.

    By the way, I saw a short piece in screenplay form at your site. If you do more writing in a similar fashion, let me know.

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  3. What about the perceptions that your book is simply a dumbed down novel?

    It basically IS, so trying to come off as credible to publishers and even readers is difficult, no?

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  4. Finn Harvor11:25 pm

    One perception at a time.

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