Saturday, October 30, 2010

The Shape of Things

Hello again,

I had a visit yesterday from a colleague, a screenwriter who’s been struggling with a screenplay for some time now. She’d asked me if I’d read her first ten pages, and I was happy to agree.

When I started reading, I was almost envious of some of her dialogue. It wasn’t only good; in places it was absolutely brilliant! In one six-word line, she gave an entire paragraph’s worth of exposition, including a relationship, a prefiguring of coming events, and a commentary on the locale her scene occupied. I found myself wishing I had written it first.

Old story I know, but true as the sunrise, nevertheless.

The problem certainly wasn’t her dialogue. The problem was that what she was writing—the subject and theme of her piece—were more correctly suited to a novel. Only in the novel form, I felt, could she encompass the broad scope of her story, and bring it all to life.

If she tried to fit all that into one 120-minute film, she would have to cut away too many vital issues that strongly affected the shape of the story. Cut them away and the story would fall apart. She would diminish it to a shadow of itself, a tantalizing but unsatisfactory taste of what more properly should have been a delicious and satisfying full meal.

What about your work? Are you trying to expand a focused, tightly-plotted action-adventure idea into a novel, when it is more suited to a short story? Are you taking a novel, and, instead of giving it the “sprawling room” that novels require, giving your story only mere finger-and-toe-holds in a film? A film that must, by definition, be a tightly-structured script, because of film’s inherent time  parameters?

In short, are you writing your wonderful story (because as we all know, wonderful stories are the only kind worth writing) in the correct format?  Or are you missing the mark?
Very often, a story will dictate its desired form to the writer. Other times, we have to tease and play with it until it suddenly blurts out its secret wish—it wanted to be a novel/short story/film/poem, whatever. Let it.  Keep playing with it until it tells you, until you are sure what it is you actually are working on. ‘
It’s no good spending months on a screenplay only to discover weeks or months later that it was a prose poem; or a novel, or anything else. Get to know your story, and the best way to do that, as we have seen before, is to write detailed backstories of your main characters.
Once you know your characters well, the correct storytelling form will suggest itself to you.
Make sure you give that great story every chance for success. Give novels the room they need for their characters to think and dream and be aware of their settings (some of which settings can actually function as a character in themselves, e.g., the cold, in Jack London’s stories; the sea in C.S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower series, etc.)

Give short stories their finely-trimmed and focused excellence, and films their own sort of disciplined structure that also allows for the cooperation of many creative people to bring it to fruition.
Let your choice of the proper structure fit the story you’re telling, and your chances of success will increase exponentially.

Amd have fun!
More next time.

Lang out

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