A question about screenwriting.
I've been here from the start, and I am consistently heartened and encouraged by your authentic and generous thoughts on this thing we're all trying to keep doing and keep getting better at. Story Club reminds me that even as I'm writing alone, I'm not alone.
So! Here's what's on my mind...
I kind of love TV, and I've been enjoying this (maybe waning) moment of "prestige TV" that has made room for TV to showcase some excellent, artful, nontraditional writing. I've been watching the show Beef, created by Lee Sung Jin and thinking of Story Club because the writing in Beef really REALLY seems to follow the credo of "Always Be Escalating" (A.B.E.) (Can that be a Story Club t-shirt, btw?).
I remember that "Sea Oak" was adapted for TV, and I'm wondering what that experience was like for you. As an emerging writer, I feel pressure to position my writing to be TV-adaptable, and sometimes I feel drawn to writing for TV (the collaborative aspect of "the writers' room" is especially appealing to me, but also, honestly... that industry is lucrative in a different way than writing short stories.)
Now, here's my question...
Have you felt pressure to write for TV? Have you ever wanted to write for TV? How has the existence of TV (and the increasing momentum of the book-to-TV pipeline) affected your writing for the page (as opposed to the screen)? What can a short story do that a TV show can't do?
Thanks for considering this, and thanks for always considering all of us Story Clubbers and our curiosities so thoughtfully!
Hiyo right back, dear questioner, and thank you for being here since the start, and for this question, which seems particularly timely given the high-stakes WGA strike going on.
I, yes, have felt, almost from the beginning, a certain draw to writing for TV and film. I somehow picked up the idea early that a fiction writer had really made it when the work made it to the screen. I knew that Faulkner had written for movies, and that some of Hemingway’s novels had been adapted; I had seen and really liked The World According to Garp. So, I think I had a sort of “icing on the cake” feeling about films, feeling that, if a movie got made, the writer was really entering into the larger culture.
And that was appealing to me.
So, almost from the beginning of my fiction career, I’ve been writing adaptations of my own work.
But…the pilot we did for “Sea Oak” was as far as I’ve ever got with anything I’ve written for screen. We made the pilot, which I’d written, and the pilot “aired” for a short period – and then wasn’t picked up. That was a genuine disappointment, I have to say.
The process, though, was an absolute riot – one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever done, creatively. I loved the collaborative aspect and getting to work with the genius director Hiro Murai and so many wonderful actors, including Glenn Close. It was such a rich experience. I remember sitting in a pizza restaurant in Queens, rewriting dialogue for a family dinner scene and what fun that was – writing something and then hearing it spoken by an actor just a short time later. I think I actually got a sense of what it might have been like to be Shakespeare, back in the day – tailoring the writing for certain actors, incorporating their improvs in the next draft, etc., – just that open feeling of a group of people finding a scene together, enjoying language, creating little moments with silence and intonation. There was a feeling - celebratory, exploratory - that I really loved.
My stories tend to “look like” movies but they’re actually difficult to make work. So much of their persuasive quality has to do with the language, I think.
In a prose story, escalation can come from a lot of different sources; through event, of course, but also through subtle variations in the voice – the way it colors the statements it’s making, the way it expresses longing and bias and confusion from the point of view of the narrator, the way these variations in voice then can feel like development.
In TV/film, I read somewhere, the “what happens next” predominates. And this means that structure becomes vital. The ordering and juxtaposition of events is what actually conveys so much of the meaning and power.
All the hours I’ve spent trying to adapt my work for screen has, I think, taught me some good, visceral things about structure. I’ve learned to imagine a skeleton for a story that exists without embellishment – no extra boost from jokes or rich language – just a sequence of things happening. If that works, that’s a lot. If you have the jokes and embellishments, that’s great - but draping them over a solid, meaning-creating structure is how the real power gets made.
There’s a word that hasn’t been invented yet, that has to do with the way that the smallest nugget of a given form conveys power. For example – in a story, a phrase can pull you in, can make the fictive reality seem real, can give you pleasure and compel you to keep reading. So, the power-conveying artifact there (PCA) is the phrase. There is a blank page and a blank reading mind and the phrase falls on that mind and something happens. The phrase (and then the sentence, the paragraph, the section) are what the writer has to work with, to charm with, and that’s about it.
So, in prose fiction, the PCA is linguistic. The language “reads” a certain way in our mind, and causes certain notions and images to arise, which sets the stage for the next thing – but the power of it all depends on the word-cluster.
A fiction writer masters, or tries to master, the use of (her relation to) that PCA. (In my case, I’ve spent a lot of time imitating my future reader, as I edit, asking, essentially, “How will this phrase land on/affect my reader and her attention?”)
But our relation to any work of narrative art is linear-temporal; we experience it one PCA at a time.
In film, the PCA is some combination of image and music and dialogue and camera motion and acting and all of that. It’s that (let’s say) five-second burst of sensation we get as we watch.
And it’s mysterious, what compels and what doesn’t. I’m sure we’ve all had that experience, after watching even just a minute of a TV show, where we check out – we’re somehow just not buying it. In my experience, the reason is rarely simple – like, “This music choice is terrible” or “The lighting is bad.”
The thing somehow just doesn’t convince. Somehow, the writer and director have failed to put together those first few good PCAs in a way that makes us want to keep watching.
But in either case, prose or TV, the artist’s job is “Know thy PCA.” That is: having put together a PCA, be able to feel whether it has power or not.
After all of these years of writing scripts on the side, it occurs to me that, though I really enjoy writing scripts, it’s more of a side-gig; my true power lies in the fiction PCA. I know (sometimes, sort of) how to move a prose narrative along. I’ve spent a lot of time tuning up that power.
There’s some crossover to scripts but not that much, actually (in my experience). I can write decent dialogue and my little scene descriptions are sometimes pretty tight, and all of that (ha ha).
But I’ve often felt that, because fiction was my first love, and it’s what I obsessed and felt wildly ambitious about when I was young, and because I tend to have strong opinions about language rather than image, I’ll never have the primary relation to screenwriting that I do to prose.
Maybe an artist will have the most power in what she loved first (and has spent the most passionate time mastering). For me, that’s sentences, really. When I was first reading Hemingway, that was what I was really jealous of – the way a sentence rendered a moment in time. Then, later, I was obsessed with story shape, as realized in a prose narrative. And I mean obsessed – tormented when I couldn’t understand or execute it…tormented as in: pacing around town, self-remonstrating, feeling like an incomplete person because I couldn’t write a sentence that had any of the essential me in it, or a sequence that felt “like a story.”
I’ve always loved movies but never, in the midst of one, as a kid, had the feeling, “I must do this!” (I had powerful reactions but never what we might call a “possessive” reaction, if you know what I mean.) Whereas I spent most of my college years reading Wolfe and Hemingway and Dos Passos et al feeling that if I didn’t someday force my way into that lineage I’d be miserable for the rest of my life.
What we love, we practice with a certain focus (zest, obsession) and all of that time practicing that way means that, when we do it, we have all sorts of stored subconscious power.
It must also be that we are somehow drawn to that about which we’ll be capable of entertaining the strongest opinions. I’ve always loved, and been pretty good at, music, but while writing a song, I never experience the certainty I do when writing a story. I can only take it so far; my intuition looks over at me with a shrug, like: “I honestly don’t know which way is best.”
This never happens when I’m writing prose.
And just to bring this back to the Writers Guild strike…
A person who can write a compelling movie or episode of television has developed a very specialized set of skills, that brings something essential into the culture. Like all storytelling, movies and film situate us within the world; they make an attempt (or should) to tell us how things are, so we can adjust our view accordingly.
To do good work in any field takes time (we all know here in Story Club just how much time, i.e., a lot). So, if the culture honors this work by compensating it fairly, the culture benefits: it sees itself more fully, in more complexity, with more joy. Whereas to treat that class of workers as if they should feel lucky to be working is to say that their work doesn’t matter. And we tend to get what we visualize: if we expect great work from our writers and reward them accordingly, we’re more likely to get writing that actually does something for us; elevates us, reboots us, chides us as necessary, wakes us up.
Prose at its best and film at its best are doing two very distinct things (as I’m reminded every time I try to write a script and feel an echo of that “I honestly don’t know which way is best” feeling mentioned above re music.) Each form gives off its own special frequency, when its PCAs are humming.
Good prose fiction, it seems to me, lets us get inside a character’s head; it is capable of making drama out of the small, real things that happen to us every day; it doesn’t have quite the obligation for big drama that something on film might have. There’s something about prose – that feeling of one mind talking to another, with no limit to how detailed or articulate or personal that talk might be – that makes it, to me, the most intimate and truthful of art forms. And yet, our time seems to intuitively relate to cinematic art more; it feels to offer a more natural fit to the culture, and have a bigger footprint within in.
Or does it? I’m not sure. :) So, let’s discuss – I know there are a lot of talented script writers out there. So many of us are getting most of our daily story quotient from film and TV; it seems valid to talk about the differences between prose fiction and visual fiction, if only to understand just what it is that we are receiving, or failing to receive, when we adjust our story diet.
This is kind of interesting. I haven’t ever before been able to watch the whole “Sea Oak” pilot on-line before - it was taken down just after its initial showing. Not sure how long this will last or if it will be accessible to all of you. But…give it a watch! :)