A question about screenwriting.
Just got off the picket line in front of Amazon studios and came home to read this great post. Thank you for shining a light on the WGA strike and for all your support.
I joined Story Club because I wanted to explore writing in a new format. It's been such a great experience and I've learned so much from the posts, the questions, and the incredibly thoughtful comments section. I've only written in script form, which has its own set of rules (structure; page count; and in comedy, ending a scene with a joke), and have found fiction prose in the short story form to be a wonderful break from those boundaries. It's true that prose can give you greater insight into a character's thinking (unless you're into voice over narration which the screenwriting community seems heavily divided on), but I think there could be an argument made for some television storytelling having the time and capabilities to explore small and intimate dramas of daily life. This certainly isn't all TV, but with the content avalanche out there, there are some gems that feel closer to fiction prose than we've ever had before.
I do think reading prose allows for a deeper connection because we’re solely responsible for creating the bridges to character and emotion without the shiny colors, performances, and musical score designed to guide us like a lazy river to an intended reaction (don’t get me started on laugh tracks. Ick) when we’re consuming story from TV or film.
I've published books for 30 years. Written TV and movie scripts for 28 years. Helped make one great movie, Smoke Signals, that still has cultural resonance, and another smaller movie that...doesn't. Over the years, I've learned that my literary skills and ambitions get in the way of my screenwriting, especially when I worked on mainstream screenplays that demanded linear thinking and overt deployment of archetypes. And I'm terrible at rewrites because I can't just rewrite one scene without tearing apart multiple scenes to make it all work. You know when you're watching a movie and you think, "Wait, that doesn't make logical sense"? I can't let those narrative gaps go...I'm a member of the WGA and I'm on strike...but I'm a back-burnered member because I haven't worked in Hollywood for a while. And there are no WGA picket lines in Seattle. So I'm back burner non-working screenwriter striking for my working union brethren.
Fascinating topic. Mine is a bit reversed, Ive made my living for twenty years as a TV (sometimes film) writer and now I am always focusing on my fiction. They ARE different muscles yet both forms just try and tell a story (obviously much more visual and less words needed in the television world). George can certainly speak about this but I feel in fiction you are just getting notes from your editor, while in Tv and film, the hardest thing to deal with is the slew of notes you get from various executives. And sorry, the cliches are true, 97% of the notes are pure garbage - in fact, they usually zero in on the one thing that makes the project unique and special and want you to change that. That was the hardest thing for me to learn, how to slog through the tsunami of bad notes. Famous story, the great writer John Sayles (of fiction and so many terrific indie films - like Matewan, Lone Star, City of Hope, etc.) the one time he tried to work within the studio system on his film Baby, It's You he hated it. He sat in a note session with various Paramount executives (NONE of them writers mind you) and after the 20th inane note, Sayles stood up and yelled "All you are doing is changing it, you are not improving it!!" And aye, there lies the rub, it's easy to CHANGE something but are they making it better? But like George, I love the immediacy of television. I recently had the pleasure of working up in gorgeous Canada on a family drama and to write a new scene at lunch, hear the actors do it later that day and then see it in editing the following day is a true pleasure. Also when one is getting notes just remember what William Goldman said about Hollywood "Nobody knows anything."
May I interject something about the significant difference between prose fiction and any script, be it stage, screen or TV? At the heart of the latter forms is the fact that they’re working texts. They are for actors, directors, designers, etc. to make their creative decisions from. For instance, the dialogue in a script should not contain information that colours the character for the reader. It’s the actor’s job to perform those lines for her audience, and in doing so, provides the specs about character. These forms are distinctly different and are often likened to a blueprint.
As a screenwriter and filmmaker I definitely connect with this post! You provided a wonderful label (PCA), to describe one of the biggest challenges in adapting fiction to the screen. I think it's something we see with classic books and how often the screen adaptations fail to capture the power of the written word. I think the mistake is in believing you can do a one for one exchange, and simply film the events of the story.
Take Gatsby as an example. So much of its PCA is in the rich lyrical prose of Fitzgerald's words. The overall plot is not what makes it a great book. If you just do a direct adaptation, the movie is not going to be any good. People have mixed views of Baz Luhrmann's adaptation, but I do give him credit for understanding this predicament and trying to create PCA's through the pure visual flamboyance and extravagance of his style.
The Heart of Darkness is another one. What do you do with dark psychological depths of Conrad's prose, the haunting atmospheres, but the rather scattered and thin plot? In the case of Apocalypse Now, you set it in Vietnam and make it operatic. You shoot the cinematography so dark, the audience can barely make out the face of Kurtz. You use the music of the Doors, at their darkest and psychologically richest. We become so enraptured by the ambiance, we aren't worried about reconciling plot points (because hint, hint, they are sparse. That's the magic trick).
I think that is also the challenge of George's stories because as he stated, so much of the PCA is wrapped up in the fun and weirdness of the language. Just as a quick example, how do you translate the lovely prose and format of "The Semplica Girl Diaries" to film? It's a challenge, right? I don't think you do it through a direct adaptation of just the events. I think it requires something more, the energy of the PCA within the prose has to be translated through the language of film (acting, cinematography, music, color, wardrobe, sets, etc etc).
Btw, Semplica was just a random example, but I just looked it up and saw it IS being adapted, how exciting! Can't wait to watch it. And I hope one day the stars align and I can take a shot at one of your stories too!
No matter how descriptive the text the written word compels the reader to take responsibility for constructing a personal visual interpretation of scene. Film relieves the viewer of that responsibility: what the viewer sees is the director's visual interpretation. "The child pedals a bicycle along the street". Each reader has a personal visual interpretation of that scene. Once that scene is translated to film, the viewer's personal interpretation becomes irrelevant. Hemingway wrote sparse unembellished prose that sometimes evoked a sense of stage directions, inviting the reader (as director) to more easily provide personal interpretation and context.
A generation or two or three ago, adapting bestselling novels for the screen was a popular Hollywood gambit. Some of us aspiring literary types got a bunch of entertaining insight by reading the book and seeing the movie and then through the wee hours, fueled by way too much alcohol, tobacco and sundry mind-altering substances would pick nit upon nit until the nitfabric was as threadbare as Akakiy Akakievitch's worn out overcoat.
"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."
I don't know about all of you, but I regularly don't know which way is best when I'm writing. When I get to a point in the story like that, I'll do one of two things:
1. I'll stop, put the thing aside, and start doing something else until the "right" idea comes along. Sometimes, this will takes months. Sometimes, it will only take a few minutes.
2. I'll remind myself that the decision of which way to go is 100% my own, and then I'll pick one and see where it takes me.
Anyone else have these moments of indecision? Got any other ways to push through?
First-- WGAstrong- yes! So many remarkable writer friends on the picket lines-- in LA and here in New York. What worlds they conjure.
Today’s post from George arouses such strong feelings in me-- I’m not sure why-- I know I’m grateful that fiction writing found George Saunders and seduced him. My reading world-- my world-- would be smaller without his work.
My first love was poetry - life saving in a way- but this so quickly dovetailed with fiction -- obsessively carrying books everywhere. The first dream I remember having occurred when I was 7-- in the dream my best friend leads me through a long hall, barely lit, into a large room walled with dark paneled floor-to-ceiling shelves, the shelves are filled with books. For some reason unknown to us there’s an inch or two of water on the floor and a beautiful echo of sound - cavernous. Where am I, I ask. This is home, she says.
What’s so ironic to me is that the replica of sensate experience created by the dream --- the polished wood, the colorful spines of the books, the low lamp light, my friend’s soft hand leading me, the deep resonant sound our voices make, the water lapping-- this is what I most loved- This was home. And to me, this is cinema.
This hit pretty deeply with me—my first love of story as a kid came from movies, and when it was time to declare a major, I opted for "Film and Video Production," thinking that there I'd learn to be a screenwriter. My research skills then weren't what they are now, so it was a surprise to me to learn once my first semester started that over the course of the entire, three-year program, I'd be taking precisely two screenwriting courses. The rest would, unsurprisingly, revolve around film history, lighting, photography, etc. Things that I was interested in, no doubt, but things that I didn't really think would teach me what I needed to know about the specific art of screenwriting (again, I was wrong, ha; I'm sure that it would've taught me an awful lot that would come in handy).
So, just a few months into my college career, I switched my major to creative writing, where you'd then choose two emphases from a pool of four: drama, poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. I'd initially chosen drama and fiction, but because of how moved I was by works of creative nonfiction in early classes, I switched. And I think it's safe to say that somewhere in there I found a second love. I don't think I'm able to view fiction and/or creative nonfiction with the same degree of nostalgia that I do movies, but the love is still powerful.
Still, I find my writing to be greatly impacted by my early tastes. Certain projects tend to be more cinematic, for one, but I also am frequently thinking of how elements could translate to the screen. Because that does remain a huge dream of mine, to have a work of mine produced, be it adapted from a book or short story, or written originally for the screen.
And I think sometimes I feel guilty for that, oddly? Like I'm somehow doing the work, or the medium, a disservice? Like what I'm creating isn't "pure" because of that wish. I don't know. A logical part of me does think that's silly, but the feeling is there on occasion.
The questioner asks: “What can a short story do that a TV show can't do?” George answers that prose fiction gives a reader “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.” While I agree with the first part of this sentence, I’m not sure if I completely agree that prose fiction is the “most intimate and truthful of art forms.” For instance, what of poetry? How devastating and intimate, not to mention truthful is Sylvia Plath’s poem “Daddy”? What of watching Judy Garland’s last televised performance, singing Over the Rainbow, when she is wearing her insides on her outsides, exposed for all of us to see? What of listening to Arvo Part’s Fur Elina? Intimate and truthful belongs, I think, to all art forms. That being said, reading fiction, where everything is conjured within one’s own brain, a Vulcan mild-meld from writer to reader—yes, the intimacy and honesty can be breathtaking. And for many readers, this sort of intimacy is the closest they feel to another human being.
What can a (short) story do that a TV show cannot? I am currently reading To the Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf). It’s not a short story, but it’s a very short novel, so perhaps it will do for these purposes. A TV show cannot do what that book does, which is to spend pages and pages re-creating inner worlds in such a manner that the story adds up to much more than its parts. It’s like a magic trick, that book. A TV show can do its own magic tricks, but not that one—not in the manner of Virginia Woolf. Honestly, I don’t think the two can be compared. The only thing in common is that a story and a TV show both deal in narratives. (Apples and oranges are both fruits and yet they cannot be compared.)
George also says: “All the hours I’ve spent trying to adapt my work for screen has, I think, taught me some good, visceral things about structure.” He says, “structure becomes vital.” And he has learned to imagine the skeleton of a story “that exists without embellishment – no extra boost from jokes or rich language – just a sequence of things happening.” In my mind, a story relies on structure in the same way a screenplay does, where the “ordering and juxtaposition of events is what actually conveys so much of the meaning and power.” You can’t have prose fiction without some sort of structure—and that structure is purposely chosen to convey meaning (along with all the other elements in a story that convey meaning). When George talks about structure here, I think he’s talking about plot without using the word plot. He mentions a “sequence of things happening” draped over “a solid, meaning-creating structure.” In a TV show, such “things happening” are more obvious, perhaps, than in a short story based, say, on the inner workings of a character. But still—structure is necessary, regardless of how a story is told.
#WGAstrong! I’m not a member of the WGA but I fully support the strike!
I worked in the film industry for about eight years. My job was to find books and stories that could be adapted into film. Basically, I was paid to talk to people about writing all day and with my expense account I spent hours over long lunches asking (brilliant!) editors as many questions as they would tolerate. I loved, and badly miss, the constant state of being in conversation with writers, book editors, actors, playwrights--talking about what a story could be, what made it. And then there were the studio executives. I sold projects to them but, for the most part, felt like I was holding the jaws of an alligator.
My first love was poetry. An interesting thing to write in an age when so many of its popular forms have become synonymous with music. But I learned a great deal about pacing and the development of an idea from reading and writing poems. What you describe here about PCAs feels instantly recognizable.
Thanks to GS and all the wonderful comments. What I particularly appreciate is the tone: very aspirational and, for the most part, judgement free, i.e. it's easy to dump on screenwriting as a kind of bastard fifth cousin to the print, fiction writer (who wrote "Casablanca" vs who wrote "The Sun Also Rises" - answer, 13 people on Casablanca and some guy named Hemingway for the later). My mix is a bit odd. I write and publish short stories but I mainly earn my daily keep scripting non fiction and documentary television. I find the biggest difference is mainly practical. In the former I am pretty much in control with the exception of some suggestions made by an editor. In the latter, I am a mere cog in a much bigger wheel and it's a crapshoot how much of my "writing" actually makes it into the finished product. In one I am master of this small, imaginative universe. In the other I'm more one of the galley oarsman (second from left in the rear row). GS brings up intimacy and that is dead on. One is highly intimate and the other . . .not. Doesn't mean that scripting for TV doesn't have its non economic rewards but I find its rewards are structural ones rather than purely linguistic ones. And, because you are dealing with mass audiences right out of the gate it tends to shove the imagination into more generic and less personal/idiocentric pathways. For anyone who loves literature, loves the written language and its plasticity this is no contest. But, for one who likes paying the bills??? or who likes working in a team and doesn't mind seeing bits and pieces of yourself thrown into the trash bin??
George, I appreciate, and identify with, your comments on one's first love of an art form. When I was in college I was torn between writing fiction and filmmaking. Both gave me that feeling of, "I want to do that!" Filmmaking won out (I've had a long career as a documentary producer and editor with a few fiction films along the way) partly, if not largely, because of the simple fun of the collaborative process you describe. There's nothing like it. Plus, a theater. or living room full of people, can watch your work all at once. It's pretty satisfying.
I would add that in film the creative contribution of the editor cannot be overstated. The editor is not just a rewrite person but an interpreter of the script, the performances and the way they were filmed. The ability to shade, rewrite, and even restructure a film, and to do so invisibly, is a deep skill. It's writing with images and sound. What film struggles with, however, and what literature does so well, is capture the internal workings and voice of a character. Images are better at conveying emotions than they are at conveying thoughts. I'd argue that that's why so many film adaptations of literary sources fail to meet the power of the original. My favorite exception to this would be Wonder Boys. An amazing film.
George, I so agree with everything you have to say about the differences in writing for page and screen. I wrote an original script just to see if I could. I was a great intellectual challenge. You have to train yourself to think "visually". And that's the problem for most of us. You can write a half-page description of something, say, like a sunset and fishing boats, and people at the beach, yada-yada-yada, only to have that scene broken down to a single line that's no more than a panning shot of the camera. Once you figure that part out, you realize you have to come at it from a different angle. I've yet to try it with one of my own stories, even though quite a few of them seem made for the screen. I may try my hand at it in the future, just like one day I want to try an write a stage play, but if I do that, I want to see if I can do it in Iambic Pentameter...for the challenge.
I especially appreciated the discussion of power-conveying artifacts, as well as the idea of imitating the reader when revising. After the discussion of the bad mother bunny, I tried revising while thinking of the reader’s response, but had trouble staying with the character of a nameless reader. I’ll try it again, imitating a reader and asking the question Mr. Saunders suggests and responding to what I identify as the PCA’s. As for the discussion comparing TV scripts and short story prose, after I saw this 13 minute documentary, named Tungrus, The Pet Chicken From Hell, on the Atlantic website, I was unable to imagine how one could write such a clever piece in prose. Though many shots are of people being interviewed while sitting on a couch, the shots of the rooster terrorizing the people and cats with whom he lives are hilarious. And the final shot before the credits roll. leaves room for thought. https://www.theatlantic.com/video/index/582871/tungrus/