Tuesday, November 05, 2013

A Friday Question on Tuesday

Here’s one of those Friday Questions that turned into (a) an entire post on the process of writing and (b) gives me another chance to shamelessly plug my new book, MUST KILL TV, which is available in Kindle format for only $2.99 and getting great reviews.

spmsmith asks:

What differences did you find in the writing process between creating a novel and creating a screenplay or TV script (if any)? Thanks!

This is the perfect project to make that comparison because MUST KILL TV was originally a screenplay David Isaacs and I wrote back in the late ‘90s. One of my hopes for the book is that someone will want to option the movie rights and pay us to write the screenplay we’ve already written.

But in truth, I’ve changed the novel considerably.  The script served as more of an outline.

First off, the venue is the TV industry and the industry itself has changed over the last fourteen years. By “changed” I mean unrecognizable from what it used to be. So I had to do more than just update references. I had to redefine the arena. Fortunately for me, the TV industry has gotten more cutthroat and murderous. Sometimes a writer catches a break.

In screenplays you need to be very economical. Scenes begin in the middle. A long argument is maybe three pages. Visual images do a lot of the heavy lifting. In novels you can let scenes breathe, expand them, and say a lot more than you could in a screenplay. I found that very liberating.

In essence, you tell the story very differently depending on the format. For example, I completely changed the beginning. The movie version opened with all visuals and a big montage. Seeing it would have a much greater impact than reading a lengthy description and then having to picture it. So I devised a completely new beginning that quickly introduced the main characters and established their relationship. The first chapter is so key these days because that’s what you preview if you’re shopping on Amazon. By the way, lest you think I’m so smart – all of this advice was given to me by veteran novelists who knew the ropes. Picture me as Gomer Pyle.

I changed a lot of the story, filled out some things, and re-imagined the final act. I also added a lot of dialogue although there were speeches and runs that came right out of the screenplay.

One enormous difference is that you can get into a character’s head. You can convey his thoughts. I decided to have some fun with that. As my main character was being placed under more and more pressure I made his thoughts more rambling and insane. This was a tool I had never had before and I loved it. A new avenue for characterization and laughs! Yes!

These were the hard parts:

Re-training my brain. As a screenwriter it’s been drilled into my head to be as sparse with stage directions as possible. In a novel it’s the author’s obligation to put the reader into the scene. You’re the director, the art director, the lighting director, the wardrobe person – everybody. You’re fifteen unions and six guilds all at once.

I also saw my job as a narrator to be a tour guide of the world of television – an outspoken tour guide who would likely get fired for being too outspoken. Rarely if ever in screenplays would I think to make the kinds of editorial comments I so freely share in the book.

In screenplays, everything is written in the present. Most fiction is written in past tense. This drove me fucking batty. The only comparison I could give is driving your whole life in America and then going to England and having to drive on the other side of the road.

And finally, a big adjustment I had to make was no head hopping. This was a term I had never heard of. I’m sure all novelists reading this are laughing at my naiveté. You can’t switch point-of-view between characters in the same section or sub-chapter. You can’t tell us what Charles is thinking and then a speech later tell us what Stevie is thinking. You can only stick with one person’s point-of-view. The next chapter or sub-chapter you can change, but then you’re locked into that person’s thoughts. I’m sure there’s good reasons for this, but to continue the driving analogy, in addition to having to steer on the other side of the street, it’s as if someone said, “Oh, and by the way -- you can’t turn left unless you’ve already turned right twice and made at least one U-turn.” It was a pain in the ass, but now I know. And I rewrote accordingly. Although, I’ll be honest, I cheated a couple of times. Yes, your honor, I head hopped.

Some authors will tell you head hopping is not important, but I tried to do it right. Again, I can’t thank my novelist friends enough. Their notes were invaluable.

So that’s it. But the main difference at the end of the day between a screenplay and novel is that in a novel you really have to have a voice. You set the tone, you create the world, and the one unique thing you bring to the book is YOU. People follow authors because they like their style. For me, writing a blog every day for eight years went a long way into establishing that voice.

But I’m still afraid to get behind the wheel in England.


Stephen Robinson said...

The "head-hopping" prohibition is one of those rules I've tried to "bend" if not "break." I'm writing a book now that has a scene at a wedding and I "head hop" twice but there's a subtle transition that I liken to a long shot in film when we're following one character who then meets and interacts with a character with whom we then leave. It hasn't proven too jarring to people who have read it at the first draft stage.

I can certainly agree that "excessive: head-hopping can be disruptive -- sort of like an MTV edit of a CHEERS of FRASIER with so many quick cuts you have no idea what's happening.

Also, there's the belief that if you're writing a mystery, head-hopping should be avoided because you are selectively choosing when to reveal a character's thoughts within a scene (so you might have the killer think, "I love his shirt" but not have him say, "I'm sleeping with his wife.")

Rinaldo said...

I actually hadn't heard the term "head-hopping" before (I don't write fiction), but I knew immediately what it meant, because it does come up in thinking about literature. And (like Elmore Leonard's "rules") I think of it less as an absolute prohibition and more of an "if you violate this one, be sure you have a good reason and handle it very well." I've seen analyses of fiction that showed how a single chapter started with one point of view, modulated to omniscient, and then settled on another character's point of view. But the transitions (with some "neutrality") were pointed to as examples of mastery of a technique that novices often handle ineptly.

Rick said...

I use Nook, not Kindle. Is your new book going to be available from B&N? I was able the get your previous book from them.

By Ken Levine said...

Sorry Rick but no. This one is exclusive to Kindle. A paperback version will be out hopefully next week.

Charles H. Bryan said...

to Rick: I don't know which version of nook you have, but the HD versions work with Google Play, from which I downloaded the kindle app and which allows me to read and buy kindle versions. Sometimes they're cheaper than B&N, which explains why B&N is slowly dying.

Ken, I finished the book last night and enjoyed it greatly. I wanted to post and ask some questions, but you've addressed most of them here.

And as for head hopping, I didn't notice it through most of the book, but near the end you definitely switched POV and I thought it was very effective. It actually fed the sense of denouement.

As far as descriptions go, I sort of subscribe to the Elmore Leonard school -- I picture characters very differently than they're described. For some reason, I kept picturing 1980s Hart-to-Hart Stephanie Powers as Sondra. Sometimes William Holden was Charles. That guy who was in the McDonald's commercial telling people not to talk to him until he had his coffee usually got the part of Stevie, but sometimes Paul Reiser jumped into my brain. Go figure.

I really enjoyed that device with Charles - the ADD that took over when he was anxious. I do that.

You should have charged more. I would have paid it.

Eric J said...

Get Calibre (free). You can use it to convert from one ebook format to another, e.g. Kindle to EPUB (nook). A lot of ebooks are DRM protected, but there is a plug in available for Calibre (3rd party) to strip it. You aren't cheating anyone. Amazon gets theirs, Ken gets his, you get yours.

By Ken Levine said...

Thanks, Charles. So glad you liked it. If you wouldn't mind, a review in Amazon would be most helpful -- especially since you didn't hate it. Thanks again!

Eric J said...

I surveyed over 100 books available on Kindle and nook last year. On average they were exactly the same. A few kindle books are pennies cheaper a few nook books are pennies cheaper. The publisher normally sets the price through negotiation, not amazon or B&N. I don't know about self-published.

Breadbaker said...

For reasons totally unrelated to this, I just bought a Kindle. When it arrives, the first book I'll download will be yours, Ken. Then we'll have to figure out how you can autograph it like you autographed the (physical) last book.

Mark said...

On the subject of adaptation, I just reread the Maltese Falcon and I was, as always, amazed at how closely the movie follows the book. Virtually every line, every piece of business I remembered from the film was in the novel.

I guess you have to be as good a writer as Huston to know when to leave the other guy's work alone.

PolyWogg said...

The prohibition against anything is almost always predicated on the same basis -- few people do it well. So, want to head hop? Go ahead, but know in advance that it rarely works well because the talent required to both hop and keep the reader from getting lost is extremely high.

I liken it often to early teachers saying things about passive voice, or superlatives, or slang, or verbose sentences with too many of the same conjunction. Whatever works -- works. Whatever doesn't work -- avoid.

Most "help" books for authors are giving you guidelines and rules designed to stop you from, for example, going all the way through a book in first person narrative only to find out at the end you suddenly have to hop into someone else's head to finish the scene.

I also think with PoV, a lot of people do it to be "cute"...they hop into the killer's head but don't bother to reveal they're thinking about the killing but you do get to learn how they feel intimately about yellow socks, or play with things like gender references so that you're in the killer's head but they never let you know it's the killer or even what gender they are in order to "build the mystery". They're "tricks" to fake the delivery of some surprise, when the surprise would work if they were better writers in the first place...


McAlvie said...

"no head hopping"

eh. Some great - or, at least, really popular - writers do it, so I would not call it an iron clad rule. But, admittedly, not everyone can get away with it. Maybe you have to be a great writer before you get to bend those rules.

Ellen said...

Hi, Ken. I'm a novelist working on a script, so it was interesting to read this reverse take on what I'm experiencing.

Two questions for you. Was writing a novel harder than you thought it would be? And also, do you think the experience will benefit you as a screenwriter?

FYI, I'm one of those novelists who believes head-hopping is verboten. I also teach creative writing, and my students get a wrist slap every time they do it. I'm eager to read your book nevertheless!

Kay said...

Congratulations on your novel, Ken! And thanks for kicking off a fascinating discussion on technique.

To echo Stephen Robinson's comment, I think 21st century readers are comfortable with head-hopping because of film grammar. We see a neutral, stationary camera shot of the sorority girl walking home alone after dark. Suddenly, there's a switch to a menacing tracking shot of her walking from behind…is she being followed by her boyfriend? By the SERIAL KILLER?

Yeah, thanks to cheesy horror films (and a hundred years of cinema), we can all handle changes in POV in the same scene. I do agree, however, that in a novel, POV switching can be confusing for the reader when not done well.

Johnny Walker said...

It sounds like you've possibly found an exciting new avenue to explore, Ken. And another great thing about writing novels is that you don't have to wait for anyone else to give you the green light. The audience you've created from your TV work and subsequent blog means you have readers ready and waiting to spread positive word of mouth reviews (if they love your book), too.

I could actually see you having quite a sizable hit on your hands if you keep at it. You're perfectly primed!

Now to read it and post a review.

Anonymous said...

It's no shame to be behind Sarah Vowell. All her books are great. I really enjoy your column - I love to be able to peek under the covers at your industry, even though I'm far removed from it.


Charles H. Bryan said...

Amazon review completed! I guess I don't review many of my Amazon purchases -- there was a little message that 3 of 3 people found my reviews helpful. I thought "What the hell did I review?" A couple of clicks showed me the only other review that I've written -- for Vanessa Williams' "Everlasting Love" CD. I liked it, 4 stars worth.

Dan Ball said...

Two of my best friends from college and I are writers. One does prose, I do screenwriting, and our other friend goes back and forth between the two. We review each others' work fairly often and it always gives me headaches reading prose. I have no idea how to critique prose, because it seems so loose compared to screen. It's like limited anarchy in prose. What am I supposed to say? "Make that five-page description longer?" "Round up the length to 500 pages?" "That speech can go thirty pages easy?"

Thankfully, my friends are pretty good writers so they don't need much critiquing and I, in my blissful ignorance, can just kick back and enjoy their work for what it is.

chuckcd said...

I'm waiting for the paperback!
Don't have a kindle.

spmsmith said...

Ken. thank you so much for your thoughtful and thorough answer to my question. I loved reading it. I look forward to buying your book as well.

If you are ever stuck for a topic to write on and are looking for inspiration, or if you have room someday in your Friday questions: I understood (I think) most of everything you said here, even though I don't write on any regular basis. However I was confused by this: "Scenes begin in the middle." I've never tried writing a script, so maybe that's why I'm not getting it, but I just don't see how a scene starts in the middle.

To get specific, say I'm watching Cheers, and it starts with an establishing shot of the bar outside, and then a cut to Sam inside polishing glasses for a second before Norm comes in and starts a conversation - how is that scene not a beginning? If that's the middle, what makes it the middle? And what *is* considered the beginning, and why can't you start there? Please enlighten a loyal but confused reader. And thanks again!