Monday, December 09, 2013

Writing in different genres

I love Friday Questions that become entire posts. Either it means I have a lot to say on the subject or I just don’t know when to stop writing.

Today’s is from Ellen.

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?

It wasn’t harder, but it was sure different. I could never get into a character’s thought process before writing in prose. And I never had to be as descriptive before. You can’t just say INT. APARTMENT – DAY and leave it to the art and set department to design something for you.  My stage direction in screenplays tends to very sparse.  The apartment is a mess.  Period.  Done.  On to the fun stuff. 

The other thing I was struck with is that a novel becomes the finished product. Scripts are always works-in-progress. Once you get it on its feet things change. Sometimes the end result is nothing like you intended. Writing prose you have the last word. I find I like that for some reason.

I also enjoy that as the narrator I have a voice. I can express opinions and make observations. Certainly you can express your point-of-view through a character, but sometimes they’re not on the same page as you. Or have the same perspective as you. I don’t need there to be a character with a Ken Levine P.O.V in a novel.. I can provide it myself thank you very much. I like that too. It's like being able to provide the commentary track to your movie right on the movie itself.  (Now there's a concept.)

And literary characters never question their lines. They never ask what’s their motivation? They never refuse to do nudity. They don’t require a twelve-hour turnaround between shooting days. And as opposed to actors, they welcome stage direction. They’ll say the lines just like you tell them to. He said accusingly. She said with a slight touch of anger. Write those indicators into a script and see how your actors respond. Think the first twenty minutes of SAVING PRIVATE RYAN. 

It’s also nice that budget is not an issue in prose. The writer has a blank check to go to elaborate worlds, stage parties with thousands of extras... I mean, guests, globe hop if he so desires. You’re not paying for background people and having to feed them, you don’t need government approval to do scenes in certain countries, you don't need permits to shoot on city streets, and all your special effects go off perfectly without a hitch. You’re never delayed because of weather. No Teamster locals are going to go on strike preventing you from writing chapter six.

So I’ll definitely write more novels. Did the experience help me to be a better screenwriter? Honestly, no. Screenwriting has its own set of rules. On the other hand, I became a much better screenwriter once I became a director. I have a way better feel for how actors approach material and what they need to realize my vision.  Screenwriters sometime forget (me included) that real human beings have to say these words and do these actions. 

Ellen, for you to tackle a screenplay, I think if you’re skillful in dialogue (a tool you need in prose) you should be fine making the transition. The only thing I’ll say is remember, to convey a character’s emotion or motivation you have to do it via behavior. You have to find clever ways for characters to express their inner feelings based on the choices we see them make, their body language, and other behavioral clues. You can’t just say what he’s thinking.  Thought bubbles like in comic books are frowned upon. 

Good luck, and allow me to take this golden opportunity to once again plug my novel. MUST KILL TV. When was the last time you treated yourself to a really funny book? For $2.99 be a sport. Don’t make me have to go back to writing screenplays.  Here's where you go.  Thanks.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Interesting piece. I think I remember reading a piece by John Sayles on the difference between writing novels and screenplays and he made some of the same points, particularly about budgets.

Oh, great. Two words now. The numbers were easier.

Wayne said...

I once had a drink with Max Shulman. After I'd read his funny SLEEP UNTIL NOON and wrote him a fan letter, I was surprised to find myself having a drink with the master humorist at Dan Tana's. I asked him why he stopped writing his wonderful novels. Shulman said "Sales were falling off. The last one only sold 100,000." He lamented that at one time, one out of 10 on the Times bestseller list was a funny novel like CHEAPER BY THE DOZEN. But the comedy audience switched to TV. His agent told him he could get another book deal, but for God's sake, make it like Sidney Sheldon.

Well, I'm raising a beverage now. Here's to Ken Levine, for bringing back a grand tradition!

Cap'n Bob said...

I would respectfully disagree about phrases like, "he said accusingly." Modifying he saids and the like are to be avoided.

Ralph C. said...

Has anyone ever read a novel called "The Day Television Died"? I read this many, many years ago and just recently tried to find it again.

Bobby M. said...

Hey Ken!

Long time reader, first time Friday Question asker.

When I was in undergrad, a teacher of mine told me that many contemporary sitcoms are based off of Jewish theater: the Rabbi, the Putz, the Schmuck, and the Princess appear as the main character archetypes. He specifically cited Frasier, Seinfeld, Will and Grace, and even Friends to some extent. Now I'm in grad school, and my theater history teacher suspects the tradition dates as far back as Plautus and the birth of New Comedy.

My question to you—as a college professor and writer of one of the aforementioned shows—is how aware of this were you when writing for TV? Did you work to establish characters as these specific archetypes?

Thanks! (and if you answer my question, I promise to buy your book, which I hear is available on Amazon for $2.99)

Anonymous said...

Hamid said...

You can’t just say what he’s thinking. Thought bubbles like in comic books are frowned upon.

I'm a horror fan, especially old school 80s slashers. They're not high brow, not art but total guilty pleasures. Anyway, I was pretty excited when Freddy vs Jason was released. A gorefest it was. But it also had some of THE most inept handling of character I've seen in recent popcorn cinema. They literally DID say what a character was thinking!

One scene should be used in writing classes as an example of really, really bad, on the nose writing. Shortly after some teenagers have been killed, a friend of one of the victims sits alone having a drink and he says, out loud, to himself, the following: "I'm gonna get him for you, Trey. Cop let it slip. It was somebody named Freddy."

Even Freddy gets his own godawful soliloquy: "Not strong enough yet. Well, I will be soon enough. Until then, I'll let Jason have some fun."

Johnny Walker said...

Re: The internal dialogue question. It's amazing to me how we'll happily watch a character wrestle with an internal conflict out loud to themselves. I guess you don't see it that often these days, and (like thought bubbles in comics) it's probably seen as lazy writing?

chuckcd said...

Ken, enjoying Must Kill TV!
Love the references to real actors and shows.

By Ken Levine said...

Thanks much. Please post an Amazon review. Those really help sales.