Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Screenplay Action vs Novel Action

Screenplays and scripts are, in their intended way, roadmaps or diagrams of stories rather than representations of the intended action.  Although some writers of novels and short stories are able to make the jump from one medium to another, not all can.  

One poignant example of a skilled novelist who had difficulty comes to mind in the case of F. Scott Fitzgerald, who was, if anything, baffled by the transition.  Even though there are now four film versions of Gatsby, you could make the argument that his own works did not lend themselves to film.  

A writer who could do both well is William Goldman, who seems able to make the switch with ease.  A more extreme example than Goldman is Denis Lehane, who in recent months has reversed the usual pattern of novelizing his original screenplay, The Drop.

The language of the screenplay and script is present moment or present time, better still, present tense.  There is a "we" presence, indication us as the audience.  We see.  Most of the time, what we see is some form of action.  We see a man walking down a street, taking rapid yet deliberate steps, demonstrating his eagerness, perhaps even his sense of urgency.  The man is now presented to us.

Here is a character being described and presented to us in the Eric Warren Singer and David Russell screenplay, American Hustle.  IRVING ROSENFELD, not a small man, gets dressed and meticulously constructs his combover. Camera WRAPS AROUND, see his hands with rings adjust his dark velvet suit, up to his face, serious, concentrated, intense, he is composing himself before a performance. Irving is now dressed, ready, and walks down the hall to another room. 

The only thing we're told is that Irving is not a small man.  We even learn of his sparse crop of hair through action.  An actor can--and did--follow that road map.  The description is specific enough so that within those few opening sentences, we can almost sense the way Irving thinks.  In a novelized version of that activity, the qualifier "almost" is removed.  

There is no longer the we of the audience or of the camera.  There is the you of the reader, eavesdropping on Irving Rosenfeld, taking clues from surroundings and circumstances in the same way Irving is taking them.

The difference between the two media, the screenplay and the novel, is the difference between the road map and the eavesdrop. Both media can be and ofter are increasingly intimate.  Your concern here is the techniques writers use when writing about events and the way characters convey the writers' intentions to the audience but even more so to the reader.

The elephant in the living room is the writer, a fact dripping with irony.  We are suspicious of the author appearing to tell us things, so much so that we have developed a mantra familiar to many storytellers:  Show, don't tell.

There is no luxury for telling in film or play.  One character may say to another, "Relax."  Or perhaps, "Hey, chill."  But neither film nor play can display a sign, Mary is agitated.  Nor should a novel or short story, but look at the times when we come across authorial interventions such as, "Mary fidgeted nervously," or the more reductionist "Mary was nervous."

You like to think you've been at this aspect of narrative writing long enough so that even your earliest drafts show some sense of grasping the need to make every step of the way, every beat, deploy action rather than suggest or describe it.  But there are times when you come to the material while wearing your editorial hat, which means you see some trace of yourself, holding up the equivalent of a card with the proper attitude or emotion lettered on it.

This does not mean that everything in a novel or short story needs to be dramatized because doing so would add measurable chunks of time and event to the story for the sole purpose of bringing on dramatic information, information about the characters, or overall shifts in the concerns and issues of the story.  But this does mean that the closer you can come to suggesting, implying, intimating many of these things,the more immediate and convincing the story will be.

Your basic, general thoughts about such matters have their origin in your belief that the essential dramatic unit, the scene, must be as fraught with undercurrent, double entendre, mixed levels of communication, and the loud sizzle of lit fuses.  There must be some basic tension, radiating outward, even before the scene begins, because, to quote the aforementioned William Goldman, "Start late, leave early."  By which he means, start your scenes several beats after you'd thought to start them.  Leave at the most noticeable, unpolitical moment.

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