A Change in Thinking: Screenplays vs. First Novel

As I’ve said before, I started writing short stories then moved into screenplays. A big reason for the latter was my passion for visual media, and the only reason for the former was lack of patience. I wasn’t able to think about introspection and backstory and all that. Just the main story laid out in a linear fashion. Like a guy relaying a story at the dinner table. In a way, all the short stories I wrote were like describing movies. Treatments, more or less. I’m not a famous screenwriter or anything like that, but I’ve written a bunch, read a bunch, got a Masters degree in screenwriting and I’ve taught screenwriting. The point is that the bulk of my writing experience is in screenwriting. And while writing screenplays, I didn’t just come up with my own idea of how it should be done and operate in a personal vacuum, I studied the process and the method ferociously. I took classes, read books, interviewed professionals, and read successful and unsuccessful examples. Why? Not because I wanted to know how to get famous, but because I didn’t want to look like a rookie. I hate that.

Now that I’m embarking on the Progeny project, I’m doing the same thing for writing long form prose. Studying the form, that is. There’s a lot of crossover between the two mediums in terms of structure, plot development, and character, but the execution of those elements in a longer form has been a challenge thus far.

A screenplay is bare structure. It’s a technical document that lists what you see on screen and what the actors say. That’s it. People who write flowery prose in a screenplay are in the wrong business and the crew will mock them. I was really good at keeping my screenplays dryly technical. The story developed out of imagining what you saw on screen and didn’t tell you exactly what actors did and how they did it. Check out the screenplay for FORGE if you want an example of my style. You don’t have to read the whole thing, just skip to a spot in there and read a page or two. There’s no internal thinking, no elaborate descriptions of dialog or locations. When you read it, you breeze right through it. Just dialog, action, and reaction. If it’s not on the screen, you won’t see it in the screenplay.

That’s pretty obvious stuff to anyone who has read both screenplays and fiction books. Formatting in terms of fonts and layout and margins are a factor, too. The interesting thing for me is that I actually think in screenplay formatting now. Like learning a foreign language, when I write in the novel, I’m translating from how I would have written it in the screenplay form. I find myself writing in looks and actions rather than thoughts and description. I don’t think about the character’s thoughts or how they got to be the way they are. If that weren’t enough, screenplays are written in present tense! “Jim walks to the door and opens it.” The common novel voice is past tense: “Jim walked to the door and opened it.” In this current project, I find myself switching back and forth subconsciously all the time. Like throwing an English word in the middle of my best effort at a French sentence.

Here’s a quick sample of what I’m talking about. (click on the blue words link to see the pdf)

The truth is that I haven’t changed since the very beginning. I struggle with pacing. I want to get to the good parts of the story right away. A great novel will control the pacing carefully. It breathes. There’s fast parts and drawn out parts and overall you feel like you’re along for a ride and not just bombing downhill the whole time. As I write Progeny, I already feel like it’s a movie treatment more than a novel. There’s very little introspection or description or backstory or side notes. I’m not going to worry about that now just so I can get the story framed out from beginning to end. Then I’ll go back and try to flesh it out.

It’s a whole new mode of thinking and I’m doing my best to adapt. Something that helps a lot is reading more novels and watching fewer movies. Some authors, like Neal Stephenson, are all description and history, little dialog, and surprisingly little plot movement in a 1000 page book. Others, like Cormac McCarthy, use so few words it might as well be a long poem. I’m somewhere in between. I’d like to model after someone like China Melville or Henning Mankell. Lean, but atmospheric and patient with the story. Funny that Mankell is translated from Swedish and the books are still so well-written.

I’m slowly getting used to it, but it will be a while before I’m thinking in the right language.

3 thoughts on “A Change in Thinking: Screenplays vs. First Novel

  1. I’ve been struggling with the same thing! Switching modes has become incredibly taxing and the only thing I can do to shake it is read, read, read. I’ve been submerged in the turbid waters of screenplay lake so long that I almost forgot that first person-narrative existed. I’m like Jason Voorhees, a chained subaquatic monster… but soon I will awaken, rise to the surface, and dismember anything with a hedonistic value system…

  2. Pingback: Wordsmith or Storyteller? | one ill writer

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