Monday, September 5, 2011

Novelist vs Screenwriter vs Playwright

by R.S. Mellette

I've written stage plays, screenplays (large and small) and novels with nearly the same success, and lack thereof, so I thought a comparison of how I feel about each might be useful. I have no doubt arguments will abound, which is a good thing. Thesis, Antithesis, Synthesis.

THE STAGE: "Theatre is dead." That proclamation was made to me by the late, great, set designer, John Paoletti, as we met to discuss the set for a 99-seat production in Los Angeles. Such "Equity Waiver" plays are to theatre what garage bands are to Rock & Roll. This particular play had an all-star cast, so it was a great little garage band—but could only be considered professional by the quality of the work, not the dollars earned. Paoletti designed sets for theatre all over the country. As we talked about the production, he was drawing pieces for a play back in Chicago. He worked constantly. In any other profession his labor and skill would have made him a rich man, but he was far from it. This is what prompted him to say what he did. "Theatre is dead, and television killed it."

I had no argument against it. Still don't. But the skills of the stage, the lessons learned in front of a live audience night-after-night, are invaluable when it comes to film and television—where the artist may never hear or feel the audience's initial response to their work. In film, 1920 is ancient history. You're considered a scholar if you know what Thomas Edison might have to do with Steven Spielberg's success.

Theatre can trace her roots back to before God. An understanding of what moved an audience in ancient Egypt, or Greece, or what made Italians in the 16th Century laugh, or how Theatre survived the hard economic times of English reconstruction—and how these same human storytelling techniques have worked in our day—give a writer a deep pool of knowledge to work from. Damn the marketing people and their test screenings—a writer with a strong theatre background has 3,000+ years of research and feedback from billions of people to draw from. Better still if this writer has spent time on stage performing other writers' work. The best teacher is the instant feedback of a paying audience.

In writing for the stage you are capturing the power and majesty of the human voice, from kings to paupers, the supremacy of the words are yours to wield. Sure, you might write in a deus ex machine, but without the deity to speak from atop the device, the special effect isn't much good.

With minimal stage effects and limited settings, a playwright is forced to entertain and educate with nothing but words and the interaction of characters—but this is the basis of all writing, isn't it? The stage demands a higher level than books or film, and is the only medium that offers the immediacy of the moment. An actor speaks the words, the audience hears them, and the playwright is there to gauge the reaction. Quickly, the author learns what resonates and what doesn't. Soon, he or she can play the audience like a violin. Actors often say they can literally control how an audience breathes, but it is the writer that gave them the setting and words to exercise that power.

THE SCREEN: No critic or academic can speak intelligently about film if they haven't rolled up their sleeves and done the grunt work of production. If they haven't worked as a grip, a producer, or director, then they have no real idea of where the writer fits into the picture. The production crew see the writer as someone who lounges around with the director and producers, or who might talk to the cast from time-to-time. More often than not, they have no idea who the writer is at all. He, she or they might not ever come to the set. The director and producers, working with the cast, may make last minute tweaks to the script, and so the writer is seen as superfluous.

But a good producer or director knows what the writer has done. Months or years prior to production, they've been working together to turn blank paper into living, breathing characters in a real world. The author can be so cavalier on the set because their hard work was done long before anyone else had a job on this project. If the script started as speculative—written first and sold later—then the author has worked more hours on the film than anyone else has or will.

But if the screenwriter faces the blank page, he or she does not face a blank audience. They are writing for other professionals in the business for whom a shorthand has evolved.

Brad's studio apartment is as much of a wreck as his life.

That's all the writer needs to include to give those crew members who work so hard during production the picture of what they need to achieve.

Some writers find it hard to learn this shorthand, and I think their work suffers for it. They lack trust in their designers, directors and cast to do the detective work necessary to flush out the details of the world everyone is trying to create. The designers are going to read the entire script. They will know what kind of wreck Brad's life is, and can then apply their talents to reflecting this in the set. No spoon-feeding necessary, and by allowing more input from various sources, the finished product has a depth to it that a spelled out description might lack.

This type of writing, once mastered, can become a lot of fun. All the author need deal with are characters and story—the meat and potatoes. They have a cast, crew and editors to take care of the minutiae. The art of screenwriting is to use the least amount of words to make a clear image pop into the minds of trained, professional, readers—and to be able to make them all see a similar picture.

NOVELS: You're a control freak? You want to be the auteur? Forget about film, become a novelist. Here you are the art department, the cast, crew, editor, director and craft service person picking up the trash—and yet, if you are successful, you will still have to collaborate with editors, marketing people, agents, etc.

The novelist faces a blank page in both the creation and production of the work. All that can be assumed about the audience is that they can read the language that's on the page—and yet, the author has to put the same story into every reader's head. They have no soundtrack. No special effects. No magic of the theatre. Nothing between their brain and their audience's but the written word.

I can tell you, having made a feature film (on film) and written two novels, they are comparable in their tedium. An editor will work for sometimes an hour or more on a single cut of a film that flashes by in one 24th of a second and is never seen by the audience again. An author will do the same with a word in a sentence.

An animator once told me that cartoon characters must blink when they turn their heads, or they don't look real. A novelist once said, "If you use the word 'suddenly' then whatever follows, isn't."

With all of these differences, what I'm finding as I work in the three media is how they are becoming more similar. Modern novels require less description than their 18th-early 20th century counterparts. Perhaps it is because television has shown us so much of the world that the details of exotic locations or people are now common knowledge. Perhaps it's because we have so many ways to fill our free time, that a book had better cut to the chase or it will never compete with the explosions and spectacle of the big screen or video games. What theatre that has been successful lately has been based on movies—just as they used to be based on histories or commonly known tales.

No matter what medium a writer chooses to work in, they seek the same result—resonance. They must touch the audience in a way that it amplifies within them. That's the art of it, and it's the same for all. The craft is what will differ.

Thanks for reading.


John Sankovich said...

Having written 4 novels and 4 screenplays, I have to agree wholeheartedly, that your assessments are correct.

Screenplays are lovely and so are novels and besides the medium that they will be displayed in when done, there is one thing that is the same for both-great storytelling. Without that, the final result will not be worth the time.

So spend time on the characters, the conflict, the pace, because these are the tools that draw the readers/viewers in.

Jemi Fraser said...

Interesting post, RS. I've never tried writing a screenplay (other than when I was 10!) or stage play. It is definitely a different skill set. Might be fun to give it a try one day.

RSMellette said...

Thanks for the comments. John, you're right about the storytelling - though when going from screenplay to novels, we have to be careful not to get lazy. Some discription is still necessary.

Jemi, as I said in the post (I think, haven't re-read it in a while), the hard part of screenwriting is learning the shorthand. Once that's done, you can have a blast with it, so long as you don't over write.