"Scriptwriting? But I'm not writing a script," says you.
"Sure you're not," says I. "And it's a good thing. The competition is even more ridiculous than in book writing." And I don't need more competition, I almost let slip.
Now before you start filling mailbags of missives to my generous host (and thanks for the opportunity) let me just throw an idea out there: whether you are writing narrative fiction or creative non-fiction, a careful understanding of how people talk is vitally important.
I have been fortunate to have been successful as the scriptwriter of over one hundred dramatic radio shows and a few short films, two of which have received some note in various film festivals and the one thing that made all that possible is having a gift for dialogue. In radio dialogue is crucial- it's the main way you are telling a story. Sound effects may help to set a scene but the story happens in the dialogue.
Now if you've been part of the Association of Hacks and Scribblers for long you've probably been up to your knees in the showing versus telling debate for the last half century, ever since Boris Pasternak was unable to find an agent for his second novel because he told too much of the story and Elmore Leonard became a best selling author by "leaving out all the stuff people don't read." What separates Dr. Zhivago from Freaky Deaky, besides the genre and the language they were written in?
Dialogue. Leonard uses a lot of it and Pasternak spends his time revealing the beauty and ugliness of Russia during the revolution through glorious pictures, painted with a brush of words. He even had the audacity to tell us what the characters look like!
"What's so bad about that?" you ask.
"Not a thing," says I. "Except that apparently modern audiences don't care for as many word thingys. Economy is the watchword and authors like Victor Hugo are only en vogue because somebody found a way to trim the fat and tell the story in 3 hours instead of fifteen hundred pages. And set it to music."
Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying Leonard is a better writer than Pasternak; I'm not even saying he's more entertaining. But, and it may be a fault in translation, Pasternak's dialogue lands with a tinny thud more often than not while Leonard's soars.
This is where thinking like a scriptwriter can help enormously.
A reader can spot bad dialogue in a second. Bad rhythms, bad use of language, unrealistic lines. "He wouldn't say that," they cry, and they're right. It stands out a lot further than bad exposition, in fact.
Scriptwriting is a completely different beast from narrative fiction writing, but there are great lessons to be learned from a careful understanding of script/screenplay writing.
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Scripts are written with an economy of words, which might explain why Stephen King's scripts end up being miniseries instead of feature films (why use ten words when eighty will do?). There is basically three parts to a script.
The heading will set up the location and the time of the scene. Clever scriptwriters will find ways to give as much information as they can, Considering the headline is only one line it's important to find a few words that say a lot.
INT. THE PATIENT'S ROOM - MORNING
This heading was taken from the Academy Award winning screenplay for The English Patient, adapted by Anthony Minghella, at random. Now you may look at that line and think, "That doesn't tell me a whole lot…" and you wouldn't be wrong, but it does tell you everything you need to know. You're inside, you're inside the patients room and it's morning. It sets you up for THE ACTION.
"Cheek to Cheek" leaks into the room from a gramophone that Caravaggio stands over proudly. The Patient opens his eyes- is confused, dislocated- stares blankly at Caravaggio.
Now we're cooking. Something is happening and there is a mystery being created in those 27 words. Notice the descriptive words as well: the song "leaks" into the room. Then this adverbs we've been trained to avoid like a squirrel running across the street: "proudly," "blankly." Of course we should vigorously avoid adverbs but they (as Elmore Leonard admonished gravely) can be a wonderful springboard to words that are useful. The Patient opening his eyes suggest what time of morning it is, his confusion and dislocation tell you his state of mind and his staring blankly connects the two men in the room.
Now I know from reading the script that there is nobody else in the room (the movie verified that)- until Hanna comes in a couple lines later. The stage is set, the players are in place and the action begins. We even get insight into their state o' mind. Time for the good stuff.
My favorite part of any good movie (think of the best: The Godfather, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Notting Hill- the action in these films is good- but the dialogue takes it all to another level). Check this out:
Caravaggio (smiling)- Thought you'd never wake up!
The Patient- What?
I'm not going to go too far out of my way to talk about how great this dialogue is but I want you to consider what you might learn about these two characters from these two lines of dialogue considering the syntax and pith. The scene does continue with a great line of ACTION.
Hana comes in, sleepily, stares at the gramophone.
Hana- Where did you find that?
Caravaggio- I liberated it.
Hana- I think that's called looting.
Caravaggio (relaxed)- No one should own music. The real question is, who wrote the song?
The Patient- Irving Berlin.
The Patient- Top Hat.
Caravaggio- Is there a song you don't know?
Hana (speaking for him)- No. He sings all the time.
As I said, I grabbed this scene completely by random from a place well into the screenplay. There is much that came before and much that comes after but what a treasure trove of characterization in just a few lines- a scene that takes 10-15 seconds to play out onscreen. Even if you've never seen the movie or read the book (never did, myself) you have a very correct understanding of these characters from this brief moment. Of course this snippet doesn't tell you that The Patient is covered head to toe in scars from spending a period of time on fire or that Caravaggio has no thumbs and that Hana is a nurse, but rest assured that was all covered in the previous 100 pages.
Having never read the source novel I have no idea how Michael Ondaatje handled this scene in prose, but I doubt he did it with this kind of economy. I'm not even saying that he should have or that you and I should strip everything to the bones this way but I do believe that starting with dialogue and building everything around it is a valid way to approach to writing a scene. In a book I'm rewriting now I have a very important discussion between a husband and a wife, a confession. I wrote 3 or 4 different versions of what they would say before I added a word of exposition and it made the whole scene better and more focused. It kept me from meandering into describing things that slowed the whole narrative thrust, something that would have killed the book.
I suppose if you're Victor Hugo you can throw that stuff in by the truckload, and I even suspect they'll wait until you're dead for seventy or eighty years before they trim your magnum opus by 70% to spare you any embarrassment. But 1500 page doorstops aren't en vogue these days so I suggest you find ways to only include the things that matter to your story. Thinking about the screenplay or script format is a good way to start.
that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Darby Kern - email@example.com
Darby Kern is a scriptwriter, actor, director, filmmaker and improvisational comedian from Green Bay, Wisconsin. Prior to writing for Kid's Corner his most notable gig was lead scriptwriter for LEFT BEHIND: THE KIDS Dramatic Audio, with GAP Digital and Tyndale House Publishers. In his spare time Darby and his wife, Bobbie Jo, like to travel and try out new exercise machines, but not for very long.
This is great! Thank you so much Darby for this fascinating article on screenwriting. I can see how this can be applied to fiction writing!
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