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The joy of being half a writer

February 8, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

I’m not a fan of the popular notion that some writers are “storytellers” while others are good prose stylists, and that both approaches are equally valid, not only because this is a false dichotomy but also because writing fiction isn’t about telling stories; it’s about the way stories are told.

This is easiest to explain through my recent dalliance with screenwriting. The writer of screenplays is a primitive animal. There is no narrator here, no description, no internal monologue. You have characters and action and plot — story. This is like being half a writer; you’re working with only those elements that transfer from stage to film to novel. Moving from those elements to the finished product demands something more.

In film, those demands are satisfied in the filming. If fiction is about narrative, film is about lighting and camera angles and lenses (and also this thing called “acting,” but I’m not concerned with that). Audiences do not read screenplays; they watch movies. You wouldn’t be satisfied to walk through the theatre doors, popcorn in hand, only to have an usher thrust a copy of the screenplay into your hand and unctuously instruct you to “enjoy.”

This is what proponents of “good storytellers” propose: that if the story is good enough, we shouldn’t care how badly it’s written. Enjoy your outline!

The thing is, to write at a high level requires that you do both things well.

This leads me to my dalliance with the screenplay. The attraction of screenwriting is that it is, in fact, only half the job. You’re freed from the need to find fresh language. The focus is pure story.

In a sense, it is a writing exercise. I’ve always felt I could never write genre, because any shot I take at a plot-driven story seems forced, yet I’ve sat down to write a genre screenplay, a spoof of the heist caper. And the plotting has been fun — I’ve enjoyed throwing a half-dozen balls into the air and trying to keep them there. I’ve found new challenges: screenplays are compact, running about a hundred pages, and they require a confined setting and a quick pace. And then you have to catch all the balls gracefully at the end. The well-formed screenplay is a challenge, and I can’t help but think that trying to make one is good for me.

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