INT. COFFEE SHOP — LATE AFTERNOON
An ordinary, Starbucks-esque coffee shop, with late-afternoon light flooding through the windows. Fashionable young men and women drift from the door to the counter and then back, a continual ebb and flow of customers. ZACK and ZOE sit at a table by the window, talking.
Zoe seizes Zack’s hand and stares deep into his eyes.
You mean that all this time–
And you never–
But why not?
I just couldn’t.
And now, after this, after you finally tell me this, you have to go to Tasmania?
Yes. I’m sorry.
Somebody has to farm the Tasmanian chinchillas.
Let someone else do it. Let someone else farm the chinchillas so that … so that we can be together at last.
We can never be together, Zoe.
But why? Oh, why?
Because with no obstacles to our love, no one would have any reason to keep watching this third-rate TV show, season after season after season.
They’d need a whole new plot.
Nobody in television has the guts to jump off the money train for the sake of satisfying drama.
Damn those writers. The bastards!
Also, I have to inform you that you have terminal cancer.
You should be more careful what you say about the writers.
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.
Among my many habits that provoke much familial eye-rolling is the daily trip to the mailbox, from which I return, muttering that Hollywood never effing calls.
Everyone knows that good news never comes by mail, of course. And Hollywood has no reason to call, seeing as I’ve never sent anything that way. It’s just an old inside joke around here, which goes back to a former job:
INT. RESTAURANT DINING ROOM – NIGHT
Employees of XCorp, including VP INFO SYSTEMS and SOMERSET, sit at a large table, drinking beer and eating steak. Laughter rings in the air; the mood is celebratory.
VP INFO SYSTEMS
What about you, Andrew? Where do you see yourself in five years?
I intend to write a screenplay, sell it for a zillion dollars, and get the hell out of this crummy zoo.
Anyway, I don’t work there anymore. But I have always been interested in screenwriting.
In fact, when I originally scribbled out the idea for my upcoming novel, Combat Camera, I thought it would be a screenplay. But when I went to write it, a little voice said, “Somerset, you have no idea how to write a screenplay. Make a novel of it.”
(About 40,000 words later, the same little voice said, “Somerset, you have no idea how to write a novel, either.”)
More recently, I’ve been working on short stories. Short stories and I have not been getting along. For various reasons, writing these things has ceased to be fun. The ideas haven’t been exciting.
About a month ago, I ran into the kind of thing that does excite me, one of those things you run into surfing the web at random: what if you took this thing, and combined it with this other unrelated thing? (What if you took the greatest living combat photographer and put him in the pornographer’s studio?)
So I mulled this thing for about a month. And I thought, this could only really work as a screenplay. So on Friday, I told the little voice to shut up, and started sticking index cards on my wall. On Saturday, I fired the little voice that demanded a complete outline, and just started writing the thing.
And by Sunday evening, I had 46 pages and a rediscovered joy in writing.
This is a purely enjoyable form. It is, in a sense, the worst possible form for any serious writer; anything you do will simply become a blueprint for someone else to revise. Your precious words are worth approximately squat. But in a Zen sense, the journey being the destination, that’s irrelevant.
It’s worth doing because it’s fun to do while you’re doing it: watching the thing gain shape, watching characters take form, watching the whole thing accrete mass and grow richer. Nothing is firm; everything has the potential to grow in significance and redefine the whole idea. This richness is what attracts me to longer forms, I think; I don’t find it writing short fiction.
And the screenplay, I find, has its own special challenges. You don’t get to play with words here, except in dialogue. You don’t get to pull out all the stops and dazzle with your descriptive powers, etc. You get to do essentially two things, in a first draft: plot, and write dialogue. I like writing dialogue, but plotting … plotting is a bugbear for a lot of people, and I’m one of them.
If you’re writing, say, a sendup of the heist caper (who, me?), then you’re going to have to plot. So even if this project goes nowhere, I’ll be happy for that discipline.
And you have to dramatize everything. Unless you’re going to cheat with voiceover. This is also good discipline.
I’m wondering why I didn’t do this years ago. But I know the answer: that little voice.