Archive for the ‘Genres’ Category

Should I write a novel or a script?

Friday, May 18th, 2007

questionmarkAfter dreaming of publishing my own stories, either in screenplay form or novel, I finally landed a job writing for a local alternative music publication. With a year of deadlines, word counts, and earning endless scorn from my editor (who I am convinced possess more red ink than blood) under my belt, I now feel comfortable beginning the process of flushing out these stories in a structured form.

My question is: Which format should I pursue?

Through your site, I now understand the plus and minuses of writing a screenplay. And, I take heed into delving into the business end of screenwriting. (I enjoy living in Florida and have little desire to pack up for L.A., at this time.) Also, some of my ideas just seem easier to tackle for a first time screenplay than a first time novel, such as my quirky rom-com outline rather than my existential mind bending sci-fi epic. Finally–not to belittle the screenwriting process–there are some stories that I feel more comfortable sharing credit on the final product compared to other stories I feel so strongly about that I want to collaborate with no one.

I know your personal answer would always be a screenplay. But, have you ever read a friend’s or fellow professional’s script and advised her material is best suited as a book? For what reasons? And, what format would be best for a (semi) unpublished writer? (For some reason, the Premiere magazine feature on Rex Pickett and his struggles to sell “Sideways” as a screenplay keep popping in my head.)

I searched your archives and could not find a similar question to answer my query. If I missed it, I apologize.

– Mike Rabinowitz
Head Writer
REAX Music Magazine

Assuming you enjoy novels, you should probably write one, rather than writing a screenplay.

I know that seems like heretical advice for a blog about screenwriting, but I think the numbers support me. In the U.S., more than 3,500 novels are published each year. Compare that to film: For 2006, there were 607 movies released theatrically.

If you’re looking to put your story out into the world, paper beats film, hands down.1

Beyond the hard numbers, consider the relative levels of authorship. Novels are a final art form — you write a book and that’s it. It sits on a shelf with your name on it. Screenplays, on the other hand, are one link in a long process leading to the final art form: a movie. While it’s your name on the script, the movie is the result of a huge collaboration. Right or wrong, the director will get most of the credit for what makes it on screen.2

So why would anyone write a screenplay?

Based on questions my readers send in, a couple of scenarios come up frequently:

  1. To get rich. Often, when you read about a new script, the story has a dollar figure attached: “Joe Smoalan sold his spec MONKEY BUTLER to New Line for high six-figures.” One you figure out that “high six figures” means more than $500,000, you realize that there’s a lot of money to be made in screenwriting. Most of the authors you find on the shelves of Barnes and Noble aren’t making that much money.

  2. “I could never write a novel, but…” Because screenplays have fewer words than a novel, they should be easier to write, right? Besides, everyone’s seen bad movies. It can’t be hard to write one better than The Grudge 2.

  3. “I could never direct a movie, but screenwriting is just words.” So much of moviemaking is esoteric and intimidating. Just watching the end credits scroll by is bewildering to anyone outside the industry — who rated the men to pick the Best Boy? But it’s not hard to imagine writing a script. It’s just words and margins.

It will surprise no one when I point out that these are three terrible reasons to write a screenplay.

We’ll start with the money. I get frustrated when journalists treats screenwriting as a kind of lottery, emphasizing the payday rather than the work. Most scripts never sell, and most scripts that do sell, sell for a tiny amount. The reason why you read stories about million dollar sales is because they are pretty infrequent.

In terms of the “I could never write a novel” excuse, yes, some writers seem better suited to one kind of writing than another, just as most painters aren’t sculptors. But creating characters, shaping storylines, and stringing together words in a pleasing fashion are prerequisite skills for both novels and screenplays. I would lose respect for any working screenwriter who professed an inability to write traditional fiction.

It’s true that the learning curve for screenwriting isn’t as steep as it would be for, say, directing. And it costs a helluva lot less. But a screenwriter quickly finds that maintaining a willful ignorance about the moviemaking process is impossible. In order to get your film made, you’re going to have to learn about the physical and political ordeal of production. You can do that in school or on the set, but you’ll soon know your grips from your gaffers.

So back to the original question: Should you write a screenplay or a novel?

The answer is a question: What does your idea want to be?

Do you envision an intimate psychological profile of a half-Korean woman trapped in a mediocre marriage who imagines an affair with her co-worker? That’s probably a novel. The story is largely internal; the action is minor; the stakes are low. In the novel version of your story, you can spend a paragraph detailing her decision to buy percale sheets, describing the different textures and comparing them to the geography of her homeland. In the movie version, she buys sheets, and maybe has a conversation during the process.

Are you looking to write a comedy about a deposed crime boss who goes into witness relocation at a fat camp? That’s a movie. Here’s a test: Can you envision a one-sheet poster? It’s a movie. Could it star Martin Lawrence? It’s a movie. Could you describe it as “something meets something?” (e.g. SOPRANOS meets SISTER ACT) It’s a movie.

What happens if you have a novel-worthy idea, but you’d rather write a screenplay? Tough. Don’t make the mistake of trying to force it into screenplay shape. Yes, some books can be adapted into great movies, but it’s because they inherently had enough cinematic content to make the leap. If yours doesn’t, you’ll only frustrate yourself and your readers.

  1. Yes, I’m omitting films not shown theatrically. That’s a significant number. I’m also leaving out television, which is kissing cousins with screenwriting. On the book side, however, I’m omitting paperbacks and genre fiction. The total number of books published in the U.S. is 50,000 — and they’re not all gardening manuals.
  2. Interestingly, the screenwriter may get a lot of the blame. In my experience, the screenwriter’s name is approximately three times as likely to show up in a negative review than a positive one. That’s a master’s thesis waiting to be written.

The perils of coincidence

Sunday, May 6th, 2007

Like several million people worldwide, I saw Spider-Man 3 this past weekend. And like a substantial percentage of these viewers, I got frustrated by the number of unlikely coincidences in the movie.

There’s nothing wrong with coincidence, per se. Almost every movie is going to have some incidents where one character just happens to be in the right place at the right time. In fact, many movies are built around a “premise coincidence.” In Die Hard, John McClane just happens to be in the building when the villains attack. That’s okay. McClane’s being there is part of the premise. Likewise, in the original Spider-Man, Peter Parker just happens to get bitten by the radioactive spider. No problem: it wouldn’t be Spider-Man otherwise.

The premise coincidence is one flavor of what I’ll call a Fundamental Coincidence: an accidental confluence of time, place and motivation which greatly impacts the story.

In a romantic comedy, when The Guy would have proposed to The Girl except that he just happened to overhear a conversation he interpreted the wrong way, that’s a Fundamental Coincidence. In the first Spider-Man, Norman Osborn just happens to be transformed into The Goblin just as Peter is becoming Spider-Man. That’s a Fundamental Coincidence, but we accept it because it feels true to the genre.

WARNING: MINOR SPOILERS FOLLOW. (Mostly things you’d glean the trailers or ads, but still.)

Let’s look at the Fundamental Coincidences in Spider-Man 3:

  • The asteroid carrying the symbiote (utlimately, Venom) happens to land near Peter Parker. Peter doesn’t hear it, doesn’t investigate.
  • The symbiote happens to attach itself to Peter’s scooter.
  • Flint Marko happens to fall into the sand pit at exactly the moment the scientists test their billion-dollar Dyson vacuum.1
  • Flint Marko happens to have been the man who killed Uncle Ben. (A retcon.)
  • Eddie Brock happens to be the only person in the church at the moment Peter tries to get rid of the black suit.

Any one (or two) of these Fundamental Coincidences would probably go unnoticed, particularly in a superhero movie, where credibility takes a back seat to spectacle. But put together, they make the plot feel rickety, particularly when you factor in the large number of what I’ll call Minor Coincidences — things that don’t fundamentally change the story, but feel convenient all the same.

  1. The police chief decides to tell Peter about Marko now, even though he’s known the details for some time, apparently.
  2. Sandman’s first attack just happens to coincide with Spider-Man getting the key to the city.
  3. Eddie Brock is newly arrived at the Daily Bugle, and wants Peter’s job.
  4. Gwen Stacy happens to be Peter’s lab partner.
  5. Gwen Stacy happens to be in the skyscraper during the crane accident.
  6. And she’s the police chief’s daughter.
  7. And she’s Eddie Brock’s love interest.2
  8. And Gwen happens to be at the fancy restaurant on the night Peter wants to propose.

Again, you could have several of these coincidences in any movie and no one would mind. It’s largely expected that familiar faces will become imperiled in a summer action movie, so #5 feels right. Likewise, the eventual discovery of Venom’s weakness is accidental, but that plays into the genre. No foul there.

My point is not to rip on Spider-Man 3, but to urge readers to look at their own scripts with an eye towards coincidence. If you’ve written a treatment, search for the following phrases: “at the same time,” “accidentally,” “luckily,” “unfortunately,” and “meanwhile.” They’re often a tip-off that you have events happening by coincidence. There’s almost always a better alternative.

Causality trumps everything

Given a choice, try to find cause and effect. One event happens because of something else we’ve seen — ideally, something the hero himself has done.

Instead of having the hero accidentally overhear a key conversation, get him actively trying to listen. Or have an interested third party steer him in that direction — perhaps for his own reasons. At every juncture where a reader could ask “Why did that happen?”, try to have an answer that isn’t, “just because.”

Although there are some convenient twists in the Harry Osborn plot (amnesia, for starters), the causality is clear: the New Goblin wants revenge on Spider-Man for killing his daddy in the first movie.3 It doesn’t feel like coincidence that Harry is flying around on his hoverboard. With two other villains desperate for scenes, the timing might not be opportune, but it’s clear why it’s happening.

Look for correlation

Rather than ask an audience to swallow a bunch of little implausibilities, try bundling them together.

In Heroes, imagine if each character had a completely unique origin story: Claire got her powers from a shaman; Sylar is an alien; Peter has a magic ring. You’d get frustrated pretty quickly, because a lot of screen time would go towards explaining why and how. Instead, the creators wisely decided the characters all had some mysterious gene mutation activated by an environmental change. The audience is willing to make that one big leap,4 because they’re not asked to make similar leaps each time a new character is introduced.5

For Spider-Man 3, I don’t have any magic answers on how to correlate these disparate threads — other than trimming one out, which wouldn’t be a bad place to start. But had the script dropped on my desk a month before shooting, here are a few thoughts I would have put out there in terms of the many coincidences:

  • Both Venom and Sandman are forms of disembodied consciousness that control their host subjects — people and sand, respectively. That seems thematically promising.
  • One asteroid feels random, while a meteor shower feels like an event that needs a superhero.
  • Could this meteor shower overlap with Marko’s transformation or escape? Even if it’s just in the background, it makes them feel more united.
  • Could Spider-Man be pursuing Marko at the start?
  • Could we see the symbiote choosing Peter, because he’s the strongest creature around?

Chop it out

Often, the best answer when faced with a nagging coincidence is just to remove it.

  • Do we really need the Uncle Ben retcon? It doesn’t have a lot to do with Marko’s sick-daughter motivation.
  • Couldn’t Eddie Brock already be a stringer for the Daily Bugle? If he and Peter already have history, great.
  • Does Gwen Stacy need to be Peter’s lab partner?
  • Do we even need the police chief?

Again, my point isn’t to rag on Spidey, but to urge reader-writers take a hard look at the role of coincidence in their own scripts.

Some coincidence feels genuine. In real life, we do accidentally bump into old friends at the mall. And surprise in general is a good thing — catching your reader off-balance is a worthy goal. But if a significant portion of your plot depends on chance, that’s a good indicator something’s not fully baked. The best time to tackle these problems is in the outline, asking yourself not only what happens next, but why.

  1. It’s never clear what they’re supposedly doing, or why they wouldn’t have, say, a lid on the pit. Or a videocamera to monitor the experiment.
  2. Revealing both of these points of information in one piece of dialogue was a particularly bold choice.
  3. I kept waiting for Peter to point out that Harry’s dad was a psychopath, but oh well.
  4. And a familiar leap, frankly, because of X-Men.
  5. Note that both the D.C. and Marvel universes do have multiple, often conflicting means of empowering their heroes and villains. This is good and fascinating, but I suspect it’s one reason it can be harder for a casual reader to pick up these titles. The time investment needed to get up to speed is significant. Quick: Is Scarlet Witch a witch? Ummm…Sort of.