My Screenwriting to Novel Learning Curve: Pt.1 “Shape & Structure”

Aside from a zillion other people who have read a lot of great Fantasy, my only frame of reference for diving into the novel writing world has been that of a Screenwriter, which is no small thing. Screenwriting takes a great deal of craft. Many have tried to say that a screenplay is simply a set of directions for how a film or TV show is to be shot. A recipe, if you will. I think they’re wrong. A person having read a well crafted script should come away feeling the same sense of story emersion as they would having read a well crafted novel. I say this fully aware that there is a dimension of story that a screenwriter can’t convey with the same depth as a Novelist. The dimension of the mind and its thought processes. On the other hand, I believe the well crafted screenplay can go visually where the novel cannot, but that’s a different subject. Anyway, this entry isn’t about the advantage of one over the other but, rather, the learning curve and the lessons it demands in order to transition from script writing (screenwriting in particular) to writing a novel. Full disclaimer, all the observation apply to me and none may apply to you. I’m simply sharing what my personal thought processes have been, and in no way am I claiming these are the challenges/processes all will face. If they are, I hope sharing my experience will help you.

For me, there has never been any one way “into” a story. Sometimes it’s a character that ushers me into the world. Or maybe it’s a single dynamic event that compels me to explore upstream and downstream of it to discover a story-logical conclusion. It could be a theme that emerges and becomes the glue that holds together what were otherwise disparate events/characters, and suddenly everything makes sense. Whatever the way in, shape and structure begin to form. From there, it’s always been a matter of looking at that structure as it relates to what I know to be the clockwork of a successful screenplay. And make no mistake, whether you subscribe to McKee, Vogler or the arcane Chris Huntley & Melanie Anne Phillips, or to studio development department’s man of the moment-the late great Blake Snyder, you will agree a screenplay is a very specific clockwork.

Early on, I found myself asking how much of the screenplay “clockwork” can translate to a well written novel. The venerable Elizabeth Moon once reminded me that, as a novelist,  it’s the means one has to “embody” the story that’s different from that of the screenwriter, not the structure. In other words, it’s the extra information–sensory data, character thought processes and intent–that are available to the novelist and that comprise a part of the novels clockwork. Obviously, the three act structure didn’t come with the advent of  the film industry. Nor did various plot elements and archetypes. Joseph Campbell made that clear. Bringing that same understanding of story learned from all those sources to my novel writing makes perfect sense, learning them in the context of screenwriting notwithstanding. So from a process standpoint, after placing the appropriate events as structural markers or “tent poles” indicating where we are in the story’s  trajectory, the next thing is to apportion those “markers”  in a 300 page novel relative to where they would be in a 110-120 page screenplay. This makes a certain kind of sense to me, but it robs me (at least this first go round) of one thing that I’ve come to dial in on a little more instinctively in the world of screenwriting. I’ve come to a place in my screenwriting where, once I understand key points in the structure, I can just write and, more or less, end up hitting those “markers” with out much thought, having an instinctive sense about how much stuff to pack between them. This brings us back to Ms. Moon’s point. Because the tools of the novelist include  sensory data–sounds (not just as reference for a Sound Designer), smells, touch…etc–and characters’ thought processes, perceived from varying depths as they interact with their world, more “stuff” is not only available but required to be fit into the story’s clockwork from marker to marker. I don’t know a single craftsman that doesn’t get excited over getting some shiny new tools, but , as is often the case with a new tool, it might feel a little awkward in the hand at first. My challenge is, and I suppose will continue to be,  figuring when, where, how and how often these tools should be used in the clockwork of a novel’s shape and structure.

If you made it this far, thanks. I’ll keep you updated as I continue to march up this curve. Next time, maybe I’ll share a little bit about what I’m learning of POV depth as it relates to voice.

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