The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Screen-novel Manifesto 3: On Pure Originality and Synthesizing Originality

One reaction that I receive to the idea of a screenplay-novel is that it simply isn't very good; it's seen as a form of sell-out (ie. inherently Hollywoodesque) or not original (people have concocted the idea of multi-media books before, etc.)

Dealing with the second opinion first: When I came up with the idea of writing a novel in the form of a screenplay, I didn't do so because I thought I was being terribly original; after all, the foundation of the concept is the screenplay -- a form that has evolved over decades within the film industry itself. Screenplays don't exist to please audiences; they exist to please directors, producers, actors and crew. This explains their pared-down simplicity.

If you ever take the trouble to read a screenplay (you can find several net sites devoted to them), one experience you will probably have as a reader is to be surprised by how vivid they are. Of course, the screenplays posted online or, these days, published in book-form as marketing tie-ins to movies that have been released, are of movies that you may also have seen in a theater. It's arguable that this sense of vividness is an effect of the memory of the vividness of the movie and its images -- not the screenplay. In other words, if you've seen a movie then read the screenplay, of course you will imagine intense imagery ... you are simply remembering it, not inventing images or scenes as a novel-reader must do.

However, if you read a screenplay of a movie you haven't seen, chances are good you will still imagine rather intense imagery. This, at least, is my experience. When you consider it, it is a somewhat surprising psychological phenomenon; after all, the screenplays are written in a form of short-hand. They are extremely minimal where description is concerned. Detailed description still remains one of the fortes of the novel. Nevertheless, there it is: the screenplay "works". Whether you, as a reader as well as movie viewer, "know" this screenplay, it retains the ability to create a very compelling drama in your head.

Why is this? I think the answer is both simple and profound: we are now almost all of us citizens of a culture that is saturated in image-based media, and we have become so used to the movie as a means of expressing narrative that we are, in a sense, movie directors ourselves. Our imaginations have been cultivated this way. We make movies -- we do this instinctively, reactively. When presented with the form of a screenplay, we find it extraordinarily easy to translate that into a satisfying narrative experience in our minds.

Of course, the screenplay has to be good -- it has to work as a narrative. And this brings us to the first criticism of the idea of the screenplay novel: that it's tacky ... a form of sell-out.

There's nothing more inherently good or bad about screenplay-novels than there is about traditional novels; they are well-written or they aren't. For people who genuinely prefer reading traditional novels, there is no good reason to insist that they change their reading habits and embrace the idea of a screenplay novel.

But here's the 21st Century thing: novel readership is suffering. There is an immense malaise within the publishing industry, and it is worsening the atmosphere of literary production. Pity for a moment the poor MFA grad who has invested so much emotional energy into "honing craft" only to suddenly realize that all -- from Veddy Naipaul to the marketing sharpie at some publishing house who himself secretly can't stand reading -- are ganging up on the writer's dream. It's too much, really. It's just too damn depressing, this being-a-writer-in-the-post-literate-world thing.

The idea of the screenplay is clearly not an original idea. The idea of putting it into book form is not a new idea, either: these days, the public is becoming increasingly used to buying a screenplay as well as seeing a produced movie.

But the idea of writing a novel as a screenplay and unapologetically seizing upon the cultural energy of the first form while retaining the creative freedom of the latter is, as far as I know, new. One thing is for certain, there is still an enormous amount of resistence to the concept of marrying the two concepts. If the idea does not possess the radical originality of inventing an utterly unique form, it does possess synthesizing originality.

It is also worth noting -- in fact, it is crucial to note -- that the screenplay-novel is not merely some screenplay that never got produced and so is thrown out into the public arena as an attempt for a frustrated cinema-type to generate a little income; the screenplay novel only uses the format of the screenplay -- it still follows the more complicated narrative rules of the traditional novel: greater development of character, more lengthy dialogue and progression of emotion and plot. The screenplay novel is not identical to the screenplay. It is its own form.

Perhaps it's time that the agenting and publishing industries started taking this idea more seriously. It's not meant to replace the traditional novel; it is only meant to be
a form that might appeal to an audience of readers who can appreciate intelligent, uncompromising narrative, but would prefer it as something similar to a movie ... similar to a screenplay.

The crisis that currently exists in the publishing industry is very real. This is true for many types of writing, but is especially true for literary fiction. Countless good writers, editors and agents are slowly having their hearts broken as work that they care about deeply is ignored and shunted aside by a public that is not only buying fewer and fewer literary novels, but also buying a narrower range of them. It's time for the literary publishing industry to consider a little more experimentation. This is already happening with graphic novels. Why can't it happen with the screenplay-novel, too?


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10:53 AM  
Blogger Thomas said...

I can only see this being taken up by writers who want -- above all else, and at any cost -- to be read. If there are people out there who only read screenplays, even if they haven't seen the film, and I doubt there are, then there's a market for this.

But for those of us who started reading because there was something intrinsic to the novel that it offered to us, this is little more than a gimmick, even a defeat. It takes the novel away from what it specialises in, and what it does better than any other art form, and takes it into a realm where it has very little to offer, and cannot compete.

If the novel is to remain relevant, then it will have to do so as a novel. If it can't do that, then we'll just have to stand back and watch it die a natural death.

In the meantime, there are so many great novels written over the centuries that I have not read yet, and which I won't even have time to read in my life, that I have no reason to read a screenplay. (If I wanted to read a screenplay, I'd already be doing so.) This leads me to think that the screenplay-novel has more to do with writers feeling relevant than readers being given something relevant.

(I'm also not completely convinced that relevance is something provided only by the writer. It takes a bit of work and some co-operation on the part of the reader for it to exist. This is why novels tend to be irrelevant to people who don't like reading them. I've never heard anyone say, "I love reading novels -- I only wish they were a bit more relevant.")

As for the future of the novel, I'd rather let it fade away, and turn to stamp collecting or some other pursuit instead of writing myself, than read this stuff out of a sense of nostalgia for a time when people (other than myself) felt it was relevant.

As I said, the ones that have been written are, and will always be, relevant to me as a reader, and I have enough to keep me busy till I'm dead or too old to read.

10:00 PM  
Blogger Leanne Smith said...

You want to write a screenplay-novel - fine. Writing is writing and if you can turn a buck on it, even better. Show me the novelist who'd turn their nose up at flogging the film rights and I'll show you a liar.

Those who think that screenplays are somehow a lesser form have their head firmly up their arse. Screenplays - good screenplays - are more skilfully crafted than many novels I've read. People who don't know any better assume that writing a script is easy - it's not. As templates for movies, scripts must adhere to dramatic rules. They also have to be a great read - how else can a producer decide if a script can make for a good movie? There's a lot more riding on a script than a rubbish novel.

So enough of the snobbery. By any means necessary is what I say - who's to say the screenplay novel isn't progress. It's like saying video would kill cinema - and look what happened there.

4:03 AM  
Blogger Finn Harvor said...

re: Thomas's remarks -- the significant phrase in your first sentence is "at any cost", since, I think you'd agree, writers want to be read.

The problem is not that what I'm suggesting is terribly radical. (It's simply a marrying of forms ... a marriage that, I personally suspect, is to some degree inevitable.) And it's not that experimentation is wrong. Choose any era of literary history, and you'll find authors playing with form.

The problem is -- or rather, appears to be -- that the screenplay novel idea is somehow at odds with the traditional novel idea. The two aren't. I think I make it clear in my final paragraphs that I'm not suggesting an overturning of the traditional novel, which, as you correctly point out, has real and inimitable merits. So the screen-novel is not meant as a replacement of the novel. It's merely an attempt to connect with an audience that's shrinking.

There's a crisis in literary publishing right now. People have to be open-minded about new forms. The publishing industry has changed a lot in the past couple of decades. Major publishing houses now routinely refuse to read manuscripts by unknown authors unless they're represented by agents. And agents often refuse to read manuscripts unless -- well, it's a complicated unless, but a lot of it has to do with how the winds of the book-buying public are blowing at any given time.

Criticizing the screenplay-novel idea as shallow or a sell-out of tradition is to misunderstand the current (very dire) situation in the literary publishing industry. The irony of all this is that there *is* a lot of fiction writing going on -- but it is in genre fiction, the movie and TV industries, and on the Net. My suggestion to people who write but don't like the screenplay-novel idea is to not adopt it. Try something else. But for heaven's sake, don't confuse a wish to be published with some form of ignoble philistinism.

2:15 PM  
Blogger Thomas said...

What I wrote is not motivated by snobbery, or by any sort of naivete about the publishing industry. I am saying something very simple. Whoever wants the screenplay novel, or screenplays in general is welcome to them. I have not read anything on this blog to suggest that there is anything intrinsically wrong with the novel as an art form. (Anyone who says that they are no longer interested in it, that it fails to engage them is merely talking about their disillusionment, which has nothing whatsoever to do with the question.) The central point here has been the state of the publishing industry. The screen-novel is being offered as a solution for writers who can't get published.

My personal response to this, for what it's worth, is that it does not, and cannot, do what a novel does, and for someone who actually gets what he wants from novels, there's no point to them. They are something else entirely. Yes, they may involve narrative, and words on a page, but they cannot satisfy the same demands that a novel does.

I agree, Finn, that writers want to be read, but not at all costs. Or at least they shouldn't. I don't. I want to write a novel which does the sorts of things the novels I love reading do. If I can't get them published, I will simply give up. I'm not going to start writing something else for the sake of being published. I'd no longer be doing what I set out to do. Why should I want to write something I can't even be bothered to read?

As you yourself have pointed out, this idea is not that original. That's because what you propose is not really that different from the tradition screenplay. Now, anyone who wants to read screenplays, can do so, and has plenty of opportunity to do so. (Nor have I suggested, as Leanne Smith seems to imply, that I think it's a lesser artform. It's just a different one, which has very little, if anything, to do with the novel.) But I also think that anybody who can't be bothered to read a novel isn't going to bother to read this either. You're talking about a very small sector of the population. The average person with no particular interest in literature is even less likely to read a screenplay. You're asking him to visualise something at all times, with every word, without justifying to him why he's not actually watching this on the screen. Less is only more vivid to those prepared to work hard at reading. If a reader is not prepared to do the work, then more is vivid. The writer has to do the work, not the reader.

So, you're talking about people who are interested in reading fictional narratives, but who can't be bothered with novels any more. Not a very big sector of the population.

Of course, if you want to write screen-novels, make yourself happy. If there are people who want to read them, make them happy. But let's not overlook the fact that you're writing "manifestos" here. If tub-thumping is what you're out to do, I think you should concentrate more on demonstrating the intrinsic merits of the screen-novel as an artform. I never mentioned anything about ignoble philistinism. (It was Smith, in fact, who mentioned making money, by any means necessary.)

So, I offer you a challenge. Can you write a "manifesto" about the virtues of the screenplay novel without any reference to the state of the publishing industry today, or of the novel and its future? Can you stick to the intrinsic merits of the screen-novel? Demonstrate why I should be interested in it as a reader, and not as a writer who has given up trying to get his novel published. I don't even ask you to convince me why I should read it instead of a traditional novel. I will only respond by comparing the two if you yourself invite the comparison yourself.

Remember, if I were a publisher and you were pitching this to me, I'd simply want to know if people want to read it. I'm not going to care what you think about the future of the novel and the state of the publishing industry. Will this thing sell?

5:58 AM  
Blogger Thomas said...

I will only respond by comparing the two if you yourself invite the comparison yourself.

I meant to write:

I myself will only respond to myself by comparing myself to yourself inviting yourself to the comparison yourself.

4:26 PM  
Blogger Finn Harvor said...

Okay, challenge accepted. (Or maybe I should say, the challenge that you put to me about the challenge implicitly suggested in the piece I wrote before I was challenged shall be, uh -- hey, less is more vivid, baby!)

I can't say I'll write the exactly the manifesto you describe; the state of the publishing industry is so strange today that it deserves comment -- it's necessary context, in other words. But if it's okay with you, I'll divide the manifesto into sections and keep the two issues separate.

10:26 AM  

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