The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Sunday, March 12, 2006

A clarification and a call

One comment that I often receive is about the originality of the screenplay-novel idea. The comment usually goes like this: "Hmm, writing a novel in the form of a screenplay?... It seems to me I've heard of something like that before." Whether the commentator can cite a specific example is another matter. But they insist that the idea, the general concept, is not so new.

And the response I make usually has a standard form, too: Well, I didn't invent the idea of the screenplay. And I sure as hell didn't invent the novel. Instead, what I'm trying to do is get people, especially people in the publishing industry, to think differently about them. The idea of the screenplay-novel may not be original in the absolute and pure sense, but it can lay a certain claim to being original as a synthesis. (Much creativity is comprised of a combination of pure and synthesiziing originality, and we have to differentiate between them in a generous spirit because artists tend to produce both over their careers. )

When I started this site on September 9, 2005, I scoured dictionaries and search engines for the term "screenplay novel" and couldn't find it. The closest I could come was the term "screen-novel", which had been applied to the idea of a screenplay written in a novel form -- in other words, the reverse of what I wanted to do. The term "screen-novel" as it's meant in that first sense seems to have fallen out of use. Therefore, because I like the term, I tend to use it as a form of short-hand for what I'm talking about here. But I can't lay claim to the term, and that's why I created the somewhat clunkier neologism "screenplay novel".

That, then, covers the concept aspect of all this. But concepts are a dime-a-dozen, as anyone who posts one online soon finds out. I-had-the-same-idea emails tend to arrive as soon as one posts an ideas blog... which I imagine is a reflection of how many people there are out there whose minds tend to work the same way. But where do you draw the line between the creator of an idea and those who "simultaneously" thought of it? This is a question for the academics and journalists to decide.

In any event, when I started this blog I could not find anyone doing quite what I had in mind
no matter how hard I looked. It was only after beginning the blog that others approached me and said they had a similar Idea. And more power to them, in my opinion. Ideas in and of themselves are worth very little. They have to be put into action. So I suppose I might add, even though it would carry the danger of sounding grandiose, that what this site is all about is starting a movement ... the Screenplay-Novel Movement, natch.

After all, isn't the important thing the work itself? As Thomas of Anatomy of Melancholy has commented, he is skeptical of the screenplay-novel idea but thinks that if he read a screenplay-novel he liked he would change his mind. And so the challenge of the screenplay novel isn't simply to come up with the idea of it. It's to do it.


One of the strengths of the term "screenplay novel" is that when it is explained to people, they grasp it right away. That is another sign of its synthesizing nature: people get the term because they are already conditioned to get movies. One of the mottos of this site is "we are all directors now". Our imaginations have been conditioned by the Ur-imagination of cinema.

Whether this is good or bad is too complicated a question to be debated in this post. For now it's enough to say this is just how our culture currently is. And that goes a long way toward explaining why it turns out that there are untold numbers of people who are gravitating toward the screenplay novel form instinctively. (By the way, I'm interested in hearing about writers who are working in this manner; any info you might have would be appreciated.) What needs to happen next is for major publishing houses to embrace this idea, and not dismiss it as a weird gimmick.

And this leads to the final point: for an idea which is supposedly not new, at the present moment there isn't much evidence of it at the end-point of cultural production: on the bookshelves and in the online shopping carts. In other words, if the screenplay novel idea "has been done", where, exactly, are all the screenplay novels? Even though I've found work that is experimental in a cinematic way (graphic novels naturally lend themselves to this, since many of them are arguably "story-board novels"), I have yet to find an original novel that is specifically written in the form of a screenplay. I've heard rumours of some. But I haven't seen them yet, and I certainly haven't seen them as a discrete form or genre. I haven't seen them recognized by critics and editors on a mass scale.

I can't repeat often enough that the screenplay-novel isn't intended to replace the traditional novel. But it is intended to be a form that is put into practice by many writers and many publishers.

If you know of screenplay-novel writers or are one yourself, let me know. Or create your own site and let me know about that. Link and be linked. Pass the word around. For an idea that's allegedly not new, it's feeling mighty lonesome in this corner of the cultural universe right now.


Blogger Gord said...

I haven't read it but there was something about a bar, written by that Canadian fellow who wrote Hard Core Logo, what was his name?Oh yeah, Michael Turner.

I'm pretty sure when I saw him read from this, that it was a text meant to be read, but written in the form of a screenplay.

Here's the Amazon page for the book, and here's the search result at, since you're in Seoul.

10:25 AM  
Blogger Gord said...

By the way, Turner seemed rather decidedly pompous, though it was maybe self-defense as he was reading in a classroom to a bunch of creative writing students and professors; he also read his Pornographer's Poem (accompanied by video), and I sat wondering whether this was the most radical young Canadian writer, and where the hell we'd gone wrong with our nation if this was the case. Anyway, he also seemed quite certain that nobody had ever done this screenplay-novel thing before, if I recall correctly.

I'm surprised that the foreword is by Wm. Gibson, actually, and would be curious to know what Gibson-san wrote, if you ever do pick up the book.

10:29 AM  
Blogger Finn Harvor said...

Hi Gord. Wasn't the first Turner book you mention ("American Whisky Bar") taped by City-TV as a drama by Bruce McDonald? I remember Hard Core Logo made a pretty big splash on the Toronto scene and that McDonald and Turner were quite tight for a while. And I think this, the book you link to, followed. My memory is of it is rather hazy now, but as I recall the idea was to capture the quality that TV had during the 1950s, when dramas were broadcast live.

On a more general level, it seems to me the debate over "who firsted" the screenplay novel idea will be ongoing and perhaps never really resolved. I expect further examples will keep cropping up. That's one reason I'm emphasizing the argument that screenplay novels should be cultivated as a specific form of novel writing -- ie., several writers and publishers should take part in the idea, and see whether this form catches on with the public (which I think it will).

11:56 AM  

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