The Screenplay-novel Manifestos

Less is more vivid

Monday, March 06, 2006

Screen-novel Manifesto 4 (Part B)

Before I started writing this current manifesto, a friend asked me to explain why I thought the screenplay-novel idea was good without referring to the current state of the publishing industry. It was a fair comment. It's always possible to justify a new movement, a new ism, within the context of the (godawful) times: "Why do I make bestiality porn? Well, horses have needs, too!"

Most issues can be seen in their simple or complex forms: this is just as true of the arguments being presented here. In their simple forms, they are: the human imagination has changed; image-based mediums such as TV and the movies have been what's done this. And in this sense, we are all directors now. The language of the movies works not only in terms of what we see at the theater or criticize if we sit down and talk analytically about a movie, but this language also now often works on the page. For example: "Exterior. A busy street in downtown New York. Mid-day. Summer" is all the description we need in order to successfully conjure an image in our minds.

There's a lot of injustice to this -- "Exterior. The busiest street in St. John, New Brunswick" simply doesn't work on the imagination in the same way, and that has a lot to do with the really massive amount of concentration within a few specific locales that the movie industry is even more prone to than the publishing industry. (New York has always done well, no matter what the cultural medium, and London has done all right too ... but "lesser" cities such as Ottawa, Toronto, Seoul or Pusan have not.)

Similarly, the language of movies has allowed us to achieve a similar short-hand where the reading of emotion is concerned. While it is true that the interior subjectivity that novels excel at isn't really imitable in movies (except for the rarely used voice-over), movies have achieved such an effective mixture of artful direction and acting that we, as viewers, find that we enter at least a certain understanding of a fictional character's subjectivity when that character is part of a movie. Jack Nicholson raises an eyebrow and sighs. We get it -- we get something about his state of mind.

And while it's true that there are no actors in a screenplay-novel, simple descriptive commentary can sum up a great deal about a character's inner life in a few words ("Neville: [nervously, clearly wanting to say something more] Sure. Let's go for coffee. I'd like that"). The same has been accomplished for years now in playwriting. Maybe this descriptive commentary is not enough for many readers. It certainly is very spare. But remember the underlying motto of the screenplay-novel form: we are all directors now. If you can accept that motto as essentially true, then you can accept the screenplay-novel. If you can't -- well, there are traditional novels to be read. They're still there. And they deserve your attention.

Speaking of novels, time and time again I have found that the two types that draw me most fall into two broad categories: the first is highly personal and is in many cases based on the author's own life. In a novel of this type, "fiction" is not a creative process the way we commonly define that term -- as something completely made-up -- but a tactic. It is necessary in order to tell what is essentially an autobiographical truth. This is a complicated issue, because autobiographical fiction comes in so many forms. Nevertheless, it is sometimes the case novelists and short story writers go directly to their own lives for source material. Literary people understand this: Not all lived truths can be expressed as unvarnished non-fiction.

(Three points here need especially strong emphasis. The first is that autobiographical literary fiction is not the same as memoir, exceedingly similar as the two can be. In the former case, the obligation of the writer is fineness of artistry; in the latter case, the obligation of the writer is honesty. The second point is that writers who tend -- tend! -- toward autobiographical fiction are often the most original stylistically. Their description has a nervy brilliance. Think Mary Gaitskill, Edna O'Brien, etc. The creativity of their work lies not as much in the story as in the telling. The third point is that because autobiographical fiction is not the same as memoir, the rules of each need to be understood by the writer and respected. Particularly with memoir, when this does not happen there is a breach of trust between writer and audience, as the James Frey affair showed with painful clarity.)

The other type of novel that I enjoy is the social novel -- a novel with several characters, and usually told in the third person. This is the novel in its truly fictional form: it moves back and forth between consciousnesses, and it tries to do so in a manner that respects the reality of life as human beings live it. It is not comic, it is not escapist. It is instead an attempt at authorial godhood. And that's a good thing. After all, this is what the movie and TV show attempt to do. And look at all the trouble they've gotten us into: all those action movies and now we have political leaders who start wars because they fantasize they are fighter pilots. But the proportionate prevalence of dreck within the sphere of movie-making is not because movies are inherently worse than novels; it's because movies are more expensive. There's a mathematical equation at work here. The more costly the investment, the more formulaic the art.

And here, I believe, is the heart of the matter: the screenplay novel cannot compete with the autobiographical literary novel (which needs to be defended more than it is being these days). And it cannot compete with the social novel in terms of the latter's grand scope. But it does have the potential to compete with the story that is told within the majority of actually-produced films and TV shows. It is an antidote as well as a possibility.

In a sense, we can reverse our perspective: instead of considering the novel as a movie, why not temporarily imagine the movie as a novel ... a "movie novel"? If we do so, we realize that compelling as movies are, they are hobbled by their tendency to pander to the whims of the producer, not the director or screenwriter. Because, in truth it is not only the literary novel that is in trouble these days ... serious, intelligent, indie movies are hurting too. Hurting because of inadequate funding, hurting because of studio-run distribution networks, hurting because mass audiences necessary for a film to break even have mass tastes, and often punish more personal movies with financial failure.

So in a sense the screenplay-novel idea is simply a marrying of two forms so that the writer -- the one who actually creates the narrative -- gains the freedom that novel writers still possess, while tuning into the energy of the movie-maker.

Movie making is only one means of expressing narrative. For people who prefer expressing it other ways, the means there also exist. That is happening with graphic novels (which are damn close to screenplays in and of themselves), and it is happening within the literary novel, which is much more protean than too many large publishing houses seem to still genuinely believe.

Nevertheless, a cultural fact remains, and it is the fact of dominant forms. Movies and TV are the most powerful forms of narrative in our culture. Not necessarily "better", and certainly not more sensitive. But there they are, and most people in our society are keyed into them, almost involuntarily.

We are all directors now. If you can accept that as true, you can accept the screenplay-novel as at least one possibility among many.


Blogger Lynn said...

I find your thoughts about the screenplay-novel very interesting. I have thought about this idea for several years; I make no claims to originality. My idea was to write the screenplay-novel, then rewrite it as a traditional kind of novel. Leaving it in screenplay format never occurred to me.

I'm currently writing a screenplay-novel (although I may not have realized it), so your ideas have been both encouraging and enlightening.

12:11 AM  
Blogger Thomas said...

I was in the process of writing my own post about this when I popped over to check on things. It's interesting how you anticipated some of the points I've made.

I have to say, though, I expected more. It seems to me pretty luke-warm, more defensive than anything else. I still don't have a clear idea of what's so good about it. I suppose we need to see some more of the writing itself.

8:49 PM  
Blogger Finn Harvor said...

Well, maybe. But please remember that the defensiveness you read in it is probably the result of me responding to more than one commentator (eg. people who haven't posted at this site but who've emailed me on the topic). For better or worse, I have to make it clear that I'm not attacking literature in toto -- for example, recently I've become a fan of several Korean authors -- but the literary publishing industry, which is in an advanced state of malaise, and, as I've said before, is effectively walling itself off from the work of many (most?) emerging novelists.

As far as the post you were going to write, I hope you'll put it up. In fact, I hope you'll respond to a challenge of my own: write an essay explaining how you think an emerging novelist is supposed to both write work that is artistically uncompromising but also able to sell well enough to allow continued artistic activity over the long term.

1:04 PM  

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