What is a screenplay-novel?
It's a novel. But it's written in the form of a screenplay.
How did you get the idea of writing a screenplay-novel?
Over time, it dawned on me that I treated movies the way I treated novels: I would appreciate their stories in a similar way, and talk about them afterwards the way a person might talk about a novel. In fact, I do this more often with movies ... mainly, I think, because nowadays movie-watchers vastly outnumber novel readers. There are many people you can have a conversation with about a particular movie, even a very serious movie. It's a lot harder to do that about a particular book, especially if it's literary.
One "aha" moment for me was reading the published screenplay of "Out of Africa". My wife had a copy of it, and it was lying around the house. I live in South Korea, and these kinds of scripts are enormously popular here. They're marketed as an English learning tool (English script on one page, with Korean-language "key points" on the other). But as I read the script I found I really enjoyed it in and of itself. And then I thought, if this works as a book form of an existing movie, why wouldn't it work as a book form of a movie that's never been made? In other words, why not use the same combination of stills and script?
And then there's the creative process involved: Unless writing autobiographically, I like imagining scenes as if they were in a movie. My imagination seems to naturally work that way.
Has this idea been done before?
There's a long tradition of writing satire in the form of a screenplay -- you know, some imagined scene, for example, some inane conversation in the White House. And there is a tradition of teleromans in some countries. These are basically comics made of photographs, not drawings.
But there are no examples of a literary novel written in screenplay form that I've seen. At least, this was true when the idea first came to me. Since then, people have given me examples. One was a script by Michael Turner entitled "American Whisky Bar". I haven't read the book, so I can't comment on it. But some time after it was published, it was produced by CITY-TV and Bruce McDonald as a live television drama. I saw that broadcast. The broadcast was really more like a 1950s-style televised play than anything else. So I don't know if it qualifies.
Personally, I think people will come up with other examples and this will turn into a long-running debate over who was first. And I doubt it will ever be satisfactorily resolved. Instead, what I'd like to emphasize is I'm calling for the screenplay-novel to exist as a distinct form of novel. In other words, I'm hoping that many serious writers will adopt this way of writing novels -- at least, for some of their work.
So it's a good idea because it's new?
Ideas aren't good simply because they're new. I might be the first person to invent chocolate-flavoured cheddar cheese. That doesn't mean it's worthwhile. Instead, I think this idea is good because it has the potential to work. It solves problems for the writer, and solves problems for the audience. It's quicker to produce and quicker to read, yet at the same time, it keys into people's imaginations. It is a very effective way of creating the vividness necessary for a story to "work". At least, this is how it works for me. Some people don't feel the same way. For them, it's not a particularly evocative way of writing. They need more description -- both of the environment and of interior consciousness. I understand this. Because the screenplay-novel is stripped-down, it seems to have certain inherent shortcomings, one of which is less physical description and the other which is the apparent disappearance of interior consciousness.
The first quality can still exist in a screenplay novel. As in a regular screenplay, there is no necessary restriction on the amount of physical description that exists. There are simply conventions; screenplays tend to be very minimalist. However, a screenplay-novelist doesn't have to follow this convention. He or she can include as much description as he or she wants.
Evoking interior consciousness is more of a problem. Interior states of mind don't "disappear" in a screenplay-novel. Instead, they have to be evoked mainly by the characters' dialogue. (This is one reason why I tend to use more description of gestures, facial expressions and tone of voice in my dialogue than you'd find in a regular screenplay.)
The screenplay-novel form is not perfect. It has strengths and weaknesses. But let's be honest: the traditional novel has inherent short-comings, too, not the least of which is its decreasing popularity.
Call the screenplay-novel experimental literature. But it's experimental literature with practical aims.
I've read other screenplays, and they're a lot different from yours. Why?
Those aren't screenplay-novels, they're screenplays. They are meant to be produced into movies. What I'm doing here is a novel meant to be imagined as a movie.
Books can contain pictures, too.
But it's just words. What I like about movies are the pictures.
Why don't you just write a regular novel?
I do. I have. But recently I have become interested in this approach to -- this form of -- writing. It's a method of writing that works for me; that re-inspires me after years of increasing frustration with traditional literary techniques.
So you hate traditional fiction?
No. When it is well done I admire it just as much as I ever did. I have gone through cycles, of course: there have been times in my life when I hardly read it at all. And there have been other times when I read it a lot (Korean literature has been a recent inspiration). But generally for me, something in much of the traditional fiction that gets published these days has withered. I have trouble maintaining interest in it. This does not mean, though, that I have lost interest in fictional narrative overall, since movies, too, are a form of fiction.
If I were the only person who felt this way, I'd blame myself. But many people, including sophisticated people who have invested considerable energy into establishing literary careers, seem to feel the same way. So I think the main problem does not rest primarily with any one individual; it rests with contemporary fiction itself. Or to be more accurate, it rests with the contemporary institutions of fiction.
Why is this? It's not as if literary fiction has gotten worse in its totality. There is a lot of good writing out there, and often -- usually when I read something by someone unknown -- I will be strongly impressed by it. Rather, the problem seems to rest with the fiction that is being chosen by the big publishing houses, the most powerful critics, and the prize committees. Supposedly this should be the best of the best. Unfortunately, a lot of contemporary work that we are told is great is lifeless or false.
Sure. But that's just a subjective opinion. I don't agree.
You're right, it is subjective. Unfortunately, the readership of literary fiction has been declining for years, and recently this decline has become alarming. By all means, read traditional novels, and, if they move you, venerate them. But we have to face the larger cultural reality. We have to think in new ways.
So why don't you just watch movies and TV?
I like movies ... TV I'm not so sure about, although there are good programs out there.
The problem with movies and TV is this: they cost a lot to produce. No, let me rephrase that -- they cost an astronomical amount. Apart from the indie movie scene, which tends to be perpetually marginalized, no one individual can make them. They are group efforts, and while this gives them some strengths, they suffer from the near-inevitable tendency of group creations to lose any singular voice. And it's the singular voice that has to survive. It's the individual consciousness, not the group, that maintains contact with life.
And this is one of the great strengths of books: because they're relatively cheap to produce, they can still be made by individuals. (The contemporary trend toward "packaging" a book is pernicious on so many levels, as the Kaavya Viswanathan incident showed. If this scandal will be enough to stop the general trend to package books and turn even them into bland, committee-made products remains to be seen.)
Mass culture, with its converging technologies such as TV-receiving cell phones and ubiquitous WiBro reception, keeps moving more and more toward post-literacy. We are in desperate need of narrative forms that both can reach an audience but also allow the artist to retain his or her individuality. The screenplay-novel is a way of "writing a movie". So you're suggesting we just give up? That because mass culture is so pervasive we are obligated to mimic it?
The screenplay-novel is not a selling out. Think of it this way: there are good movies. There is good TV. In other words, both mediums are capable of producing genuine works of art, despite their group-made natures. If you write a screenplay-novel, you should try to make something that also has artistic merit. Obviously, it won't have the linguistic, descriptive power of great novels. But it will have the capacity to stir people's imaginations.
And when reading a screenplay-novel, all people have to do is allow themselves to read it as a director might. This is one of the broad-based effects that movies have had on the modern mind: it is possible -- even natural, it sometimes seems -- to think "cinematically". In other words, our minds have already been conditioned to imagine narratives as if they were movies. Maybe everyone doesn't do this. But many people do, and they do it effortlessly. In this sense, we are all directors now.
The trick is to be a good director -- an auteur, if you will. Remember that the best movies and TV are often made in opposition to mass culture. The screenplay-novel is another way of doing that.
But what about reading? If everyone is "being a director", won't reading suffer even more?
People are still reading lots these days. The trend among readers, however, is to buy more non-fiction than fiction.
What's wrong with that?
Nothing in the sense that non-fiction has always been popular, and now simply is more so. However, we still need fiction. It's not a luxury. It's a necessity, as well. Cultures rise and fall based partly on the stories they tell themselves.
I think screenplays suck. Traditional novels are more interesting to read.
Then read traditional novels. But consider the possibility that the screenplay-novel idea is a relatively new one, and part of your antagonism to them may be the result of being conditioned to read fictional narrative one way and not another. Remember that: the screenplay novel is just another form of narrative.