The Secrets of Scriptwriting

Of course, there’s only one real secret in the arts – work harder.

That is the Big Secret, but there are plenty of others. Here’s another big one for writers. I started as a scriptwriter, and writing scripts is excellent training for writing fiction. It teaches you to write in scenes, to tell stories through images and dialog, and most importantly? It teaches you to write for an audience. There’s a lot more to writing for an audience than any of us know.

First, a caveat. Fiction writers are known in the film industry as terrible scriptwriters, and I have a notion as to why. I’ve heard two excellent fiction writers speak of their scriptwriting experiences, and they both said, “Oh, it’s so easy, there are so few words per page.” And one admitted his script was bad, and the other failed to sell the script. They were right in that a page of script has about a quarter the word count of a page of manuscript. They were wrong about the other part.

I have sold cartoon scripts that were broadcast on BBC and the Warner Brothers’ website. It takes me twice as long to write a page of script as a page of prose. Which means I spend about eight times as much effort on a word of script as a word of prose. If fewer words meant easier work, then poetry would be the easiest thing in the world to write. It ain’t. It’s the hardest. Get me?

Now for the good stuff.

Scenes are one of the basic units of dramatic fiction – a story is made up of a series of scenes, and in fact a scene is a small story in itself, with a beginning, middle, end, and central conflict. However, many times writers will use exposition in place of scenes. By this I mean that instead of a fully-described set of actions occurring in a fully-described setting, we are given a synopsis of the events in question –

The Detective rubbed his chin and gazed into the gas jets of the fake fireplace. “So, how did you come to realize that someone had modified the scrimshaw work on your sister’s false leg?” (scene)
The Lawyer’s reply was halting and difficult to understand. (exposition)

This is weak. Exposition does not engage the reader. A scene does. Exposition can be the most graceful way of handling things that the reader needs to know and doesn’t want to read about…

… but a movie does not give you the option of using exposition. In film, all you have is sight and sound. So you are forced to tell the story entirely in scenes, and every scene has to hold the reader’s interest. In the script you can bring in other sensory cues or small bits of exposition for the people who will film it, but they won’t make it to the audience. And what is necessary in a film is frequently preferable in a story.The idea that fiction should be primarily sight and dialog predates film – I think Flaubert might be the man responsible – and it still holds a lot of truth. I do think a full sensorium is best in fiction, but a strong visual focus is key. If the reader can’t see what’s going on, they’re lost.

Additionally, working only in scenes teaches you the value of the cut. Too much of the time writers – and I include myself here – spend time to-ing and fro-ing, having characters walk and turn keys and open doors and attend to various personal matters.

Sometimes they do this in movies. And when they do so, the actors use it as an opportunity to show you the character. But usually? They will cut from one important scene to the next one, no interval, bim-bam. This works in fiction as well. There are quiet scenes, there are times when you want to give the character a sandwich and some time to think – but those thoughts have to be important to the reader, the sandwich has to mean something to the character.

Quiet moments should only be in your story if they are real scenes, and most stories work best if they consist of nothing but important scenes, one right after another. Don’t be afraid to leave out the boring stuff. Your first question about any difficult passage should be, “Can I leave this out?”

Dialog functions differently in scripts than in prose. It carries more weight because it is spoken by actors trained to add to the delivery, or even modify the script to best fit their portrayal of a character. Scenes are constructed around the rhythms of dialog, and it’s the flow of conversation that determines when a scene starts and ends. There are things that can’t be done on film that can be done on the page. The reverse is not true. You can bring your characters to life on the page through skillful dialog and description. How does your dialog sound when you read it out loud? If you’re a scriptwriter, you’re gonna find out the hard way. Read it yourself. You never know which passages that look simple on the page will tangle in the mouth.

Here’s the central conflict in scriptwriting. You have to write for more than one audience. When I did cartoons, I wrote for the story editor and the director of the show, for the actors, for the animators, and for the viewer. All in addition to myself. The story editor and the director wanted something that filled the formula of the show and succeeded as a story. The actors wanted dialog that was fun and engaging. The animators wanted exciting visuals. And the people watching the cartoon wanted three minutes away from working on their spreadsheets.

A script isn’t a work in itself. It is a set of instructions for creating a story. This is also true of fiction. Fiction is not a work in itself. It is a performance that you write and the reader executes. You must equip the reader to design the sets, to get the best performances from the actors.

Fiction is a set of instructions to the reader, telling them how to create the story in their minds. There are formal and experimental aspects of fiction that can play against story, but for the vast majority of fiction, this is a true statement.

So. You might want to write your next short story as a script. Or rewrite part of a completed piece as a script. Or you might go crazy and try your hand at a full film script. Look into scriptwriting. It’s one of the secrets.

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Book Review: A Fire Upon the Deep

A Fire Upon the Deep, by Vernor Vinge (534 pages, Science Fiction)

This book was the one that made me want to write science fiction and fantasy.  Round about 2002, I was on a 6-month excavation project in Honduras and I found a battered copy of Fire Upon the Deep stuffed into the project book shelf.  I picked it up, and within minutes was totally engrossed.  Fast forward to 2011, when I spotted a copy on a markdown shelf at Borders (poor, sad, dying Borders) and grabbed it for a re-read.  Man had I forgotten how good it is.  There is much genius in this book – genius in plot, structure, and story, and genius in world-building, too.

On the surface, the coolest thing about Fire Upon the Deep are the Tines, the group-mind species Vinge creates to inhabit a wild, ferocious back-water planet at the Bottom of the Beyond.  They’re like dogs, but “individuals” are created by combining several members into a pack.  Each member performs different functions or brings different personality traits or types of intelligence to the whole, and they think and operate as one.  Though the Tines are truly alien, they are also deeply familiar to us humans in terms of their hopes, dreams, fears, and desires.  Into this world come two children fleeing an interstellar terror set on destroying the entire galaxy (called The Blight).

The deeper genius of the book is how it structurally juxtaposes the plight of these kids as they attempt to survive on the Tines world with the malicious plans of the Blight.  A third plot line involves a group of humans – one of whom may actually be a puppet for a god-like intelligence – and Skroderiders (another fabulously ingenious alien species Vinge dreamed up) as they attempt to rescue the marooned children.

The pace is brisk, yet Vinge still manages to find a way to world-build and exposit without weighing the story down.  As he switches between story lines (and eventually brings them all together), the reader is treated to the full scope of this incredible universe – from the great powers that shape interstellar events all the way down to the tiny individuals caught up in those events.  Honestly, it’s completely masterful.

If you haven’t read this classic, do it now.

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Questions of scale in the universe

I just read a sf story by a friend of mine. While really liking the idea and the prose I found the logical progression to be not quite convincing. Without going into details here, I think it has to do with the ability of the human mind to wrap itself around the immensity of the cosmos.

Today I stumbled across this video which is a good step in the right direction. I know there are more like it and I will keep adding as I find them. Suggestions welcome.

Here’s another one:

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Weird Al: Trapped in the Drive-Thru

From the album “Straight Outta Lynwood.”

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Why we write

Just a short link to share today, but one well worth your time.  Go to the Superstars Writing Seminar site and scroll down to the middle of the page where it says “Tracy Hickman Story”, then listen to the .mp3.  It’s a recording of an incredible story Tracy related at the seminar a few weeks ago.  In the first 30 seconds or so, you may be wondering “wha?”…but keep listening.  Trust me, it’s worth it – an amazing story about how our writing can effect people in ways we’d never have imagined.

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I hang my head in shame

My friend The Ferrett posted about Starro the Conqueror, which is always a good topic. He mentioned that Starro, who is basically a gigantic starfish that shits out little starfish that attach themselves to your face and thus control your mind, was the Justice League of America’s first villain.

I was positive it was skinny Despero, the dude with the red face and the third eye on his forehead who made the JLA play chess. So I went ahead and posted that in his comments, which is something that I almost never do, but this is an important topic.

Well, turns out that Despero WAS the villain of JLA #1, but the Justice League made their first appearance in Brave and the Bold #28, and the villain of that issue was Starro. So I was wrong.

Now some of you may be saying ‘who gives a fuck?’ The answer is, ‘I do.’

Anyway, it was Starro.

Sorry, Ferrett.

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Groove Apparatus Featuring Vic Juris

Groove Apparatus performs “Desert Sky” at Van Gogh’s Ear, located in Union, New Jersey.

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