Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Screenwriting is affecting my ability to read novels

After my weekly screenwriting group meeting yesterday, I found myself in an interesting discussion that I want to expand on here. All of the other members of my weekly group write only screenplays. I believe I am the sole member who also writes short stories and novels. One of the members asked me if writing screenplays has affected the way I write prose. It’s a question I’ve been thinking about for months.

The short answer is decidedly yes. With writing fiction prose, one has license to delve into lush, intricate, poetic description. With screenwriting, most descriptions are abbreviated to bare bones. For instance, a description of a male character in a screenplay could be: ‘Ed Harris, 50 yrs old, quick with a smile.’ You never give a physical description unless there is something that affects the plot. Of course, that kind of character introduction would never do in fiction prose. Locations are given even less importance. The rule of thumb is: a 2 line description for a main character, 1 line description for a location. It takes getting used to, to create a vivid description in less that a dozen words, but it’s fun – like writing haiku.

Also, in fiction prose it is expected that the writer delve into at least one character’s thoughts, and most do that with several characters. In screenwriting, you only write what a character does or says. If you can’t see or hear it, it doesn’t go into a screenplay. That means the writer has to show everything through dialog or actions. For example: you can’t say, ‘John was furious,’ you have to show John putting his fist through the wall.

What I’m finding is that my prose is altering. My descriptions are getting shorter, more compact, and I’m focusing much more on the storyline action that describing things. I like to believe that my writing is becoming stronger because of it, but time will tell.

The drastic change is not so much in my writing, but in my reading. I’ve become intolerant of novels with long flowing descriptions that don’t add to the action flow. I still love to read well-written description, but I can no longer tolerate mediocre prose, endlessly describing something that needs only a short sentence, or the narrator telling me everything instead of showing me through action. There are many writers who don’t trust their readers enough to let the reader paint his/her own visual picture of a person or scene. Fewer still who show actions and let the reader determine the motives behind the actions.

Screenwriting is ruining my ability to enjoy mediocre writing. I’m finding that I analyze while I read, and I’ve become intolerant of wordy authors who try to impress with flower descriptions and endless telling vs. showing. My list of favorite contemporary authors is becoming rather slim. I’m not sorry about that. I only hope that I can alter my own writing to adhere to the new standards that I hold others.


Jonz V. Stoneroad said...

Oh I agree, the difference between fiction writing and screenwriting is one is action and the other is through words.

To make a good script, you need an outstanding impressive dialog ! The challenge awaits!

Karen Walker said...

I love this discussion of long, flowing descriptions in fiction versus terse descriptions. I've always skipped the lengthy descriptions to find out what happens next. In this day and age, I don't think we have time for Henry James (although I loved his novels).
karen walker

AlanChinWriter said...

It's true I don't have the patience for Henry James, never did. But these days I have little patience for anybody who is wordy.

alan chin

KK Brees said...

I like this post. It's a good writing exercise to try your hand in a new genre. Opens up the thought process and kicks out the cobwebs.

Patricia Stoltey said...

Good post, Alan! I'm also trying to cut the fluff and filler from my manuscripts. Less is definitely better.