Monday, April 4, 2011


Unlike the unhappy screenwriter in my story "Moving Pictures," I never abandoned literary fiction for the lure of Hollywood. (See my last post.) However, over some 20 years I wrote 20 screen-and-teleplays for PBS (among them "Charlie Smith and the Fritter Tree" in 1978, which was about the oldest living American; and "Booker," which won a 1985 Writers Guild Award for best script in the category of children's television, and many other awards); screenplays for Tri-Star, Interscope, Columbia, Showtime, and in 1981 I worked as one of two writer-producers for the second season of the PBS dramatic series "Up and Coming" (a kind of forerunner to the "Cosby Show" about a black family’s trials and tribulations). Being a college professor, I never felt the need to become a full-time screen-writer, but the work I did was enough for me to become "vested," i.e., to qualify for early retirement and receive a monthly pension check from the Producer-Writers Guild with, of course, the possibility of working again as a screenwriter if something comes along that interests me.

Frankly, I began writing screenplays just to see how well I could produce entertainment for a mass audience. (And also to supplement my professor's salary.) Many of the workers I knew in the film-making business came from film school, places like CalArts , where they learned the technical side of their craft well. But film-makers frequently call upon the services of accomplished novelists and short story writers because they are strongly grounded in two things important for any story, regardless of its medium: well-developed characters, and structure (plot).

Just as film-makers benefit from a novelist's particular skills, so too the literary writer can more finely hone his (or her) craft through screen writing, where everything in a story must be dramatized, and concretely realized as a scene actors can actually perform (during a read-through they will "goof" on lines the writer composed that violate the authenticity of real speech). In a novel or a short story, one can rely on narrative summary (telling, not showing) and the poetic possibilities of language to hold a reader’s interest. Not so in a screenplay or teleplay. If one is, for example, adapting a novel for the screen (or, if you like, the stage), all those places where the novelist went on automatic pilot, failing to "show and not tell," where he (or she) fell back on narrative summary or an entertaining voice or his (or her) talent for lyricism and left an action ambiguous or only suggested---well, those are precisely the places where a screenwriter must struggle to create a vivid scene, dramatic or otherwise. Thus, some novels and stories with minimal plot (but lots of dazzling language performance) are difficult to successfully adapt as films. Imagine the challenge a screenwriter would have with Djuna Barnes’s 1937 classic Nightwood.

For me, the pay-off from writing screenplays probably came in Middle Passage, a novel that moves at a fast clip from one dramatic (or comic) scene to another (some people have told me they read the novel in one sitting) with narration  used basically as a bridge (a poetic one, I hope) between scenes (of action and dialogue) and to prepare for them. Some writers I know first compose their novels as screenplays in order to carefully lay out the dramatic structure, then in later drafts add narration (telling) with all its rich possibilities.

 For those interested in a brilliant and very accessible explanation of how great films are examples of superb storytelling, I suggest two books by Brian McDonald, Invisible Ink: A Practical Guide to Building Stories That Resonate and The Golden Theme: How To Make Your Writing Appeal To The Highest Common Denominator.  McDonald has taught his story structure seminars at Pixar, Disney Feature Animation, and Lucasfilm’s ILM. He is an award-winning director/writer who has written for comic books, A&E’s Hoarders and directed spots for Visa. His highly entertaining film White Face, which imagines what it would be like if circus clowns were a separate race, has run on HBO and Cinemax, and is used nation-wide by corporations as a tool for diversity training. In a word, Brian McDonald is a master teacher whose every word on screen writing you can trust.

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