Writers and Silly Media Biases: Stories are Flexible

“This story is a movie. That other story needs to be a novel.”

One of my pet peeves is the common assumption among writers that particular types of stories are best suited to a single medium. This assumption belies either a lack of skill or a lack of understanding and appreciation for various media.

Cinderella can be a picture book, a novel, a short story, an animated short, a full-length feature, a musical, a play…. The possibilities for telling any story are limited only by the writer’s knowledge of a particular form and audience expectations. It is possible to tell the story of Cinderella without words. In fact, silent films, animations, and ballets exist without dialogue and yet audiences understand the story being told.

The basic story of Cinderella is well known in our culture. A young woman is raised by her selfish stepmother alongside two equally narcissistic sisters. A grand ball is announced, during which the Prince is expected to find a suitable wife from the nobility. The magic of a fairy godmother transforms Cinderella from a household servant into a beautiful lady, complete with fine glass slippers. For the rest of the story, I encourage you to read, watch, and listen to as many variations as possible.

A short story of Cinderella might not explain how the stepmother came to mary Cinderella’s father. A full-length novel or motion picture might explore the complex back story. A ballet would rely on the music and motion to convey thoughts, emotions, and the general plot. The original fairytale features some startlingly grotesque imagery, which contemporary children’s books and animated features have removed.

My point is that a well-known fairytale such as Cinderella can be adapted to any media by a talented writer. However, not every writer is a master of all forms and genres. I certainly could not score an opera or ballet based on Cinderella. Nor could I illustrate a word free picture book of the story. My limitations as a writer are not the limitations of the story.

Most early movies were adaptations of famous plays. Yet, I frequently hear screenwriters claim that a story is a “good play, bad movie.” Instead, a screenwriter should be considering how to tell the story maximizing the strengths of cinema.

A colleague posted the following to Facebook:
If your protagonist is a THINKER you have a BOOK.
If your protagonist is a TALKER you have a PLAY.
If your protagonist is a DOER you have a MOVIE.

The problem with the preceding simple checklist is that a main character can be adapted to doing, talking, or thinking based on the medium destination for the story. Sometimes, you must add a character or other device to allow thoughts to become dialogue. Sometimes, voiceover works well in a film and can reveal thoughts. Great directors can reveal thoughts with quick cuts and suggestive images. Never limit yourself by asserting any character is only one aspect of the above list.

We are all thinkers, talkers, and doers. Choosing which to emphasize is a choice made based on the form and genre selected by or for the storyteller.

As an aside, I also dislike the emphasis on the protagonist in the above list. Main characters may or may not be “protagonists” in the traditional sense of good versus evil. Equally important, opposing characters (antagonist, opposition, impact, muse, et al) can be adapted to any form and genre. Evil thoughts can be expressed in dialogue, or suggested through action, limited only by the skill of the writer.

When someone states that a movie was not as good as the book this can reflect either a bad movie or unusual expectations. The audiences for full-length novels might not be the same as the audiences for two-hour movies. However, it seems more likely that the adaptation is to blame for audience dissatisfaction. Nobody would try to compare the short story of Cinderella to a full-length feature film. Each medium must stand apart even when telling the same story.

Lose your media biases. Stories themselves are flexible, ready to be told in any medium by a talented storyteller, someone aware of that medium’s strengths and weaknesses. If you cannot see a story in a particular medium, maybe you aren’t the right choice for writing that adaptation. That is not an insult or a criticism. As I mention above, I’m not the best choice for any number of forms and genres. Know your strengths and tell the stories you want to tell in the medium or media you prefer.

Just don’t tell another writer that his or her story must be told in a particular medium, according to your biases.

WE SEE… Why Screenwriters Started Using WE

As a playwright, I am accustomed to “directing” the action. One of the attractions of writing for stage is the primacy of the script, as submitted by the writer to a director. Changes require the approval of the playwright, and well-known playwrights have challenged directors who felt the need to “improve” plays (and the writers win these challenges).

By comparison, the director is in charge of screen productions. Always. The writer produces a work-for-hire owned by the production company, with creative control falling to the director, except in the rarest of cases. Short of being a writer-director, the screenwriter’s “vision” of the work is nothing more than a suggestion.

In the early years, directors of films were like theater directors. They adhered to the script because a lot of movies were made quickly. Changes happened, but the early industry was focused on releasing works to meet a high demand.

Over time, directors started to exert greater control.

Up through the 1970s, spec scripts (speculative, meaning written with the hope of selling the work) and initial drafts included some camera direction, and a good deal of narrative direction. The director might change these directions, but they were included by the screenwriter to suggest a vision.

Though there had been powerful directors since the start of film and television, things changed dramatically during the 1970s. Theatrical feature directors told writers to stop directing in the spec script or initial draft. Television directors started to adopt the same policy. (It should be noted that in series television, many producers are writers, so the tensions are little different.)

Told not to direct on the page, writers have continued to bend this commandment from the film gods by writing narrative and action that attempts to direct. You often spot these non-directing directions with WE SEE and WE HEAR in contemporary scripts. You also spot the direction with objects, sounds, and other elements types in ALL CAPS, as if screaming to the director that “This must be so!”

Consider Lynne Pembroke’s reaction to these non-directing tricks of screenwriters:

COVERSCRIPT TIPS – A Heated Disagreement
July 21, 2015, Lynne Pembroke

A heated disagreement. In this case, about two teeny, tiny, itsy bitsy phrases. And a personal much-detested pet peeve. Contained wrath is the immediate reaction when I run across them….

Using these two phrases is a writing cop-out. Because it’s easy; without them a screen writer is forced to Show not Tell.

Besides, “we” are in the theater seats watching, or in our office chairs reading, not in the &%#$@% story!

I don’t disagree in principle, but directors set the standards no matter what anyone else argues. I swapped to WE SEE, but only for very specific camera changes.

TOURISTS mill about a fountain. (No need for WE SEE.)

WE SEE the feet of tourists, splashing in water. (Very specific visual wanted.)

Could WE SEE be omitted?

BARE FEET splash in the fountain.

It would then be up to a director if this is a close up or not. The old days, when spec writers included more shots, before directors told writers not to direct:


Feet splash in the fountain.

Personally, I would rather have “CLOSE UP:” in the spec script, instead of “WE SEE” or or “BARE FEET” capitalized. I suppose there’s no perfect approach to trying to direct, without being the director, short of getting rewrite and shooting script duties in your script deal. If you are hired for the shooting script, the SFX and shot slugs can replace WE SEE and WE HEAR.

As a playwright, I am the all-mighty last and final word on the direction. As a screenwriter, I have to accept my position and do my best to cajole a director to accept my ideas. Some directors will recoil at any suggest shot, WE SEE stunts, or other direction. Other directors recognize that the writer had a vision or there wouldn’t be a screenplay.

My suggestion: avoid WE SEE and WE HEAR and all the capitalization stunts unless you lack a better way to convey an absolutely essential visual or sound in the script.

My One-and-Only Beautiful Baby

“I have been working on the screenplay for 10 years.”

Few screenwriters and playwrights earn a living, and even fewer do so with only one or two produced works. To make writing a career, you must be receiving residuals and royalties from a larger collection of works that are being seen by audiences constantly. Yes, there are stories of one-hit wonders, able to survive for years on a single movie deal (few plays are that big, outside of Broadway musicals), but those are outliers.

The more scripts and manuscripts you have in your portfolio, the more likely you are to have the type of play or movie a producer wants.

After you complete a work, you should begin another project. After you type fadeout, curtain, or the end, take only a short break before beginning the next story. I do not wait to edit and refine the first work before starting the next.

Since a good writer often asks other writers and editors to review a manuscript, use the time while others have your work to brainstorm and plan the next. You might be surprised at how many ideas that did not fit in your first story will fit in a future work.

Do not let perfectionism getting your way. The more works you do write, the better each new work will be.

I cannot tell you that a screenplay, stage play, or novel should only take a year to write. I understand that many authors have full-time jobs and other obligations unconnected to writing. However, it should be painfully obvious that 10 years is much too long for finishing a screenplay.

An approach that works for me is to set a clear and realistic goal for producing more than one work per year. I attempt to complete four plays or screenplays each calendar year. Many of these will never be produced, but each script improves over previous works. When time permits, I do go back and update unproduced material, applying lessons that I have learned since the first draft was finished.

Blogging weekly and writing a monthly published column help me develop good working habits. Find a way to write on a deadline. Discipline is essential.

Most poets I know write dozens or hundreds of poems each year. They fill notebooks, experimenting and learning as they write. For many years, I filled one or more notebooks every two years with mediocre poetry, and that routine improved all my writing.

Likewise, short story authors, essayists, and other writers practice their forms and genres regularly. Again, my own experience is that blogging on a weekly basis and more frequently when possible improves all the writing on which I am working.

Unfortunately, I have met many aspiring screenwriters, playwrights, and novelists deeply attached to a single work. This is their “one and only beautiful baby” problem.

I cannot explain why these long form authors become stuck on single projects. If anything, I have far too many projects and struggle to focus on refining and marketing my works. For me, the thought of working on a single story day after day, year after year, is frightening. Familiarity breeds contempt, and I am certain I would begin to hate any work that demanded my attention day in and day out.

Writers should have more discipline than I demonstrate. Even my finished drafts should be polished and submitted to producers and publishers, but as I finish one work I am likely to begin two or three others. Therefore, a part of me does admire the writer able to focus single-mindedly on one manuscript.

The beautiful baby problem is not constructive. Spending months and years refining a single screenplay, stage script, or novel seldom results in production or publication. I have met many writers who optioned a script or had a play produced that wasn’t the work they intended to pitch to a producer. The cliché is true, producers will ask “What else do you have?”

I lose track of what I have written. When I go through my computer directories or the stacks of handwritten pages, I rediscover old works. Some writers don’t understand how I can do this, but I write so much that I could never remember it all. (I have tried to keep an inventory of projects, so I can return to old works later.)

Write, write, and write some more. Do not let your one-and-only get in the way of earning a living. Do not allow yourself to become “stuck” emotionally on the success of that one great story you need to share. Move forward and keep moving.

Negative Reviews

“Doesn’t the review bother you?” I was asked following a rather harsh criticism of a musical play that premiered this summer (2014). “It didn’t even explain what the critic disliked very well.”

Yes, the review bothered me, and I certainly agreed with my theater colleague that the review could have been more helpful, but every review is helpful to some extent. Some are simply more helpful than others.

A negative review tell you that something might be wrong with a work. It might not be, but critics at regional and national publications tend to know something about their specialties. In this instance, the reviewer is a playwright, so ignoring his views would be shortsighted. However, critics also have biases, and this critic hasn’t demonstrated the greatest understanding of new work development in our small city. Shoestring theater seldom enables perfection, and even less often provides active development processes.

When you read a review, skip the snark. Reviewers seem to love demonstrating how smart they are, and how cynical they’ve become. Ignore the ego behind the review and focus on a list of concrete positives and negatives. Don’t get lost in the flourishes of someone trying to impress his or her readers.

In this instance, the concrete claims appear to be:
1. Some of the musical numbers (tune and lyrics) were good.
2. The play was too long.
3. The three-act structure was problematic.
4. Direction lacked energy.
5. The play had little new to say.

As a playwright, I can’t do much about any acting or directing issues, even with a new work. Things simply happen. Therefore, item four is beyond my control. Direction can also affect item five because a slow play without energy has no message, no passion. That means item five is likely a mix of problems with the script and the direction.

The length of the work and the structure are a problem. Reducing the snark to the core claim, that the play was long and oddly structured, I would agree that a new work usually needs more editing. As a writer, I tend to overwrite first drafts. Therefore, I can set aside the snark and admit the play needs another revision pass (or more).

I’m not sure I agree that the three-act structure is a problem, but it is if there are two intermissions in a modern play. Audiences want one intermission and quick scene pacing. The structure I wrote was applied literally by the director. I need to change the script — that’s definitely my fault as a writer.

Learning to list the concrete claims made by reviewers is a skill writers and artists need. My final works are better because of this approach to “listening” to the critics.

Breaking Rules

Students, seminar attendees, and visitors to our online writing guide have complained that my insistence on knowing (and adhering to) traditional story structures ignores “real art” in favor of production and publication.

“You can break the rules after you master the rules,” I respond. “And then, only break them when you can defend the choice.”

Imagine my frustration when a play was rejected because it lacked the “journey” of the main character.

When I decided to write a play without a complete Hero’s journey, it was an intentional act (pun), a choice to parody a genre. There are characters in myth and legend that do not change. They don’t mature. Mocking that notion of the invariable being seemed promising.

One of the readers providing coverage clearly didn’t get the joke. The comments on the coverage sheet indicated the story needed a clear journey and transformation. Oops. My choice must not have been obvious.

There are two lesson: 1) breaking the formula is risky; 2) if the reader doesn’t know the original, parody doesn’t work.

The other reader did like the script and scored it “highly recommended,” but you need to run the gauntlet to be produced.

Both reviewers liked the dialogue, the wit, yet only one got the joke. That isn’t good. I’m not sure following the traditional formula would have helped.

Will I break the rules again? Of course. But I also understand the risks.