Still working on analysis of results from “The Heroine Poll.” It’s like an unfinished thank-you note hovering over my head — like the Sword of Damocles. Actually, the sword would be preferable. Better a quick beheading than a slow agonizing death due to paper cuts, guilt and shame.
As my last post included the short story “My Sister’s Scarf,” some people have been Tweeting, DM’ing and emailing me, asking, “Why the balls are you writing fiction? I thought you were supposed to be a TV Writer!”
And this is true. TV writing is what I do for a living.
But fiction is what I do for my sanity.
You see, in television, after writing a first draft of a script and handing it over to The Powers That Be, you then get “notes” — or suggestions to change things. This means you have to take into account the myriad voices of your fellow Writers, your Showrunner(s), the Producers, the Suits, and sometimes even Directors and Actors — often more than 20 different opinions, some of which are absolutely contradictory — and then do a rewrite akin to tip-toeing through a minefield — because it’s your job.
You may hate this. You may think that some of these notes are beyond fucktarded, immaterial, or just downright wrong. You may rant and rave to your friends about how these people don’t see your vision, don’t fully understand your tone, utterly miss your callbacks and metaphors, or dismiss the Easter eggs you’ve hidden for the die-hard fans. But you will still have to make honest attempts to address all those notes — and even find middle ground between the polar opposites. And you know why?
Because it’s your job.
Any Writer who stands on principle (namely, the I’m So Sure I’m Right, I’m Not Touchin’ A Fuckin’ Word Of This Nyah Nyah Nyah Principle) will soon find herself forcibly unemployed.
The sole exception comes only when you’re a Showrunner — in which case you’ll either wind up with the best-show-on-TV (mm, maybe 2% of the time) — or the worst-show-on-TV (98% of the time).
With the latter, you’ll soon find yourself cancelled and forcibly unemployed, because A) your show rimmed goat anus and/or B) you pissed off the wrong Suits — and with the former, you’ll probably suffer miserable relationships with almost every Writer/Producer/Suit/Director/Actor you work with — all of whom will openly rejoice when your best-show-on-TV gets shoved aside for the new best-show-on-TV — and then you’ll be cancelled and forcibly unemployed.
(But, depending on how successful and long-running your best-show-on-TV is, by the time it’s displaced, you might be rich enough to not give a shit.)
However, as a non-Showrunning Writer, even when you’re given notes with which you so strongly disagree that it makes you want to cheese-grate your face off, you will make those changes — because it’s your job.
And as an added bonus? Even that might not be enough.
The Showrunner could come in behind you and change every. single. word. you’ve. written. This has happened to me more than once — not because I think my writing my sucked; not even because he thought my writing sucked; but because he wanted to write it himself. Simple as that. Sometimes you are merely ore for the forge, ego-crushing as that may sound (and is). But you just have to accept that and move on to the next story — because it’s your job.
So did I repeat it and underline it enough? Screenwriting is a job. An awesome job, sure — who wouldn’t want to sit around and write about vampire curses instead of, say, mopping up last night’s puke from a college bar bathroom? — but it’s still a job, nonetheless.
For me, fiction isn’t a job. It’s an outlet, a pressure valve, a way of writing something that may be messy, half-formed, incomprehensible to anyone but you — but it is completely yours and yours alone. The only people you have to listen to are the voices in your head — and perhaps a few trusted critical readers, should you want them — though the beauty of fiction is, your paycheck doesn’t depend on making the changes those readers suggest. (It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t listen to them, just that you don’t have to.) In truth, there’s rarely a paycheck in fiction at all — which, admittedly, is kind of a downside — but if that’s the single downside that keeps you from doing it, then (with all due respect) fuck off and go find your true calling, ’cause guess what? It ain’t writing.
I’ve always compared the two this way:
Fiction is collage. Screenwriting is haiku.
Allow me to expand upon screenwriting in this post, in order to illuminate fiction in my next post.
When writing a script, you must strip away everything that doesn’t need to be there. I mean really need to be there — in order to move the story along — and I mean everything. Dorothy Parker had a lovely turn of phrase for it: “Kill your darlings.” Translated, this means even if you’re utterly in love with something you’ve written — because of its cleverness, or cadence, or symmetry — if it doesn’t serve to advance the story, strip it like a panda does bamboo.
Will the story fall apart if that joke is dropped? No? Then chop it.
Will the story fall apart if your two main characters don’t have two pages of wry sexual tension? No? Chop ’em.
Will the story fall apart if the scene doesn’t have a mariachi band? No? Chop.
Will the story fall apart if you have to get rid of X, Y, and Z in order to comply with a note from one of your (many) bosses? No? Chop, chop, chop.
This doesn’t mean you can’t be funny — as long as the humor reveals something about your characters’ personalities, mindsets, or backgrounds, and helps to explain their motives for actions they take in the story.
Example: Joe the Detective comes from a lower-class background, so he’s always making jokes at rich people’s expenses. He becomes especially witty and snappy when a Rich Man hires him to find the Rich Man’s Lover. Because of Joe’s disdain for rich people, he ignores what he calls “gossip” from a rich person that — had this person been in a lower tax bracket — he might have taken seriously as a clue. Because of his mistake, the Rich Man’s Lover dies. Joe realizes that his reverse-classist attitude has gotten in the way of him doing his job — and resulted in the death of a human being. This realization leads to Joe’s regret and a new perspective, in that he is now willing to look beyond class boundaries in order to be better at his job, and a better man — i.e. though carried along by Joe’s witty bons mots about rich folks, the story is truly about the growth of Joe’s character.
It also doesn’t mean you can’t have long, contemplative moments where characters talk about their feelings — as long as those feelings come into play regarding the actions the characters take in the story.
Example: Sam and Mary have been having trouble in their marriage. Sam is on the edge of having an affair with his Secretary, since he thinks Mary is already having an affair. He and Mary sit down and discuss their feelings. Sam thinks they’re stuck in a hopeless rut: they’ve been married so long, nothing is new anymore — that must be why Mary is having an affair. Mary is upset by Sam’s accusations: she vehemently denies the affair, says he only suspects her because he wants to have an affair. This leads to a horrendous fight, after which he storms off to sleep with the Secretary. However, before he can do the deed, Sam sees how different the Secretary is from Mary (not in a pleasant way), leading him to realize that “new” doesn’t always mean “better,” and he bails at the last moment to return to Mary… only to find that she’s already left him — for the lover she denied having in the first place. Thus, in the beginning, Mary is the “good” one, and Sam is the “bad” one — but Sam realizes the truth when their marriage comes to a crisis point. — i.e. the discussion of Sam and Mary’s feelings, compared to the actions they take, reveals their true characters.
While both those examples are off the top of my head and, frankly, rather sucktastic, they still get my point across.
Because did you pick up the key word in each of them?
Both stories — while ostensibly about classism and fidelity — are really about the growth and change of characters.
Stories don’t realize, don’t change, don’t grow.
Only characters do.
Character and story. These are the only two things — aside from what I call “architecture” (or how a Writer chooses to structure a script, which is a topic all on its own) — that aspiring screenwriters need to think about. And most beginning screenwriters get the causal chain ass-backwards at first. They think if they just come up with a good “story,” then all they have to do is add in some characters and they’re off to the races.
In my opinion, however, all they’re really coming up with is an idea and some architecture — A happens, then B happens, then C happens — since “story” truly and always derives from character. Look at “Inception” — great idea, great architecture — but also a great CHARACTER, whose motives inform the actions he takes, and thus the path of the story.
The indisputable truth?
CHARACTER DICTATES STORY.
STORY DOES NOT DICTATE CHARACTER.
Come at it the other way ’round, and I guarantee something will feel hollow to you. And that “something” will be the characters you struggle to identify with. Because that’s all stories are, really — even back to the first cavemen telling I-caught-a-mammoth-THIS-big stories; they are conduits through which we identify with other humans. And as we identify, we feel part of the tribe: included, wanted. But if those characters feel hollow or unbelievable, we can’t identify; we can’t fully feel ourselves in them, which makes us feel disconnected, cut off. And we humans don’t like that. On an instinctive level.
Think about “Rescue Me”. Could you do a show about a firehouse after 9/11? Sure you could. There’s all kindsa drama there. But would it be the same show — with the same audience investment — if the Tommy Gavin character wasn’t so emotionally tortured and fucked up? No. The character’s emotional dysfunction (in other words, the character’s character) provides him with motive to act in fucked-up ways — which then leads to stories.
So you see, there are many rules governing screenwriting — just like haiku. That doesn’t mean you can’t accomplish something beautiful in it; I think most people would agree that haiku is all the more beautiful for its sparseness, its adherence to form, the necessity of conveying so much emotional force in such a small package.
Good screenwriting must do the same. Distill the story’s energy into its simplest expression. And that’s not to say “simplest” in the sense of “with the fewest actors,” or “with no special effects” or “not moving the camera” — good god, the entire film industry would collapse. I would only point to some critical reviews (you’ve all read them) that describe a TV show or movie as “rambling,” “meandering,” “pointless,” and a whole host of other adjectives that all mean the same thing: “undistilled.”
Whatever story the Writer was trying to tell somehow got lost in a muddle of extraneous shit.
Haiku strips away the extraneous to reveal its barest essence: a connection between storyteller and audience.
Good screenwriting is the same.
In the next few days (between a few meetings I’m taking), we’ll start talking about fiction.