Award-winning author and filmmaker Shandi Mitchell shares the complexities of mastering two very different—both difficult—forms of writing
Writing a novel feels like being inside the sea, surrounded by infinite possibility. To comprehend the whole, one must reach the surface. Writing a screenplay feels like being on the ocean’s surface. To see the whole, one must ascertain the depths.
These very different mediums share elements of plot, character, narrative, dialogue and setting—but the construction of the forms and how the writing palette is used bears little similarity. Fiction writing allows me to explore characters’ internal experiences. I put on their skins and touch their worlds. Screenwriting is behavioral storytelling. I watch characters and their actions to understand their inner lives.
In film, I establish a character with visual shorthand using the camera. The viewer is an observer writing the narrative with me.
INTERIOR. HALFWAY HOUSE. DAY.
Albert sits in his recliner. Heavy curtains smother the noon light; empty pill bottles line the windowsill; on television, the weather channel plays endlessly on mute.
In fiction, my palette consists only of words. I must leave the story open enough for the reader to invoke the visuals with me.
Albert’s fingers traced the burnished armrests of the naugahyde recliner, which had long stopped reclining. Albert had not taken his pills. He was waiting for her. At promptly ten minutes after the hour, she would appear, haloed by the weather map. She was never late.
When I write a description in a screenplay my research is often a sketch. Teams of experts do the historical research and gather the costumes, props, locations, vehicles and sets to make it a visual reality. As a novelist, I am responsible for the research and choosing the precise descriptions to infer an entire fictional world. In a script, I can write It’s raining and an FX team makes it rain. In prose, I need to find words to describe the rain and how it feels on bare arms.
In a novel, I expand outward tying together multiple characters, sub-plots and storylines to allow the theme to reveal itself. In a screenplay, I follow a distinct line dictated by time. Most films can be mapped to the minute and page as to when events will happen. Within this rigid frame, I must work inward from plot and action to shape character and theme.
As screenwriter, I must evaluate whether a script idea is financially feasible. Can a script with seventeen locations, spanning five countries, with forty-eight characters, during WW1… ever be made? Or do I write a story with two actors and existing locations that I can secure for free? As a novelist, I’m free to create any world I can imagine. There is nothing between the page and me.
Film is a collective experience. For a script to be shot, many need to say yes: producers, funders, distributors, broadcasters and cast. And everyone, regardless of qualifications, will have an opinion as to how to make the story better, more commercial or more marketable. Unless you are also the director, once the screenplay is delivered, the writer is often expendable.
The fiction world can seem gentler. If a publisher is found, the editor becomes the sole voice that guides the writer and the story. There is great respect for the written word and creative ownership. Success or failure belongs to the writer. In film, the writer is expected to give up creative ownership and can be paid handsomely to do so. The screenplay is a product. This can be harrowing if the writer wrote a small work of art and is now being told to turn it into an action-adventure with vampires. If it fails, it will be the writer’s fault. If it succeeds it will be the director’s, actors’, and producers’ success.
Both forms of writing are hard. Really hard. Each brings its own raptures and sorrows. Both demand your heart and soul. Both push you to question your sanity, neglect family and friends and consume years of your life. Perfection can’t be attained. Rarely is there profit or glory. But sometimes, there is a near perfect sentence, or a character startles you, or an image splits your heart open—and then you can’t imagine not writing.
This article was originally published in the Fall 2012 issue of Atlantic Books Today