Tuesday, September 15, 2020

Putting Story Outcomes in Doubt - Thoughts on evening the odds to keep readers hooked

In fiction, adversity reveals character. Nothing is more tedious then a story where the protagonist isn’t challenged and isn’t forced to change.

Yet, lots of beginning writers pull their punches. They like their main characters too much to hurt them. This is why I often congratulate writers when they get tough and create real losses. No pain, no gain in the realm of fiction.

So, I was surprised when I read a piece where circumstances tortured a character. He was beaten in every encounter, and his life became more hopeless with every scene. He was completely a victim. And that, it turns out, is as tedious as having a protagonist who always wins.

Perhaps there are readers who don’t react as I do. I know that I am much more of a fan of a ball game where the lead keeps changing and the outcome is in doubt right up to the end. My father, on the other hand, loved it when his team crushed its adversary.

I'm guessing—based on what succeeds commercially—that a story with a fair fight is what most readers and audiences prefer. We want to worry for our protagonists and we want to see them grow.

This doesn't mean that it's a mistake to have most scenes end with the protagonist in worse shape. But power shifts—even if a character goes from advantage to better advantage or disadvantage to worse disadvantage—can be engaging and revealing. Generally, I tried to have three to five power shifts per scene. And, until the very end, I like the protagonist to find that both failure and success worsens his or her problem.

This does not rule out David and Goliath fights. The odds don’t need to be even, but it’s helpful if the little guy has a chance. If you give your protagonist a slingshot to fight the monster, at least he or she is armed. And it's OK to have the rock miss its target. It makes for a stronger story if the outcome is in doubt. Giving readers and audiences reasons for hope (even if it ends up being dashed), can keep people interested in the battle. If they worry about the protagonist, they’ll hang around to see what happens next.

As for the revealing part… a heroes can fail and keep their dignity. Their attempts can show intelligence and creativity. If they fail because they won’t cross lines of virtue, they have shown their true selves in ways that engender empathy and affection. And if they don’t give up even as they suffer, we recognize something special— courage.

If there is a happy ending and a villain, there is likely to be creative humiliation of the character who has been a thorn in the protagonist side throughout the story. This can nail down the lesson and delight the audience our readers. But there is a danger.

It’s usually a bad idea to have the protagonist revel in the adversary’s defeat. Cruelty is not attractive. To have a character you side with turn out to be a bully makes for an uncomfortable ending. In fact, a kind gesture toward the villain at the end often proves the merit of the main character. It justifies all of the investment in time and emotion, which is satisfying.

This is not to say that it’s impossible to write an excellent story that isn’t a fair fight (though it would be tough to pull off commercially). As I was thinking about this, I thought of how Ferris Bueller goes from victory to victory in Ferris Bueller's Day off. Is it just wish fulfillment? Was the movie aimed at people like my dad who love overwhelming successes? I don’t think so. The character I worry about is Ferris’s friend, Cameron. Even as Ferris wins, I’m on edge about the doom Cameron seems to face. For all the fun Ferris has, I stay engaged because Cameron is suffering, because his well-being is at risk.

Tuesday, September 8, 2020

Reading Aloud - Making your stories better by listening to them

Your ears are tuned to language. They pick up errors every time you open your mouth, which is why deafness (which reduces self-correction) often leads to difficulty articulating. They are sensitive to the nuances of dialogue, which is why, high school students who may not be great at copying how teachers sound can still imitate their phrasing and idioms well enough to draw laughs. They are affected by rhythms, rhymes and beats, which is why a forced line in a lyric or poem can be so irksome. They are experienced in following stories and raising questions about stories, which is why bedtime stories can last a lot longer than it takes to read what’s on the page.

For me, hearing typos makes them stand out. This is embarrassingly true when (as has happened to me) a friend chooses to read your work out loud at a get-together. But you don’t need a friend to test your work. Your computer (whether Apple or PC) has a text-to-speech function that does a good enough job. I’ve found better than 80 percent of the typos that have escaped my eye (and automated editors) are found by having my computer read the work to me.

Text-to-speech can also reveal awkward phrasing and make important omissions more apparent, but reading aloud is more effective to me. Whenever I read a finished scene, chapter, or short story, the excess bits and missing bits stand out. I think this has to do with listening to stories as a child and in audio. The unnecessary sequences make me restless. The omissions raise questions.

It may be more than just ears that are involved. There’s a recontextualization happening that helps what’s actually there (instead of what’s intended) stand out. I have friends who always put their manuscripts into a different font as a way to see them with fresh eyes. But for me, fresh ears carry the day.

Reading dialogue out loud picks up tongue-twisters (the work of the tongue, not the ears), but, if you read through each character’s dialogue independently, it’s usually evident that some lines sound more like the author than the character. (A speech is essentially a monologue. It needs to have one, consistent voice, and that’s why it’s easy to pick out the speechwriter’s own words in a defective speech.)

The poetry of language is a delight, and, if you let it, they opportunities will declare themselves with a reading. Repetition, alliteration, changes in sentence length, paragraph breaks, and more will fight to replace stodgy prose. Flow, varied cadence, and even just the right words are waiting to be revealed like Michelangelo’s form looking to escape from the marble block.

Humor, other than revealing needed punctation, may be hurt by repeated reading. Even a good joke can sound lame over time. So protect what drew a laugh by tolerating its diminishing power.

Reading aloud is also a great way to discover and develop your own unique voice as a writer. When you talk, it comes out naturally. When you write, a dozen English teachers reshape it. But when you make the effort to return to speech, the English teachers, over time, are driven away to leave what’s special.

The biggest test of text that puts ears to work is listening to an actor read the work. Every wonderful thing will stand out. Every bit that needs improvement becomes nails scratching at a blackboard.

One more thing. The ear can be trained. I think listening to poems being read (and learning about how techniques of poetry work their magic) makes the ears better writing partners. Hearing different actors read the same classic lines can help, too. Whatever your ears reveal in someone else’s work is halfway in your possession. To own it fully, use what you’ve learned. And enjoy the results when the full work is finished, and it’s time for you to read it aloud.

Saturday, September 5, 2020

Adaptation 2 - Thoughts on book to movie, movie to play, and this to that

Last time, I wrote about all the stories and songs coming into the Public Domain and free for you to adapt. Earlier, I compared the strengths and weakness of different forms (prose, film, fiction podcast, poetry/lyrics, and stage). There’s a lot to chew on there, but I suspect most people can connect the dots. So, rather than write how-tos for each adaptation, I’ll just offer some notes (opinions, experiences, reflections) and examples, as needed. I’ll go from what I see as the biggest opportunities (based on landing the gig and impact of the work) to ones that may be more specialized.

Notes: 1 - Animation (musical films and Broadway musicals) and comics (tentpole films) have had an outsized cultural influence in the last twenty-five years. Blockbusters provide a route for very few (those with credentials or power) to reach audiences and readers. On the other hand, who’s to say animation and comics coming into the public domain won’t hit the same notes without battles with Disney and Marvel.? 2-  I’m not an expert on all of these areas. I doubt anyone is. So take my observations with a grain of salt (or leave a comment).

Fiction Podcast (or Radio Theater) to TV
-Opportunity Medium-High
-Art High

This is the path many legendary TV shows (Gunsmoke, I Love Lucy) took. And it seems to be repeating itself (Welcome to Nightvale, Limetown). Making a fiction podcast is less expensive than making a movie or a stage play. And you don’t need bestseller sized audiences to attract producers and agents. These professionals seem to be inviting the creators in. The trick is finding a way to attract even a moderate audience amid all the competition. Still, there is already wonderful work around in fiction podcast, even though (in the US) there was a decades-long hiatus. Some are even eschewing the old-time approaches to produce work that is truly new. And it’s just getting started.

Now… adapting Public Domain radio shows may need to wait a little bit. Radio drama did not really get its start until 1923, and this year’s Public Domain Day is for the year 1924  Wait a few years before some of the really great old radio dramas appear.

Prose to Fiction Podcast (or Radio Theater)
-Opportunity High
-Art High

Highly doable. And it can be great. Proof: Mercury Theater’s (Orson Welles’s) adaptation of War of the Worlds.

Prose to Stage
-Opportunity Medium-Low
-Art Very High

Prose being turned into plays has a long (and successful) history:

Of the top 10 grossing non-musicals, see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, War Horse, To Kill a Mockingbird, and arguably Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Recent Tony Winners from prose  are The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, War Horse, and  Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.

Of the top 10 grossing musicals, see Wicked, The Phantom of the Opera, Beauty and the Beast
(indirectly), Chicago (indirectly), and Les Miserables. Recent Tony Winners from prose are Hamilton, Fun Home, and A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder.

I think there are great opportunities in the books and short stories that are already available in terms of using them to create works for the theater. The trouble is breaking in. In general, this requires being part of a theater community.

I live in the New York area, so the barrier is low, and you can even end up with industry people in your audience. Chicago, Toronto, and London are good theater cities, too. There are other cities like Edinburgh (which specializes in “fringe” work) and non-English language cities (Athens, Tokyo). And there seem to be “live” online venues emerging, thanks to the pandemic.

If you can become part of a community, my advice would be to look for Public Domain prose works where dialogue is a major strength and the story is simple enough for a one-act play. One-acts in small theaters provide laboratories for learning, finding collaborators, and building credentials. (Then be ready to jump when someone asks for a full-length work.)

Prose (Novel, Novella, Short Story) to Film-Opportunity Medium
-Art Medium

I’ve been told that there was a time when Hollywood would see the galleys of a promising book before the author did. Something similar may still be true for comics, but I doubt reading-averse Hollywood cares now until readers validate the work.

So… the advantage is the many of the Public Domain works are already validated. Admittedly, those readers are mostly dead, but the titles and names of authors might have lived on. It has to be a work that has cinematic potential, in story and action. (I’d look at novellas first.) Think in terms of updating the story for our times. Oh, and move quickly. Someone else may be looking at the same works.

Stage to Film
-Opportunity Medium-Low
-Art Medium

Talkies created a great migration of writers from Broadway to Hollywood because of the need for dialogue. A lot of beloved works came from these writers, sometimes as their plays (The Front Page) became films with few changes.

Considering opportunities in the Public Domain, begin by abandoning musicals. Few had stories that were much more than excuses for the songs. (The stories in Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers films provide a good approximation of what writers could get away with.) My understanding is the Broadway Musical changed with Oklahoma! Since then, audiences expect more in terms of story.

But there may be treasure in the non-musicals. It takes more imagination to see the opportunities for cinema in a stage script, but they are there. If this catches your interest, learn from the best. Study how the action and visuals implied by Shakespeare made it into the best adaptations of his work. Then find your own Shakespeares of the 20s. 

Film to Stage
-Opportunity Low
-Art Medium

For today’s work, this mostly involves big budget, and it’s much more likely that going to the stage will include adding music (unless, as with the animations, it’s already there).

The main concern on Public Domain is dialogue wasn’t a part of film yet (The Jazz Singer came out in 1927), and most plays are dialogue rich. Even if the story could be easily adapted, using a silent as a selling point doesn’t confer much advantage.

Poetry (or Lyrics) to Stage
-Opportunity Medium
-Art High

Cats stands out as an unusual case of success. And I saw a brilliant stage adaptation of The Illiad. But even though there list of examples runs out fast, poetry and lyrics fit the stage nicely, since speech is dominant. Story is the sticking point. Were there any magical narrative poems written in the 20s? I don’t know, but it might be worthwhile to check.

I suspect there are great possibilities with lyrics. In the 20s, Tin Pan Alley was alive and well, with wit, personality, and innumerable innovative cultural mixes. So, find a song that tells a story and can be delivered to today’s listeners, and that’ll be a good start toward a story. The selling point becomes the catchy song. The tough part is growing a story from that tiny seed.

Film to Prose
-Opportunity Low
-Art Low

These are called novelizations. Today, they come to writers through agents. And they almost always result in clearly derivative, second-rate work. One exception I know of… Isaac Asimov once was asked what he thought about how Hollywood had turned his novel, Fantastic Voyage, into such a mediocre film. He immediately said, “I turned a mediocre film into a good book.”

TV to Prose
-Opportunity Low
-Art Low

What happens here, even today, is even worse than what happens when films are novelized. (I’m sure there are exceptions.) And there are no 20s TV shows waiting for adaptation.

Film to Music
-Opportunity Low
-Art High

The songs are made to push the movies, but some wonderful songs by some marvelous composers/lyricists have been created. The gigs go to people with track records.

With that in mind, it may be that watching Harold Lloyd or Mary Pickford do their work in silent films could inspire some songs worth hearing, especially if a contemporary angle could be explored. It would be fun to give it a try.

Film or TV to Fiction Podcast (or Radio Theater)-Opportunity Low
-Art High

Okay the Public Domain opportunities for TV won’t be around for decades. There are films to adapt, but they are silent. (Post-1940 films, mostly series like Henry Aldrich and Captain Midnight, were adapted from radio dramas.) With that said, some of the TV shows (Have Gun Will Travel) and films (Star Wars) adapted have been good. 

Poetry (or Lyrics) to TV-Opportunity Low
-Art Low

I'm not aware of this happening, other than television events based on epic poems. It might work.

TV to Poetry (or Lyrics)
-Opportunity Low
-Art Low

Okay, I’ll admit some good songs have come from TV shows (but not by people without contacts and credentials). But, again, there were no TV shows in the 20s.

Stage to Poetry (or Lyrics)
-Opportunity Low
-Art Low

Musicals come with their own songs, of course. I’m not sure that a stage play has inspired verse or original songs.

By design, this post ends with what seem to be not adaptation possibilities, but impossibilities. But I'm happy to be proven wrong. Creating a rap musical based on Chernow's biography (over 800 pages) of Alexander Hamilton drew skepticism and laughter. Be the genius that shows the way.

Friday, August 28, 2020

Adaptation 1 -- Stories from the 1920s that could be yours

I was a kid who read credits. I remember asking my Dad about the letters after people’s names. Happily, since he worked in radio and avidly read Broadcasting, he knew arcane facts, like ACE stands for American Cinema Editors.

But all by myself, I figured out what “based on” meant. It meant the show would have a good story. Most of the time. Eventually, I figured out the film or TV show came from another medium — a short story, a magazine article, a Broadway play, or a novel.

I leaned in when I saw those words in the credits, and, usually, the promise was fulfilled. Adaptations suggest the story has already proven itself and it’s being given a second chance. Consider these films:
Casablanca (from the play Everybody Comes to Rick’s)
Gone With the Wind (novel)
The Wizard of Oz (novel)
Lawrence of Arabia (biography Seven Pillars of Wisdom)
The Godfather (novel)
Dr. Strangelove (the novel Red Alert)
Apocalypse Now (the novella Heart of Darkness)

or, more recently…

There Will Be Blood (the novel Oil!)
Lord of the Rings (novel)
Brokeback Mountain (short story)

It’s worth remembering Star Trek films came from TV and James Bond films come from novels. Along with many, many comic books.

Traditionally, TV has grabbed ideas from films and even been created based on films. Fargo, Fame, Alice, Bates Motel. Game of Thrones (from the novels) and, again, untold adaptations of comic books, are worth mentioning.

I bring this up because a flood of material has come out of copyright recently . It used to be that every year provided material, but changes in the law created a huge store of titles in film, books, articles, songs, and more. In sheer numbers, the works released into the public domain in 2019 exceeded any past year in my life. 2020 created another haul, and the river won’t run dry for decades.  (Duke University has posted 2019 and 2020 Public Domain Day pages with lots of examples.)

I hope you find this exciting. Celebrate, but proceed with caution. Probably the most familiar adage (regarding film adaptation) is, “It wasn’t as good as the book.” Adaptation isn’t easy.

The safest bet is probably simply to remake an old movie close to what already succeeded (but with new technology and today’s actors), but that’s not really adaptation. And it is unlikely to benefit from a fresh perspective. The social reason for the public domain is to invite a new generation to reinterpret great works and bring them new life. Look at what artists have done over the years to provide new perspectives on Shakespeare. Aim high. Think West Side Story.

Faced with the riches of the past, it might be hard to choose which projects to explore. My advice is to find the ones that were meant for you:
    •    your truth - authentic observations you recognize
    •    your questions - exciting you to dig deeper
    •    your themes - what they reveal about the human condition that feels honest and important

Or, they might have pieces missing that you can provide by:
    •    interrogating them through today’s lens
    •    excavating the text and identifying the undercurrents
    •    identifying something you want to push against and challenge
    •    recognizing scenes that call for new techniques or technologies
    •    reacting to contrasts and tensions between our times and theirs

Once you make it personal, do you keep it in the same medium? Or take it somewhere else?
That will be the subject of next week’s post.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Character Relationships — Showing human connection through fiction

Evidence is building that fiction can build empathy and give people the tools to be kinder and more understanding. By connecting with characters, we can become better able to connect with each other.

My two previous posts inevitably led me to exploring this further, so I’ll provide a list that follows their pattern of analysis:

Novels as research has shown, get you into the head of another person. You are connecting with what another person cares about, how they think, how they suffer, how they are moved, and their world views. It is a connection between the reader and the character that can be intimate, immediate, and surprising. Characters lead us to conclude that other people think like us (theory of mind)… and that they may think very differently from us.

In addition, because of the storytelling of a novel, the thoughts and feelings come within a context. With a good story, we are worried about the character and partner with them in pursuit of a goal. We can reflect on what characters do and what goes on in their heads in relation to a narrative that may parallel narratives in our own lives. We get more than data and facts. We get experience endowed with meaning.

One more thing: When we read a novel we become co-creators. We have skin in the game, and every image, every sound, and every gesture is personalized by our imaginations.

What novels have trouble with is presenting both sides of the story. Even something as simple as alternating chapters between the hero and the heroine in a love story runs into the problem of loss of intimacy. Our brains need to switch perspectives, breaking connections. This is most obvious when authors dare to switch points of view within scenes. Such “head hopping” is a sure way to distance readers and destroy intimacy.

Theater works relationships from the outside. We become witnesses, and it’s often the case that, even if we takes sides in a conflict, we see both points of view. The interaction emulates the action and dialogue of real life, so we can be comfortable in being drawn into wooing, arguments, caresses, and fistfights. They happen right in front of us, and it can feel as authentic as overheard conversations and street brawls.

Theater can also shift to scenes to feature different characters. When these are done elegantly, it’s less abrupt than transitions in novels because the work of shifting gears is done by the actors (and the direction). And, of course, it’s less of a challenge to be a witness than it is to be a co-creator who has all the responsibilities of the reader of a novel.

There is even the opportunity for deliberation that parallels that in novels. Asides and full-fledge monologues can allow characters to share their most intimate thoughts. I’m not sure it reaches the level of intimacy of reading the thoughts of a character in a novel. But a good actor can make it feel as genuine and affecting as a heart-to-heart with a close friend or a lover.

A note on the actors craft. The best actors inhabit the characters with immediacy, intonation, body language, pacing, and action. That in itself is compelling. But they also add listening. Obviously, they pay attention to all that their fellow actors offer, but they also are present to audiences. Can art be intimate and communal at the same time? I think so. In a theater, you can feel as if the play is being performed just for you at the same time as you are aware of and responding to the audience around you. This s most obvious with humor, but it can also be just as powerful during the most delicate and personal moments of a scene in a drama.

TV does not put real people in front of you. A phone call requires more of us in terms of presence. But, like theater, it allows us to witness dialogue, action and (more limited) body language. It also can slice time, change perspective, and give us locales that are impossible for theater. What it gives us more powerfully than any other medium is faces. Close-ups were invented in film, but TV allows us to see human expressions as clearly and directly as we do when we talk with friends. It’s why, despite the many disadvantages TV has compared to novels and theater, Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty is such an amazing work of art. TV may not have the co-creation of a novel or the presence of theater, but it allows a level of realism no other medium can match.

As with theater, this can mean both sides of a relationship can be treated fairly. We can get to know and struggle with all the characters in The Wire, and experience their personal justifications for choice that reveal their values in a compressed way, without it feeling artificial.

Film has close-ups, of course, but they are huge and nothing like people across the dinner table. But, like theater, we can see bodies in relation to each other. The nonverbal communication that can touch us so deeply is available on the screen. Though there’s an artificiality to our being small by comparison, we are, in a way, forced the the size of the images and the intensity of the sound to be present. Not it the same way as theater, but in a valid, involving way.

There is another aspect to witnessing relationships in film. It is, perhaps, the best medium for irony. See anything by Hitchcock. See especially silent film comedies. What is going on around key characters, including things they don’t notice can be obvious to us. While irony can be used in any medium, film makes it easiest to present the protagonist’s view and the larger, more objective view simultaneously.

For both TV and film, voice-over and monologues can be put to use, but it’s rare that these are as engaging as reflection in a novel or the equivalents in theater.

Fiction podcasts encourage co-creation. Arguably, they have the potential to reach nearly the same levels of  building empathy and giving people the tools to be kinder and more understanding as novels. We have a lot of skin in the game. This is especially true in longer stories in which people can become immersed. A forty-minute episode might not compare to a novel, but binge-listening to a fiction podcast series, investing in imagining the world and its characters, can provide a powerful, intimate experience.

Good voice acting, sound design, and music can direct and prompt our imaginations in ways that are unique to this medium. So there is an odd hybrid of limited intimacy (without much reflection) with witnessing (with nothing to see). 

Poems are wonderful at providing insights and experiences, but has a difficult time with presenting relationships. However, poems provide powerful triggers that can recall and recast our own experiences. I think this is how stories about relationships in songs have the kind of impact they do. They provide enchanting cues that reveal our lives and what we’ve learned.

Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of each form of storytelling broadens your choices as author. But what about moving from one form to another? Adaptation can be a disaster (the book was better) or a delight. Next time, I’ll offer some thoughts and advice on telling stories in more than one way.

Saturday, August 1, 2020

Is It a Novel, a Script, or a Poem? Thoughts on where your story belongs 2

Last week, I reviewed some of the advantages and disadvantages of different story forms. This time I’ll provide some rules of thumb to help you place your story. (I’ll save thoughts on adaptation for two weeks from now because this week’s post is extensive and naturally leads to another post.)

There are brilliant exceptions, but as a rules of thumb, here are my suggestions.

For a story with an excellent, simple plot:

Film is a good choice if you could convey the whole story in about two typed pages and get people to say “wow.” The Shawshank Redemption and The Postman Always Rings Twice are based on novellas that, for all the turns, have strong causal chains and lead to what feels inevitable.

TV and fiction podcasts, especially as limited series, can also do this if cliffhangers come equally spaced in time so the episodes encourage audiences to return.

Theater can make this work and certainly benefits from a strong plot, but you know it won’t be a long-running play because it’s not enough. Unless it’s a musical or very funny.

Poems like The Tale of the Ancient Mariner and storytelling songs can make this work. The former is rare. The latter is less rare and a treat when done well.

Novels are apt to feel bloated if this is all they have going for them. Something else, like humor or erotica, needs to be added to make it work.

For a story with a detailed puzzle, world building, or lots of complexity:
Novels are a sure bet. Many people who read novels love to participate by looking for clues or engaging their imaginations to fill in the details of unknown worlds.

Films adapted from such novels can work, but it’s difficult to get a standalone script produced with these elements. Puzzles that are complicated tend to feel too intellectual in a script and demand a lot effort from studio readers. Well-built worlds need a lot of description, making a script look dense. White space rules with scripts. The exception for this is when the writer has another role (e.g., producer or director). The Terminator and The Matrix are good examples of this.

Poetry already tends to be a puzzle, just in terms of the language and the allusions. It’s very rare that adding another level of complexity works well.

Fiction podcasts, with only sound to hold onto and no chance of reviewing clues, is not a great venue for complex puzzles. It can be good for world building, but the world needs to be built bit by bit. Too much too fast will overwhelm listeners.

Generally, this does not work well in theater. A play like A Midsummer Night’s Dream is one exception, though I’ve seen more mediocre and bad versions of that than of anything else by Shakespeare.

TV can make this work, but only in a long form like Breaking Bad or American Horror Story. Episodic TV struggles with complexity.

For a story that relies on spectacle and visuals for (emotional) payoff:
Film has thrived with these from the very beginning. The wows need to be bigger than trains coming into stations or fires being put out (two audience pleasers in the early days), but people still love rollercoaster stories with plenty of special effects. Camera games (creative editing, 3-D, split screens) can excite audiences, and the spectacle of ingenious sound effects can also enhance box office receipts.

Not all visuals are the result of special effects. A John Ford western takes advantage of exciting locations, composition, focus, and framing to thrill and audience. And, of course, any story that can be told almost entirely by images alone is great for film.

TV is likely to come up short when it comes to spectacle and visuals. How many times have you watched a film you loved at a movie theater, only to be disappointed when you saw it on TV? Leaning heavily on the songs, I think music videos did this from time to time. For my money, Jim Henson’s Storyteller took visuals to their highest point for a TV series. I haven’t seen anything else that comes close.

Fiction podcasts actually create wonderful visuals in audience imaginations. Think Orson Welles’s adaptation of War of the Worlds. Novels can do this, too. Both have lots of potential (and low costs) for big visual payoffs, but they depend on the craftsmanship of someone like Tolkien and the participation of audiences and readers.

Poetry can create fireworks and thrills. I think The Odyssey proves that. But this requires really holding reader attention with longer works and miraculous talent for shorter ones.

Theater does this at a smaller scale, with what are essentially magic tricks. And there can be tricky sets. The only thing I really liked about The Year of Magical Thinking when I saw it on Broadway was what they did with the floorboards. Often, attempts at spectacle, as with Spider-man Turn Off the Dark, feels off and distracting.

For a story where language and wordplay are an essential component:
Poetry leads here, if there is story going on. But poetry often eschews story.

Theater has audiences that look for this. They listen closely to enhanced language, giving it the attention it deserves and suspending enough disbelief to stay in the stories.

Film can do this. Think of Quint’s monologue in Jaws. Or Blake’s speech in Glengarry Glen Ross (which was from the play, but brilliantly performed in the movie by Alec Baldwin). Films usually don’t even attempt it because it (mostly) stops the camera. Long periods of listening are actively avoided in film (unless a play is being adapted).

TV actually loves language. It hangs onto its roots in radio. Golden Age shows like Rod Serling’s Patterns and Paddy Chayefsky’s Marty provide naturalistic dialogue that hits the sweet spot between what belongs on the stage and what belongs on the silver screen. You can get away with more in terms of characters conversing on TV than anywhere else. The West Wing is a great example (though, for Sorkin, I like Sports Night above everything else).

Fiction podcasts can do this well. Dialogues and monologues are built to engage the ear, after all.

For a story focused on one character or when the heart of the story is the relationships between characters:

So much to say! Too much for me to explore properly here, so it will be next week’s post.

In the meantime, even though I’ve asserted rather than prove points above, I hope my musing provide some guidance as to what to do with that story that’s in your head.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Is It a Novel, a Script, or a Poem? Thoughts on where your story belongs

It’s a cliche that readers will say of a movie, “the book was better.” That’s not surprising. A good book takes you inside the characters like a movie never could. It immerses you in a world for days (or weeks, if you read at may speed) instead of a couple of hours. And, provided you have a developed imagination, the images you see will be vibrant and memorable in a good book.

Of course, there are exceptions. I’ve read most of Philip K. Dick’s novels and many of his short stories, but I prefer the movies Bladerunner and Minority Report to the Dick’s texts. The Godfather movies (I&II) are classic. The book, not so much. Jaws the movie is much better than Benchley’s book. Did working on the script give him a second chance? Was it cowriter Gottlieb or director Spielberg? Or was the material more cinematic?

On Jaws, I’d go for the last. Getting into the characters’s heads directly (a strength of books) wasn’t helpful in a story where external conflicts and their development through the plot are so powerful. And visually rich.

I’m pondering these because I have just been part of Zoom sessions looking at the strengths and weakness of novels, films, poems, fiction podcasts (radio theater), stage plays, and television (or Web series). The discussions were wonderfully free range, with opinions, advice, and examples. As it happens, I’ve worked in all these areas, and that includes some adaptation. One short story of mine became a stage play and then was optioned for a film. So I’ll take what I heard, mix it with my own experiences, and present it here. You may want to add a grain of salt.

For me, while movies can be dialogue rich and require few visuals, they provide a great way to tell stories that feature images. A test I put all my film scripts through is imagining how they might be presented as silent movies. The power is most evident when forcing attention or perspective. Some of the most memorable movie moments for me were where I wanted to look away and couldn’t (e.g., moments in Aliens, On the Waterfront, and The Untouchables). In addition to taking people out of their comfort zones, movies can guide you through wonderful but uncanny dreams, like Big Fish.

Perhaps the signature moment of directorial power is the close up. With the right actor and the right moment, the intimacy can be overwhelming. But pacing and energy can be driven, too, through camera movement and editing (fast or languid). Spectacle (which is often outside of story values, but still entertaining) represent another case of leveraging the visual for entertaining films. Set pieces such as explosions and big monsters have their place. All of these, by the way, may or may not be in the hands of the writer. (There are some ways, for instance, to suggest a close-up without insulting the director by calling for it in the script.)

(Comics are not an area of expertise for me, but I suspect they are much like movies. Before I could read, I pored through the Sunday comics. I loved that Ferd’nand told stories with no words at all, but I got more out of Lil’ Abner and Prince Valiant, where I was forced to invent my own stories.)

This is not to say that dialogue (along with things usually beyond the writer, like music) isn’t of major importance to some of the best films made. But dialogue, at this point is more important in television (with roots in radio and small screens) so far.

Stage plays absolutely rely on dialogue. However, more than with films and tv, stage dialogue is often stylized. So stories that take advantage of the rhythms and sounds within dialogue to make language into a kind of emotional music may fit best on the stage.

Of course, poetry, except as it sits on the page (e.g., with e e cummings), is about word choice, rhythm, and sounds. In my experience, the richest poetry not only invites repeated readings (including reading out loud), but requires it for fuller understanding. Often, poetry does not tell a story, but epic poems, like the Iliad, have become cornerstones of culture and invite performance and memorization. Poetry is a difficult form, but its close cousin, song lyrics is worth exploring. For storytellers who might not recognize the opportunities, I recommend traditional folk songs and country music. Note how effectively Breaking Bad used Marty Robbins’s “El Paso” (also, “Felina”) to place a story within a story.

Next week, I’ll provide some rough rules of thumb for choosing how to tell your story. Also, some thoughts on adaptation.