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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog


-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Choosing a Medium, Well Done

I have a feeling that title will be more clever than this post, but anyway...

I've been a little slow at posting lately (been busy), and I apologize, but I did want to fulfill a promise I teased last week some time. How to determine the correct medium in which to tell your story. No, I'm not talking about Whoopie Goldberg in Ghost vs. a t-shirt that ain't that big. I'm gonna address the big four forms in the lit world (in no particular order): film, TV, stage, and book.

One error I see a lot in amateur scripts is that despite the fact that they are film scripts, they don't feel like films. There are clearly many potential reasons for this. But often it stems from a lack of understanding of what makes a film a film. It's not just that it will be seen on a large screen (though with the increasing importance of the DVD market, even this is becoming less the case). Different types of stories -- and more importantly, different types of storytelling -- work better in the different media. And while film might prove highly lucrative, if your story is better suited to a different medium, it will never succeed as a film (or if it will, you or someone else will need to make major alterations to the way in which it is told).

(By the way, I'd like to mention that I'm focusing primarily on fictional tales here. Frequently, the same non-fiction subjects can be explored in much the same manner in a documentary film, a non-fiction book, and a TV documentary or news program. I have yet to see a documentary play, however.)

Film, by its nature is a visual medium. We all know the famous exhortation that in film we should "show, don't tell." Now of course there will be those who will chime in with, "What about My Dinner with Andre or the bulk of Neil Labute's career?" Well, first off I'll say that I'm focused primarily on mainstream films, rather than experimental indies, such as the former Malle/Gregory/Shawn classic. I'll also say that the talking-much-but-saying-nothing is what I most dislike about Labute's work. His stuff would probably work great in the theater world from which he came, but I think they represent rather poor examples of films, for this exact reason. Where I was intrigued by Andre's subject matter within its conversations, I never felt this way watching a Labute film. Hey, maybe I'm just too boorish to catch some of his subtle subtext or something, but to me his stuff belongs on the stage. Why?

Because stage plays by their very nature create a sense of intimacy, and because they are built on a specific lack of action. In fact, this stems at least in part (I think) from that snarky comment I made earlier. No stage documentaries. When we watch anything on a screen in either a filmed or taped medium, our minds can connect it with reality in a way that they can never do when we watch something on stage. There is a long history of documentary films (in fact, they form the medium's origin), and we've all seen hundreds or thousands of hours of actual events portrayed on the news. I won't even get into reality TV here (for more reasons than one). So when we watch a good fictional film, if it truly absorbs us, the mind has the ability to "forget" that it is fiction and "think" it is processing data from reality. When we watch a stage play, we are sitting in a room with these people who are on the stage, and we can look off to the side and see the curtain and the proscenium. We can spot the wooden stage upon which they stand. Sometimes the set is not designed to mimic reality (recognizing, nay embracing the limitations of the medium and turning them into positively artistic distinctions), and thus we know even more deeply that we are not watching reality.

Thus, without the call to think we are watching reality, and with its obvious physical limitations, a stage play instead focuses on a more incisive look into subject matter. The actors can't move around a lot, and can't do many actions that can be done in real life. So we stay with a particular situation and examine it intensely, often from distinct perspectives.

So what about TV then? Well, hour-long "dramas" (which has become the all-encompassing term for many different types of hour-long shows) actually differ less from films than do sitcoms. Especially with the growth of such action oriented dramas as 24 or Alias. But even within such shows, the focus is much more on the characters, as they develop over the course of a long period of time (heck, Reunion is going to watch them develop over 20 years).

Certainly, however, the distinction is even greater within the sitcom format. Many people forget that the term "sitcom" is a combination of two words: situation comedy (not to be confused with Situation: Comedy, starring my man Mark, though of course that's why it's the show's name). In the old days, sitcoms were all on a single set. Nowadays, they often have a handful, but still a limited number of sets for the show. The comedy stemmed from different situations occurring in these limited spaces. Interspersed with strings of jokes. Thus, much as on stage, the writers were limited by space, and the format became a largely verbal one. Now, many sitcoms (though hopefully not the best ones) are built on jokes that are almost purely verbal, rarely relating to the situations at hand. But even in stronger sitcoms, the laughs usually come from the jokes themselves and the situations are only mildly humorous set-ups for these jokes. Only the more off-beat sitcoms really present scenarios that themselves make us laugh. In my mind, the ones that first spring up are Arrested Development, Malcolm in the Middle, The Simpsons, and The Family Guy, though I'm not saying that's all there are. And you may note that all four have the ability to break the rules and limitations more, either through the use of practical exteriors or animation.

Before I continue, I must add that I am in no way denigrating the skill of writers in other media, nor am I saying that jokes themselves are not funny. I'm merely attempting to delineate the distinctions between the media, and learn from those differences.

Anyway, that leaves us with books, and novels in particular. Well, as I see it, where film is a primarily visual medium and TV and stage are both primarily verbal ones, novels are mainly built on the mental. What I mean by this is that because books have the ability to tell us what people are thinking and how they are feeling, they actually must do so in most cases. The best books get inside the heads of their characters, and teach us things about them that a film, stage play, or TV show would be hard pressed to do. Now of course they too feel no constraints of time or place, just as film doesn't (or barely does). Thus, action can work in a book as well. But what they lack (obviously) is the visual. While an author can describe a scene in great detail, he will still be limited in communicating his view by the reader's ability to understand and his preconceptions. If the author references a specific experience or metaphor, the reader may not understand the metaphor, or his prior experiences might cloud the emotions the author wants to evoke. Of course, this necessary vagueness can often become the birth of art, and an entire school literary criticism focuses on a reader's response to a literary work. Again, this is not meant to be a negative aspect to books as compared to film, but rather a note of distinction.

"But what about all of those literary adaptations on screen?" you may ask. There's a semi-famous maxim which states that Hollywood makes good movies out of bad books. I don't want to get into the discussion of "good" or "bad" books, but I think there is a certain truth in this statement. Books that are less internal are much easier to adapt to the screen, and thus are more frequently into Hollywood movies. Thus, the "bad" epithet here may refer more to these books' embrace of the things that make books unique as a medium. Some best seller type books seem little more than extended treatments for the movies they will later become. Not that there's anything wrong with that. It is what it is. Then there are the good or even great novels that are turned into films. Well, many of those fail for the very reasons the other ones work. The things that made the novels great can never translate effectively to the large screen. And the ones that did work, for the most part, made major changes during the transition. Perhaps the only cases where such changes are not necessary are those in which the book itself has such a sizable enough audience that would prefer to see it translated 100% accurately, though in even those cases, a "faithful" but slightly altered retelling is often warranted.

Whew, this post is already much longer than I anticipated. I'm not even going to go back and reread it, so I hope it's clear. Feel free to ask any questions, if something isn't. Let me also add one more caveat: I come from a Hollywood, mainstream sensibility, and that's what I'm mainly focused on here. Are there exceptions in each of these media? Of course! I'm simply trying to focus on the generic qualities of each one.

Let me end with a oversimplification:

FILM: active, visual
THEATER: verbal, intensely focused
TV: verbal with some visual, more character driven
NOVELS: inner-focused, descriptive with some action

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Blogger TN_Dreamer said...

whew! is right, but well worth reading.

I do agree with the basic caveats grounded within those mediums, but, ultimately, I think a great writer/director can make any great novel into an equally great film. The ones who have been successful at doing so just made the major changes that were necessary. Hugh Grant said during his "Inside the Actor's Studio" interview that he thought Emma Thompson's adapted screenplay "Sense and Sensibility" was better than the novel. I don't think it was better, but I think it was just as great.

The problem with a lot of adaptations or screenplays written from an inward POV is that the writers don't seem to take the necessary time and steps to display visually what the character is feeling. & far too many writers of novels don't utilize the "show, don't tell" method enough bc they don't realize how much better the emotionis would come across if they did.

(I would donwplay/PC my words with "IMHO", but I've never been that humble, only alternating between incredibly arrogant and stupendously meek.)

8:57 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Thx Dreamer. I often use the IMNSHO, for In My Not So Humble Opinion.

11:07 PM  
Anonymous Joshua said...

Ooo, wow, fun Joel, okay, here we go, it's a cage match.

Um, where to begin. Okay, first of all, there are many great books that became great movies - Gone With The Wind, to name one. Lolita, to name another. We could go on, but I will grant you that the dramaturgical treadmill Hollywood will put a script through can make a bad book better (Bridges Of Madison County) and into a great film, there are many great books that became great movies.

Now then. Plays. As you know, I am a playwright, and while you are correct in that historically, plays have been a lot of people talking but doing little, this isn't necessarily true anymore - people have done that because they THINK that's what plays are (it used to be plays were all written with three acts, mainly because that's what folks thought they were supposed to be) but in reality, plays can be as active as any screenplay. I have a couple plays that have scenes in them in which only one action happens, and one word is spoken (one of my first plays was like this, which is why I'm always told I should write screenplays) - in reality, the play world is in flux because so many of us writing for it now are incredibly influenced by film and TV that the line is not only blurred, it's gone completely, almost. I've always been of the mind you can do anything in a play that you can do in a screenplay (remember that they crash an actual helicopter in Miss Saigon) - the only difference between the two (as you correctly pointed out) is the role the audience plays. I really believe, and I've seen it, that plays can be as visual as any film.

Also, the idea that film is primarily visual has always struck me as a little bit . . . I don't know, it just seems like a way to not deal with writers, it's one of those cliche's - there are great, classic films with much in the way of talking (look at Billy Wilder's stuff) that is also active and fun.

I think great stories are actively engaging, where things happen and we discover great, interesting things through the stories - some with little to no dialogue (Quest For Fire, a personal favorite) or some that is wall to wall dialogue (Pulp Fiction, which may be a cliche' to like that film, but damn it, it was good and whenever it's on I get drawn into what they do and say, and they say more than they do in that film) to one that is all dialogue (Spaulding Grey's Swimming In Cambodia) -

Wow. Dude. I realize that as just spewed a lot of verbal, intensely focused words at you about how playwrights aren't primarily intensely verbal people. Irony, hello?

As you said, this is all simply my humble opinion.

12:58 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Josh --

Thanks for your comments and insight. you certainly know more about theater than I do, so I'll take your word for some of the changes taking place, though as I see it, it still seems much more the exception than the rule. Regardless...

Firstly, let me clarify a point that seems to have been lost. I never said that Hollywood cannot make good movies from good or great books. Just that it usually takes major alterations, and often fails. What I will add now, however, is that I think when a great book is altered to become a great movie, it frequently alters it so greatly (no pun intended) that it works for completely DIFFERENT reasons. I think this is a result of the differences inherent in the media.

Secondly, while you may strive to bring action into your plays, I still think that the inherent limitations of the form force you to be less active. Okay, Miss Saigon, sure. But really, how frequently is there serious action in a theater piece? And when there is, do you think the theater piece is usually a good one, or does it feel like a gimmick?

I hear what you're saying about talky films, but I think that they remain visual films. As you pointed out Pulp Fiction, I think it's a great example. Sure, we all remember the Royale with Cheese, Isaiah, and Bring out the Gimp, but those were isolated lines or scenes that supported a VERY visual and active film. In fact, apart from the Royale with Cheese scene, and PERHAPS the scene where Travolta and Uma meet, there is nary a scene I can think of in that film that was not visual or active. The memorable talkiness was supportive of plot and illustrative of character, but not overshadowing what we saw.

And Swimming to Cambodia (which I didn't see, but read about) sounds like more of an exception for experimental reasons, akin to Andre. While I enjoyed watching Andre, I'd never suggest it is a great film. It is entertaining and interesting, and deserves respect for its guts and experimentation. But it ain't nothing next to The Godfather.

1:25 AM  
Anonymous Joshua said...

Godfather was very true to the book and is, may I add, pretty talky - but the story is not at all significantly alterted from the novel.

Pulp is very talky, and you are correct in that the verbage supports the action, but that's how it's supposed to be in all stories, the good ones, anyway - and it's got more talk and discovery in conversation than you've mentioned, a lot of it is what we discovered about the characters, Mr. Wolf on to Ringo - give the script a read again, it's worth it.

Really, I think different stories have different requirements - some stories need a lot of talk, some do not (Quest For Fire, I love it) - and when a play with action is done well, it doesn't feel like a gimmick, not at all -

A musical based on a movie, on the other hand, does.

Just my opinion, no more, no less. We all have different loves but as long as we all love . . .

1:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

When everyone was scrambling to adapt A Widow For One Year, John Irving noticed they all tried to translate the entire book to screen. The guy who got the job for The Door In The Floor film took one part of the book and expanded on that and he was the one who got the job...

5:54 AM  
Anonymous Norm said...

Having not yet read the entire post--

Big four? For shame, Fun Joel, that you left comic books out of the equation...

Okay, now that I've geeked out I'll go finish it. I just couldn't concentrate with the fanboy rage growing inside me.


10:17 AM  
Anonymous Norm said...

Okay, done.

Intresting points, Fun Joel. Innnntresting. I'm still a little ticked you left comics off the list--

--and no, I'm not talking about X-Men and Marmaduke. Your homework assignment, class, is to go to your local library and pick up both volumes of Art Spiegleman's MAUS and Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics--

--but I forgive you. I hadn't considered the effect that documentary footage and historical texts (for lack of a better non-fiction book blanket term...waitaminute! Non-fiction Books! D'oh!) had on the fictional Film/Written Word experience. Very nice food for thought...especially considering the origin of both the written word and moving pictures were both documentarial (is that a word?) in nature (although early film documented trivialities like horses eating hay and girls having pillow fights).

Which makes me ponder writing a documentary stage play...it could be a documentary about me standing on a stage, boring the crap out of an unsuspecting paying audience! Performance Art at it's finest.

What I'd love to see another post on is a writer selecting the best medium for the story one wants to tell vs. selecting the best story for the medium one wants to write in. What are the benefits and pratfalls of each, from a strictly "end product quality" stand point, for someone writing to get the hang of this whole "telling stories" thing.


P.S. Please excuse the immense amount of wow-Norm-sure-does-think-he's-funny in tonight's post. I get punch drunk late at night.

10:52 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Been a bit of a busy week for me, but I'm feeling productive, and plan to head back to more work shortly. While on break, however, I wanted to continue the conversation here. My friend Brooks sent me the following comments via email, and while I don't agree with his comments 100%, I still feel they are worth airing here, as they raise a few other interesting points:

A few things that I think are missing from your Blog that are very significant to the format differences are: "time of consumption" and "consumption location/condition."

Film - one story, continuous consumption time, consumed in a theater or in the living room

TV - multiple stories often told over years (sometimes decades,) continuous consumption time within each episode,
ONLY in living rooms

Stage - one story, continuous consumption time, ONLY in theaters, totally unique performance each time,
ONLY consumed with other people around

Books - one story (or a collection of stories) consumed at the rate and amount of the reader's choice! consumed where ever the reader wants, almost always consumed alone

2:00 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Now on to the comments others have left here.

Josh, I'll still defer to your greater knowledge of theater, though it still seems like theater is more talky. I guess the main question then for you would be, if you honestly don't think that's the main distinction, what is? Or do you NOT think that there are stories that are better suited to stage and others better suited to telling as a film? And I reiterate (re: Godfather) that I never said no great books have become great movies. Just that its rare.

Quill -- I haven't seen either of those films, nor read the books. But its an interesting point. I'll try to check them out. Thanks.

Norm -- mea culpa on overlooking comics. They just simply didn't spring to mind. And yes, I have read both Maus books, many other comics and graphic novels, and flipped through part of McCloud's book. I'd welcome your input and thoughts, however, on what makes that medium unique. I'm no expert on it.

Regarding your question about best medium for a story vs. best story for a given medium, I think you may be asking the wrong question. We should be aiming to tell a story in the most effective way, more than saying, "I want to be a screenwriter. What would be a good story to tell in that medium?" In other words, start from the good story, and then if it is one that might be better told via a different medium, go for it!

2:11 AM  
Anonymous Norm said...

"Regarding your question about best medium for a story vs. best story for a given medium, I think you may be asking the wrong question. We should be aiming to tell a story in the most effective way, more than saying, "I want to be a screenwriter. What would be a good story to tell in that medium?" In other words, start from the good story, and then if it is one that might be better told via a different medium, go for it!"

I completely agree with that...and rereading my quesiton now, it isn't quite clear what I was getting at...but I was trying more to raise the point of how a writer can pick a story, select a medium, and write it for his or herself with only artistic aspirations and a quality product as the goal.

And this same writer, now with a paycheck on the line and producers/editors/whoever to please, can have the medium selected for them (screenplay) and then the story to be told (a non-fiction text on orchids) and have to make it work and how can this writer learn to not only work in both situations, but how to make the best of the limitations offered by the two differing attacks.

Am I making more sense?

And as for comics...I'd love to share my thoughts on the medium...but that'd take some prep work. I'll get back to you.

12:34 PM  
Blogger Bill Cunningham said...

Interesting topic: choosing the right medium for your story/message. As someone who has worked in a lot of different media / formats, it's interesting when I switch gears and suddenly have to write "a different way." I often find that the work I've done immediately previous infects my current work. If I write publicity, then I switch and work on a script - I often approach the subject in a new way. Is it better? That's for someone other than me to decide. I just think that all writers should do all sorts of different types of writing not only to strengthen their writing "muscles" , but to make themselves more marketable now and in the future. There are contacts I make writing marketing copy for DVD that I would never make as "just a screenwriter" trying to pitch a project. I also want to get into comics further and create some stories for that media. Hopefully by getting a story out there and into the world as a fully developed property (a comic) then it can open doors to other work... But if it doesn't, at least I have a comic or two with my name on it sitting on the shelf.

9:34 PM  

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