Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Writing and screenwriting

I started to write a blog entry the other day, saying some critical things about a couple of TV shows. In particular, I was criticizing how the shows didn't seem to be able to make up their minds about what kind of shows they were. They would go in one direction for a while (dark, adult, for example) then suddenly switch course (comedy, for example). I was saying the writers didn't have enough belief in their shows.

But you know what? That's not this blog entry. I trashed that one. I trashed it because of a DVD extra that I watched from Angel, season 3. The extra is called 'From Page to Screen', and it covered pretty much what you would expect: the whole process of coming up with an episode of a show from conception to finished product.

The writers on the show have (if they are lucky) a week to write a 42 minute episode of a show. A week. Sometimes less. And this is the way they have to go about it:

  1. Someone pitches an idea and it gets structured it, point by point, in a writers' meeting
  2. One of the writers takes that away and writes an outline
  3. They return the outline and are given notes on it
  4. Take the notes away and write the script
  5. Get notes on the script and rewrite it
A week to write it. Sometimes for or five days. For 22 episodes in a year.

I realized that I, as a short story and novel writer, am in absolutely no position to criticize a few inconsistencies in a show when that's the process they have to go through so quickly just to get a script.

And I can't help but think that many of us who do write short stories and novels can be just a little bit too precious about our writing. 

I have writing sessions where I come away only having written 50 words. Sometimes nothing at all. If I was a screenwriter, that just simply wouldn't be an option. People would be waiting for the script, and they would have deadlines too. Short ones. 

If I was a screenwriter, I wouldn't be able to complain that I wasn't inspired or that I had no decent ideas that day or that I or that I was too tired or that I couldn't work from an outline. I wouldn't be able to wait two months between drafts to clear my head. I'd just have to do it. Right then. No matter what.

I wouldn't have the luxury of whining about an editor wanting to change that one little line that I loved. Everything I wrote would be torn up, mercilessly, if necessary, to make the episode work.

Now, I'm not saying that what is produced by a screenwriter working like this is necessarily better than that which a novelist working for a year or five years on a single book produces. (Nor vice versa, for that matter.) I'm not even saying that the forms are the same (fiction writing is a much more solo activity; screenwriting is more collaborative).

But I do think there's a lot we can learn from this type of process. About stripping away the chance for excuses. About not being overly precious and resistant to suggestions for changes. About planning and outlining and redrafting. About being accountable and about other people relying on you deliver something of quality on time, no matter what. About buckling down even if you're exhausted or uninspired or stressed. And that's what this blog entry always should have been about.

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