Saturday, July 3, 2010

Adventures in the Screenplay Part IV: Film for Fiction Writers

I stay up late. I wish I had the late night personality some of my colleagues have. I do not have divine inspiration late at night, and I do not have a sudden dose of muse delivered. Late at night I do my best to waste time. I'm generally alone, which after too much time out in the world (the actual or my own), is not a bad thing. I spend these late night time wasting hours either drinking gin or watching movies, and often times, I do both. I spent this last week with nightly doses of Richard Linklater's 1991 Slacker. What struck me so funny about the movie was how it made me feel. It made me feel funny. In this course of discussion: film and writing we have seen several examples of how fiction fits into film. The difference here, and it's clear as we've developed, we haven't really talked about the sheer mechanics of the screenplay, or writing for the screen. I suppose we all can't be Richard Linklater: self taught, self made and brilliant.

Character Development

For writers of fiction, character development has plenty of facets. When crafting a character in a short story or novel, the writer can describe the character, have the character describe him/herself; have the character be described by someone else, develop the character through dialogue or give the reader a familiarity of the character through his/her actions. This is not necessarily different in film. Or is it? As views of film, we don't want lengthy descriptions of characters, do we? It might be great in a novel. No, what we need to see on the screen is how the character deals with situations, or other characters. And, we'll know the character by what is said. As writers, it's important to develop the character by what the character says. Dialogue is key, after all. I say this because after the screenplay is written, there are so many more workers developing the film. In thinking about the distance a screenplay will travel between the desk of the writer to a theater near you is potentially a galaxy far far away. The only thing to survive is the dialogue itself. Let me list a few characters to think about in fiction morphed into something else in film. Patrica Highsmith's Tom Ripley in the 1955 The Talented Mr. Ripley was a despicable character from every angle: the things he did, the clothes he wore and the way he looked. Even though the Mr. Ripley we saw in the 1999 movie of the same name was also despicable, the presentation was different. Try as one might, Matt Damon is a handsome man, this is different Patricia Highsmith's vision. Matt Damon did a good job as Tom Ripley, and he actually sang “My Funny Valentine" in the jazz bar scene. This presentation brings us to Jude Law, a very handsome British actor. In the pitch of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, the filmmakers had a vision of a rugged Marlboro man cowboy type. They got Jude Law. The point is, in a screenplay endeavor, character development is in the words and action written on the page.

One last piece of character development comes from Dana Cooper's book, chapter eight. This chapter's basic premise: make your audience care about the characters. Emotional appeals, and conflict resolutions.
Characters also address the audience's need for new information through unusual personalities, habits, attitudes, or philosophies. Audiences satisfy their need for conflict resolution by observing how characters deal with their problems. (Cooper, 91)

I've also heard it said that making a character “real” is simply not enough. Real people are not enough, right, not on first inspection. Peeling layers of an onion: back stories, past encounters, baggage will make the characters more believable.

For the fiction writer, these are not terribly new things. But, the way in which the characters are development may be. Keep in mind that a reader and a filmmaker may have two very different aesthetics. A filmmaker needs so little to get going, and the dialogue should be enough.

As I was saying, Slacker made me feel funny. Why? Well, I haven't seen the movie since the early 1990s. At the time the film was released, I was the same age as most of the actors in the film, it had a nonlinear plot, and it was very appealing to the college kids and artists of my generation, Generation X. So, how does an aging Gen-Xer feel about Slacker? Beats me. But as a writer, and as a filmmaker, Slacker has some great things going on.

Dana Cooper's discussions of plot in chapter six of Writing Great Screenplays of film and TV suggests plot as roller coasters. Each peak is a key moment for change in the characters. This a great analogy. John Gardner in his style manual: The Art of Fiction has a similar description of plot. In chapter 7: Plotting he describes the Ficthean curve in much the same way as Cooper describes the roller coaster. Each peak is the resolution to a smaller story within the larger piece.

John Gardner suggests in Chapter 7 a different way to tell a story in what seems like a lack of plotting.
In this form the writer lets out his story in snippets, sometimes called “crots,” moving as if at random from one point to another gradually amassing the elements, literal and symbolic, of a quasi-energeic action. (Gardner 182).
His examples are William Gass's “In the Heart of the Heart of the Country,” and Franz Kafka's “The Country Doctor.” On the screen: Slacker, if that isn't told in snippets, or individual vignettes, I don't know what else is. Jim Jarmusch's 2003 Coffee and Cigarettes follows the same pointillism.


There are ways to write a screenplay, a formatting protocol. Here are some links:

Some more links:

The Thrirty-six Dramatic Situations

Plot Lines

Next time: the objectives, the syllabus, the list of assignments, the reading list and the timeline.

1 comment:

  1. First of all HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!! Second, I've been wanting to take your writers workshops on Mondays since January. And in all the time that's passed since Marlowes I've always been curious about your literary history. Now I know. My desire to write has festered too long in my subconscious and I feel it's finally time to open the gates. Thanks for posting.And now if you'll excuse me, I've got some reading to do!!