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Just Because You’re a Writer Doesn’t Mean You Can Write About Everything

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Rules of the Games(s)

A writer’s parable:

Once upon a time, an aunt of mine who intended to rent out the second floor of her home came to me and asked, “Can you write me out a lease?”


“Well, you’re a writer.”

Since a lease is a legal agreement – a contract, if you will – I suggested a lawyer might be an infinitely better choice for the task than a creative writer at which point the reason for her coming to me came out:  lawyers cost money while nephews are free.  Ok, that’s an irrelevant point.

But the relevant point and real moral of the story is this:  just because you’re a writer doesn’t mean you can write anything and everything, my aunt’s penny-saving opinion notwithstanding.

Oh, I’m not talking about writing across genres; you know, that just because you can write a nifty thriller screenplay doesn’t necessarily mean you can pull off an effectively gooey romcom.  That’s a question of sensibilities.  No, I’m talking about writing across different media.  In other words, just because you can turn out a hellaciously strong screenplay for a feature film doesn’t necessarily mean you can write even a sucky novel.

Curiously, it doesn’t seem to work the other way around as much.

I haven’t done a deep dive to work up numbers on this, but my sense is that more novelists, playwrights, and journalists have been able to make the transition to screenwriting than the reverse.  From Herman J. Mankiewicz and Ben Hecht (journalism) to William Faulkner and William Goldman (novelists) to Thornton Wilder and Neil Simon (theater), the credits of films going back to the early days of the studio system boast names – some quite famous – of people who used to write something else before they began (or while they began) writing for the movies.

There’s a reason for that, and I know this is going to tick some (maybe most), wannabe screenwriters, off:

In the strictest of terms, screenwriting isn’t really writing.

Don’t get steamed.  I’m not trying to insult any screenwriters accomplished or aspiring out there, and I’m certainly not looking to take a punch in my bazoo, and I’m definitely not trying to dismiss the form.  I agree with Stephen Whitty, a thirty-odd-year veteran film reviewer and author of The Alfred Hitchcock Encyclopedia:

…a lot of screenplays are art, and, frankly, in a way (even Oscar-winning screenwriters like William) Goldman and (Robert) Towne didn’t dare try.  Look at prestige Oscar winners like Moonlight (2017), say, or Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)(2014).  Or even hits like Pulp Fiction (1994), or popular romcoms like La La Land (2016) and (500) Days of Summer (2009), or biopics like BlacKKKlansman (2018).  There are all sorts of narrative gambles being taken in movies like that.  Full of experiments and push-the-boundaries choices…nothing anyone should dare brush off as mere craftsmanship.

The thing is this:  each medium – the page, the stage, the screen large and small – make very different and medium-specific demands on the writer, impose different medium-specific limitations on the writer, and require the writer to use very medium-specific tools to get the job done. Yeah, here and there, there’s some overlap, but not nearly as much as you’d think, and certainly not enough to warrant the assumption that just because you can work well in one you can automatically work in another.

I know because I’ve spent years bumping into the walls each of those forms have.  By necessity, opportunity, and mercenary pursuit, I’ve had chances to work as a screenwriter, to have books published, and to do some work for the stage.  I won’t say I’ve acquitted myself with equal deftness in all three (hell, I’m even hesitant to say I was any good at any of them); it was more of a jack-of-all-trades-but-master-of-none kind of thing.  But I will give myself a mild back-pat by saying I did manage not to embarrass myself (too much) in any of those forms.  I avoided disaster by painstakingly, and sometimes painfully, discovering the limits and requirements of each.  


I once squeezed an essay out of my good friend and co-writer on my first novel, Steve Szilagyi, for my book The Rules of Screenwriting and Why You Should Break ThemSteve saw his first novel, Photographing Fairies, adapted into a 1997 film, which gave him some strong opinions on the difference between the two mediums.  Herewith the relevant part of that essay:

…people who write screenplays (would) like to be writers, but aren’t up to the task of filling whole pages with prose…they open a screenplay.  They look it up and down.  They flip through the pages and see lots of white space.  They think, “White space.  I can do that.”  Producers have crates full of screenplays by these people who are able to fill page after page with white space…

William Goldman managed to write both bestselling novels (and their screen adaptations) as well as Oscar-winning box office hits (Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid [1969]; All the President’s Men [1976]).  In his book Adventures in the Screen Trade (in my view, one of the best books on screenwriting and being a screenwriter), he was actually quite disparaging about screenwriting.  He always considered himself a novelist first, and at one point goes on for two pages about why.  In abridged form:

…if you are the kind of weird person who has a need to bring something into being, and all you do with your life is turn out screenplays, I may covet your bank account, but I wouldn’t give two bits for your soul…Those of us who were permanently altered by the little engine bringing the toys over the mountain…wanted to make wonders.  Screenwriting isn’t about that.  There is a Women’s Liberation term called shitwork and it means work that when it is well done is unnoticed…screenwriting is shitwork…You must write something else.  Anything else.  Epic poems or rhyming couplets, novels or nonfiction…there has to be an outlet where quality matters…

Ok, both appraisals are, in my view, a bit harsh, but it’s neither a narrowly held nor particularly novel view:

“…it’s not a form of literature at all.  Your writing counts for nothing…Counts for nothing.”   – writer/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver [1976]; Raging Bull [1980]).

“If there is any joy to be had from writing screenplays, somewhere along the way I have failed to stumble across it.”   – screenwriter Stirling Silliphant (Oscar winner for In the Heat of the Night [1967]).

“The wise screenwriter is he who wears his second-best suit, artistically speaking…” – author/screenwriter Raymond Chandler

The consensus seeming to be that screenwriting, as a literary form, well, it really isn’t.  But then it’s not supposed to be.

In the first place, a screenwriter, unlike an author or playwright, is not an independent creative agent.  All screenwriters are hired guns.  Even on an original screenplay, the minute the screenwriter takes a dime for his/her material, it no longer belongs to him/her.  Once money changes hands, the screenwriter goes from creator to servant, tasked with carrying out the wishes (i.e. demands camouflaged as suggestions) of producers, directors, stars.  Novelists can’t get fired from their books, playwrights can’t get fired from their plays.  Only a screenwriter can get canned and replaced from material he/she may have originated.  

“The film writer,” says author/screenwriter John Gregory Dunne, “is first of all hired, and as an employee, no matter how grandiose his salary, he must tailor his ideas to those of his employer.  He can wheedle, cajole, or even scream, but if he fails to persuade his employer, he either goes along or gets out.  If he gets out, he is easily replaced.”

William Goldman again:  “I’m basically a gun for hire.  Someone hires me, and I do the best I can for as long as they want me.  And then I’m gone.”

To that point, Richard Brody, in a 2014 The New Yorker piece – “Screenwriting Isn’t Writing” – compared the experiences of two of America’s great literary figures in Hollywood.  F. Scott Fitzgerald did think of screenwriting as a literary form of personal expression and consequently had a pretty lousy career in the movies.  William Faulkner, on the other hand, managed to have a profitably long run in the business, and an especially productive relationship with director Howard Hawks because, as Brody writes, “…Faulkner got the idea:  namely that he wasn’t exactly writing; he was providing material that Hawks could make use of in his own way.”

“Make use of in his own way.”  That’s the crux of it.  Said writer/director Buck Henry (Oscar-nominee as co-writer of The Graduate [1967]), “The reason I think the Writers Guild is a mass of neuroses is because they know, all of us know…that you can deliver a mass of film shot at random to a brilliant director and he’s going to make something out of it…Never needing a writer…it doesn’t work the other way around.”

It doesn’t mean the screenplay is dispensable; just that it’s at the mercy of other hands.  “(It) all depends on the execution,” Stephen Whitty says.  “(You) get a better movie from a bad director with a good script, than you do from a good director working from a bad one…I think a good writer always writes to the best of their ability, and just hopes no one screws with it.” 

Perhaps the only real protection a screenwriter has is to direct their own material.  Cases in point:  all but one of those titles mentioned above by Whitty were either written or co-written by their directors.  But even that scenario comes with its caveats according to Whitty:

Not sure how the distinction between writers who know they’re going to direct their script, or ones who know they are handing it off to a director, really plays out – or how anyone can protect their work unless they have the power to land a producer credit, like say [William Peter] Blatty on The Exorcist (1973).

All this in mind tells you why directors can get a possessory credit (“A film by…”), while outside of Paddy Chayefsky and Neil Simon, I can’t think of any screenwriter who did or does.  In fact, more often, they’re fighting for an on-screen writing credit with the parade of rewriters who were brought on the project after they were thanked for their efforts, paid generously, and then shown the door.

But for the sake of argument, let’s say you’re on a screenwriting gig and don’t get canned.  You’re kept on for the ride, from development to wrap party (although it’s more likely you’re gone once production starts).  You still have no creative authority, no control.  That’s the nature of what a screenplay is for.

The screenwriter who is not an auteur-type writer/director doesn’t write a movie.  What you write is, well, depending on the hands it falls into, anything from a sketch, a blueprint, a launch point, to the equivalent of the firm girder skeleton of a high-rise building.  It’s not an end product or even close to it.  A screenplay is no more or less than a tool for an army of other people to use (to varying extents) to make a movie.

In a speech to a graduating class of New York’s School of Visual Arts, David Newman (Oscar-nominee for co-writing Bonnie and Clyde [1967]) described the vulnerable lot of the screenwriter thusly:

…the only pure vision of the movie is the one that exists in your mind when you write your first draft…Unfortunately, that is not the draft that is going to be filmed…you will then be gifted with a lot of collaborators…studio executives and producers who think they have creative input, and you’re going to listen to them, because they sign the checks…directors who have visions of how to reshape your work…actors who certainly don’t have any compunction about telling you…“my character would never say this” – and you will listen because the actor is being paid more than you are.

Cinematographers, editors, production designers, music composers, actors, directors, producers – they will all “interpret” what you put on your pages, perhaps to enhance it, perhaps to dilute it, perhaps to turn it into, well, maybe just something else.  Putting it much more eloquently than I ever could is award-winning teacher, scholar, author Dr. Benjamin Dunlap, who also wrote, produced, and hosted the Cinematic Eye series for PBS:

…between the screenwriter — or the playwright — and the spectator are directors, actors and others who endow works with specificities that do much of (the) work for the viewer.  Knowing that’s the case, screenwriters understand that the “show, don’t tell” common wisdom not only instructs them to forego lengthy disquisitions but establishes a boundary beyond which lies the inviolate realm in which other artists will decide what brings a script to life.  Only an amateur — or a naïve novelist — attempts to encroach on the director’s prerogative in that respect, or, for that matter, on those aspects of the final production to which cameramen and actors in particular will contribute…This doesn’t necessarily make movies a lesser art form, but, as often as not, it probably makes screenwriting a less satisfying job.

Your screenplay may have played a pivotal role in a movie coming into being, but still, the most invisible part of the finished product will be what you wrote.  Says writer/producer David Giler (executive producer and story credit on Aliens [1986]), “…no one reads what you write, except people who are going to destroy it.”

“No one reads what you write”:  that’s the killer point.  Screenplays are not meant to be read for the sake of reading.  A screenwriter needs to have a good sense of story and structure, a feel for character and dialogue, but a command of the written word is not a prerequisite.  Descriptions are intentionally brief and sketchy, don’t need to be written with any particular flair, and there’s all that white space.  The good screenwriter is a good storyteller, but not necessarily – in the literary sense of the word – a good writer.

If screenwriters are generally nothing more than hired help, and they and their work often treated like disposable, easily replaceable commodities, in contrast the playwright’s words are carved in stone.

Well, more or less.


I like to compare screenwriting and playwrighting by saying writing for film is like driving a car with an automatic transmission, while writing for the stage is like driving a 5-gear standard shift; a hell of a lot harder and a lot more work.

At first glance, it may appear that theater and film are closely related.  For both, the audience sits in an auditorium, the action takes place within a proscenium (for film, the frame), there’s actors working from a script that gives them dialogue and indicates physical action.  As “Bernie” Dunlap points out, theater is also similarly interpretive/collaborative:  there is a director who will have his vision of the script (and you’d be surprised how elastic that can be; I once saw the stage version of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest presented as some kind of surreal acid-dream on a set designed to look like a giant spiderweb, although the actual Dale Wasserman text was unchanged), and actors doing what actors do in developing and presenting their characters.

But the physical differences between the two forms are huge.

The playwright has far fewer tools to work with than the screenwriter.  Putting aside Broadway-type spectaculars (a very small percentage of what constitutes theater in this country), all the playwright usually has to work with are some people on a stage talking to each other.  That’s it.  No CGI, no breathtaking panoramas, no eye-filling crowd scenes, often not even much change of scenery.  Like I said:  just some people up front yakking at each other.

The aesthetic differences – and, consequently, the aesthetic demands – of the two mediums are poles apart.  The audience/content dynamic is humongously different primarily because of two factors:

The audience view in theater is static; there is no camera to move, no altering of angle, no cuts to change perspective.  Even the blandest, slowest-paced, action-free low-budget drama is composed of hundreds of shots over its 90-120-minute running time to direct the audience’s focus, provide visual information, and keep the audience visually engaged.  In contrast, and oversimplifying this a bit, a play takes place entirely in a series of the equivalents of an unchanging long shot each maybe running as long as an hour.

It’s live.  Those aren’t images at the front of the theater, but living, breathing human beings sharing a space with the audience.  When a play falters, the illusion – what we learn in our first film appreciation class as “the willing suspension of disbelief” – collapses and the fakery of the stage – which, because it’s physically there, is always more tenuous than the illusion of film — becomes painfully obvious.  Physical action, unless it’s handled beautifully, easily comes across as fake, whether it’s someone getting a punch in the nose, or Tybalt getting skewered in Romeo and Juliet.  I remember seeing a production of Sam Shepherd’s True West, and when the two brothers get into a tussle near the end of Act II, it looked like two guys trying hard not to hurt each other.

But when a play works, when the audience engages, there’s an electricity and even intimacy in the space film, or for that matter any electronic or photographic medium, can’t match because you are, in effect, sitting in the same room with another person when they laugh, rise up in anger, or collapse in tears.  Film actors only have to produce emotion for seconds at a time, sometimes minutes, and not unusually those performances are enhanced by a sharp editor putting together the best takes of the best shots to create a performance.  Stage actors have to be true to the emotions of a stage story for the length of the play because any lapse into artifice will quickly be picked up by that live audience sitting just feet away.

In film, because the director, cinematographer, and editor can shape and direct focus, small moments – a subtle action, a tossed off line – can be made significant.  A zoom-in, a dolly-in, a cut to a close-up can turn a glance into the giveaway that someone is lying or concealing, that what they’re saying is not what they mean; a mumbled line or even a raised eyebrow can become a big laugh-getter; a small movement can become a tip-off that something larger is afoot.

Remember the spinning top in Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010)?  It’s supposed to be how Leonardo DiCaprio’s character can tell reality from dream.  Reems have been written about the last shot of the movie, wondering if the spinning top was just beginning to wobble and, if so, what that means for DiCaprio:  a happy ending or, sadly, another dream fantasy?  This works – it only works – because Nolan can give us that whirling top in extreme close-up.

But now you’re in a theater, even a small one, leaving you sitting ten-fifteen feet away from the action (or more, and possibly off to the side).  An action as small as Nolan’s spinning top would probably be lost, and most definitely be lost the further back and/or off-center you’re sitting and the larger the house is.

Theater is not built for small things.  That’s why one of the biggest challenges stage actors have when moving over to film or TV is learning to scale down the emoting.  “Up there on the screen,” Robert Mitchum once said, “you’re thirty feet wide, your eyeball is six feet high…”  But on stage, an actor is life-sized, and the performer’s dialogue and actions need to be clear all the way to the last row in the house, whether it’s a small, local 50-seat theater, or a Broadway barn (while still managing – and here’s the trick for stage actors – to somehow look natural).

The playwright has to be aware of this, to make sure he/she is giving the actors material that can play big enough in the auditorium.  The plot may have its subtleties and subtext, but the actions and dialogue have to be able to fill the space.  This doesn’t mean a play has to be operatic, but whether it’s Pinter or Simon or Wilson or Shepherd, what’s happening on that stage has to work as well for the back row as the front one.

A lot of thinking has to go into filling that theater space because all media, each in their own way, distort time and space.

I don’t understand the psychology of this (although I’m sure there’s writings about it somewhere), but film does a hell of a job distorting time.  On stage, a guy sitting in a chair doing nothing for thirty seconds is a guy sitting in a chair doing nothing for thirty seconds.  On film, on the big screen, a guy sitting in a chair doing nothing for thirty seconds is…interminable.  That’s why filmmakers regularly compress time.  I’m speaking in grand generalizations here, but film scenes are generally shorter than stage scenes (it’s not unusual for an entire play act to be a single scene, while one can find any number of films with scenes consisting of just a few lines or maybe even a single action), conversations shorter (Goldman says you should cut into them late and cut out of them early), movement abbreviated.  


While I’ve been working on this piece, I had the chance to, for the zillionth time, watch the Coen Bros. brilliant No Country for Old Men (2007).  Let’s look at a sequence early on in the film when we’re introduced to Josh Brolin’s character.  We see Brolin out on the Texas plains poaching, taking an extremely long rifle shot at an antelope.  He only wounds the animal, so he traipses across that expanse to pick up the blood trail.  In the process, he picks up a different blood trail from a wounded dog.  He backtracks this second trail to a vantage point where he can look down across another plain to the corpse-strewn aftermath of a drug deal gone way, way bad.  He hikes down to that faraway scene, puts together what happened, then goes off to find the “last man standing” who’d fled the melee.  Another hike, he spies the man through his binoculars at a distance, sets down to let time pass to see if the man moves, then, figuring the man to be dead, cautiously crosses the field to the dead man and that’s where he discovers a satchel packed with the $2 million that kicks off the body of the film.

The sequence is a lot of walking across a lot of empty space, what sometimes looks like hundreds of yards of open ground.  Most all of that hiking and traipsing, thanks to the crisp Oscar-nominated editing by the Coens (under the pseudonym Roderick Jaynes) we don’t have to sit through.  Brolin is looking down on the drug deal shoot-out from high ground, cut to him entering the location.  Standard stuff, actually; the kind of time-compressing cut that’s made all the time.

Novelist/playwright Dr. Suzanne Trauth, who also had a career as a university theater professor, began her writing career with screenplays before moving to writing for the stage:

…I…found that when I started to write plays, I was used to getting into and out of a scene as quickly as possible as per the screenplay.  So I had to slow myself down and open up the play’s scenes more.

I’ve worked with a number of young playwrights, and once sat as a judge for a multi-state playwrighting grant competition, and it’s a common misstep among rookie playwrights:  short scenes and multiple locations which, if they’d been shot as a film, would play out fine, but for the stage would deliver a choppy, stuttering narrative, as well as being a headache to stage.  It’s the result of watching more movies and TV than studying theater (or of wannabe film and TV writers trying to showcase their wares by jamming a movie onto a stage).

Because a play is live people, actions take as long as they take.  If it takes five seconds to cross the stage, it takes five seconds, and there’s no way to abbreviate it.  Theater scenes, or even whole acts, take place in second-by-second/minute-by-minute real time.

I once wrote a one-act play that, for the most part, consisted of four friends playing poker.  I was still a theater rookie at the time, and what I hadn’t figured on in writing the play is how godawful long it takes to deal a four-handed round of draw poker (20 cards for you non-players).  Watch the climactic stud poker duel in Norman Jewison’s The Cincinnati Kid (1965), or the Texas Hold ’Em shoot-outs in John Dahl’s under-appreciated Rounders (1998) and you’ll get some idea of how cinema shortcuts these kinds of issues.  On stage, what I saw is the energy of the piece suddenly go flat long before the last card was dealt.  Luckily, the cast realized this, too, and with my permission, would fill that dead space with ad libs (every night, different ones!).

For the same reason, conversations on the stage have a more organic construction to them, they more closely resemble the length and rhythm of real-life.  The, oh, let’s call it the “impatience of film” often pushes a dialogue scene to its point much quicker than most plays where the scene and conversation may run for an entire act.

One of my all-time favorite stage plays is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?  The play consists of three acts, each about one hour long, each one consisting of a single scene, all taking place in the same location — the cluttered, bottle-littered home of a boozy academic couple — and featuring just four characters who spend the three hours drinking, talking, and indulging in verbal mind games.  It’s physically static, and there is no real physical action to speak of.  Yet, it’s one of the great stage pieces in the American theater canon, and, for my money, the verbal volleys have all the visceral impact of a Western movie shoot-out.

At the end of the day, dialogue is really the only tool the playwright has to convey character and plot.  “(Screenwriting) and playwriting are closely aligned,” says Stephen Whitty, “although obviously plays rely more heavily on dialogue, and (film) scripts on action.”  What the characters say to each other, how they say it, how they relate to each other in their exchanges – for the most part, that’s all our stage scrivener has to work with to connect the audience to his/her characters and story.

Compare the average feature film script with the average script for a full-length play, and two things become quickly evident:  play scripts are generally shorter even though, like films, they tend to have the same running time:  around two hours or so.  Where film scripts have a lot of white space, those fewer pages of a play script offer comparatively less action but are covered with dialogue.  The script for …Virginia Woolf, for example, features huge blocks of dialogue.

From Shakespeare to Mamet, if the dialogue isn’t some kind of music to the ear, the play dies.  The playwright can’t save the piece with just a couple of good zingers at peak moments from the main characters; the dialogue has to carry the action of the play for every damned minute of the play.  

All that gabbing often has to take place in a limited number of locales; maybe only one.  Yes, it is possible for plays to skip from location to location.  Shakespeare did it all the time, but he did it by relying on barebones, easily changed sets that more suggested settings than fully created them, and many contemporary plays operate the same way.  But the more full a set the playwright calls for (and this kind of stage description is typically much more detailed in a play script than a screenplay), the more pure necessity forces a stage story into limited or single locations.  The detail Albee calls for in the …Virginia Woolf setting, or, say, the equally cluttered junk shop of David Mamet’s American Buffalo would make location changes a logistical nightmare if not impossible.

And then there’s the issue of money.

The major big city commercial theaters notwithstanding, professional theater in this country is not a big dollar business.  In fact, most professional theaters – from the medium-to-large houses to small “black box” theaters and companies operating out of church basements – are non-profits which cannot survive solely on their box office.  There are professional companies whose entire annual budget couldn’t cover the cost of a low-end art house indie film.  According to Suzanne Trauth, what keeps most of them alive are grants and donations.  

This is the universe where the majority of playwrights exist.  They must write with as sharp an eye on what one of their works might cost to produce and how logistically complicated it would be to present as the companies they pitch to.  How many locations, how detailed the setting, how many actors are always a consideration in crafting their stories.

The first play I attempted to write was a stage adaptation of my first novel-in-progress.  The play was a court-martial, and I made the mistake of trying to cram as much of the novel onto the stage as I could.  There were nine speaking roles, and a half-dozen non-speaking roles (guards on the door, the jury panel).  I managed to land a staged reading at The Directors Company in New York.  After the reading, the director came up to me and her first comment was, “You know, nobody’s going to produce this because they can’t afford that many actors.”

After countless rewrites and other readings, I got the play down to three suggested locations and five speaking parts and that’s how it finally got produced (after seeing the production, I ran it through another rewrite to tighten it further and managed to eliminate one more speaking role).  According to Suzanne Trauth, most of these small non-profit companies “…often cannot afford a cast larger than four; two is better.”

Whatever one thinks about the comparative limitations of film and theater, the one decided advantage all playwrights have over screenwriters is the accepted rule that you don’t touch the text!  You can futz around with the presentation (that …Cuckoo’s Nest production I spoke of earlier), be as guilty of miscasting and misdirecting a production as any hack film director, but the plot and dialogue are untouchable.  The tradition of theater is you don’t ad lib, the actors don’t get to say, “My character wouldn’t say that,” the director doesn’t get to say to an actor, “How about you try doing this with a look instead of those lines?”  Shakespeare may get cut down because he’s so damned long (and he’s not around to sue), but his dialogue and plots never get changed.  Playwright’s do get possessory credits.

Another advantage:  you don’t get replaced by another playwright.

But there’s a catch.

Because theater is live, every night of a run is different; every production is different – different casts, different directors, different sets…  Unlike film, there is no such thing as a definitive, finished, unchanging vision of a play.  Your words may be the same no matter who produces your play and where it’s produced, but they’ll never sound the same twice.


In all of these forms, according to Bernie Dunlap, there’s an uncredited collaborator:  “…the reader, spectator, listener, or viewer…We ourselves are the end point of all such collaborations, and each medium requires different skills and modes of creative response.”

The movie viewer, for example, tends to be passive because films offer so much visual and textual information.  Theater, in contrast, asks more of its audience; the playgoer has to forget that there is no house connected to that living room set on the stage, that actors are not exiting into other rooms but into the wings.  So much more than a moviegoer, someone watching a play has to supply some of the imagined universe in which the story takes place.

But no audience member is as active a collaborator as the reader.  “The reader,” says Bernie Dunlap, “is, in effect, a performer.”

And no one has more control over his/her material – or more responsibility for making it work, than the writer of prose.

Novelist Steve Szilagyi:

If your screenplay never gets produced, your manuscript is impotent.  It will never be read or enjoyed in its own right.  A novel…is a thing that is complete in itself.  As the sole creator, you have the satisfaction of making every creative decision on your own.  You have an unlimited budget, and comfortable access to any location…in the universe…while a screenwriter is just a screenwriter, a novelist is his or her own screenwriter, director, cameraperson, set dresser, casting agent, lighting director, and continuity person.

Among the literary storytelling forms, the writer of prose gets as close to playing God as it gets.  On a whim, he/she can dictate the weather, stretch or compress time at will, leap years and miles without a concern for how it will impact a shooting schedule or production budget.  The only limitation on the prose writer is the limits of his/her ability to command the written word; to fill up all that “white space” Szilagyi talks about with prose that entertains, engages, and – at its best – emotionally provokes.  Says Suzanne Trauth about when she began writing a series of successful mystery novels:

…the screenplay/play writing help(ed) with novel dialogue.  But not so much with the novel’s descriptive passages, sentence shaping, metaphorical language.  In the beginning, novel writing was much harder because of that.  I had to learn to settle into a scene and let the novel breathe.

We are visual creatures; the eyes are our primary source of sensory information.  We do not dream in words but in images.  It’s why most commercial fiction tends to be heavily descriptive; the author is describing the “movie” he/she has imagined as the source of their written work.  The challenge for the author is turning those images into effective prose.  The stronger the literary work, the more evidenced is the author’s ability to take the written word as far as it can go into areas where only the written word can go.  Says Stephen Whitty:

The reason that novelists like Faulkner and Joyce are so tough to film is that nobody ever read those writers for their plotting; you read them for the words, for the ideas, and if you only concentrate on the storytelling, as movies tend to do, you lose a great deal of what makes them work.  The eternal power of The Great Gatsby comes from the words on that last page, as Fitzgerald talks about America, and hope, and romanticism and dreams; he uses the green light at the end of Daisy’s pier as a symbol, but for a filmmaker to just show us that light without the words accompanying it is to strip the image of its meaning.

And Bernie Dunlap talking about Proust:

…I vividly see, hear, and feel all the great scenes of In Search of Lost Time…it’s his language in those long ruminative passages that is the most distinctive aspect of his greatness, the ways in which…words and words alone can capture and convey the full awareness of a living mind.

“A living mind.”  Movies – and theater, for that matter – deal in the concrete.  What you see is, literally, what you get.  The material may be highly subtextual, deep as hell, but in terms of what’s in front of us, there is no abstract.  What is filmed or presented on the stage, no matter how fantastic or bizarre, becomes real.  “But novels — ,” says Stephen Whitty, “descriptive, interior, often ambiguous – seem to be a different animal from dramatic writing.”  Prose – even the blandest, most commercial prose – has the capacity (depending on the ability of the author) for the purely abstract; the poetic if you will.

Bernie Dunlap was my first film teacher, and gave the example of the Robert Burns poem, “Oh, My Love Is Like a Red, Red Rose.”  There is no cinematic equivalent to:

Oh my Luve’s like a red, red rose

That’s Newly sprung in June

O my Luve’s like the melodie

That’s sweetly play’d in tune…

Showing the image of a rose doesn’t convey the non-literal emotional subtext implied by the phrase because it can’t.

If you want to see a painfully clear example of the strengths of one medium crashing into the limits of another, watch John Sturges’ 1958 film adaptation of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.  Hemingway’s short novel is all about subtext, allegory, the sense that the story we’re reading is about something more, something greater than a story told with elegant simplicity about an old fisherman down on his luck trying to land the catch of his life.  But as a filmmaker, what Sturges is stuck with per Stephen Whitty is Spencer Tracy sitting in a little boat for most of the movie holding on to a fishing line while a voiceover (also Tracy) reads passages from the novel.  The novel is literary greatness; the movie is, well, it’s an old guy in a rowboat for an hour.

Quite a few years ago I was engaged to write a novelization of an independent film.  When the film project collapsed, I was given permission by the filmmaker to try to publish the novel as a stand-alone effort.  The publisher rejections piled up, I couldn’t quite figure out what the problem was until one editor commented, “It reads like a novelization.”  It took me a few years to fully understand what that meant, and then came the epiphany:  the novel had no interior life.  It was, literally, a prose description of the film.  Film is lousy at going interior; the best literature thrives on it.

But if the author is in the enviable position of having complete control over his/her content (for today, we’ll forgo editor/author battles), prose also has its limits.  Actually, only one, and the most obvious one:  it’s just words on a page.  The page cannot convey the nuance of a live or filmed actor’s performance; what an actor is capable of with a look, with a slight change in tone of voice, a subtle shift in attitude. 

The page also falls short in capturing the epic scope of which the big screen is capable.  Think of the climactic battle in Stanley Kubrick’s 1960 sword-and-sandal classic, Spartacus.  Kubrick arranged 8500 extras on a Spanish plain, set his camera up a half-mile away to capture the spectacle of their maneuvering like a Roman legion in one of the great visual treats of that era of period epics.

Or compare Mario Puzo’s lurid potboiler The Godfather with Francis Ford Coppola’s brooding 1972 classic film adaptation.  Coppola’s film has a texture, a subtlety, a melancholy quality Puzo’s novel can’t approach because those qualities are delivered primarily in visual terms.  I’d even argue the movie is more literary in its feel than its source book!

Visceral action also tends to play comparatively weakly on the page.  Imagine the classic car chase from the 1967 cop thriller Bullitt rendered into prose, or the chariot race from Ben-Hur (1959), the charge of the Arab tribes on Aqaba in Lawrence of Arabia (1962).  Well, if you can’t, it’s because you can’t.  As I tell my writing students, it takes more time to describe punching someone in the nose and its effects than it takes to show it, which can’t help but dull the impact.

To repeat myself from an essay I wrote on “Show, Don’t Tell”:

The page “shows” us nothing because there are no images for us to see…we have only the printed word.  The writer’s task is to provide textual cues in the hope of triggering in the mind of the reader images and sensations stored in the reader’s mental data bank.  It’s a form of connect-the-dots, with a writer’s prose providing the dots and the reader having to make the connections.  The more deft the writer is in the placement of the dots, the stronger the response of the reader…

And this is where prose makes a supreme demand on the reader that visual media don’t require.  Bernie Dunlap:

When I cited Burns’ poem in my opening film classes, my point was that “My love is like a red, red rose” remains an inert cliché unless the reader or listener visualizes the rose and calls to mind its thorns, its fragrance, its brevity and all the related sensations and connotations of danger, pain, sweetness, beauty, and loss…

This is, perhaps, why more authors are able to make the transition to screenwriting than the reverse.  It is easier (mind you, I didn’t say “easy”; I said easier) to scale down prose and description to the spine of a plot and dialogue laid out across a skeletal white space-filled 120 pages and letting filmmakers take on the responsibility of execution, than it is for a screenwriter to have to take on the job of every member of the production crew, and then translate their efforts into readable prose filling up all that white space with, at minimum, 50-60,000 words (a slim 150-page or so novel), hoping they’ve built a strong enough bridge to the reader’s imagination for his/her written story to work for the reader.  


In 1972, Filmways released Fuzz, a film adaptation of the novel of the same name by Ed McBain.  The novel was one in McBain’s successful “87th Precinct” series of policiers.  The screen adaptation was penned by Evan Hunter, a novelist of some note himself, and whose previous screen credits included Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963).

And that’s how the screenplay credit reads:  screenplay by Evan Hunter based on the novel by Ed McBain.

Here’s the funny thing:  Evan Hunter and Ed McBain were the same guy.  McBain was a pen name Hunter used to write his crime thrillers while, under his own name, he wrote more literary-type books as well as film and TV scripts.

If you read Hunter’s McBain books (and I’ve read quite a few), it’s clear Hunter understood how to make words – even dialogue – spark on the page.  And looking at his screenwork, it’s equally clear he understood what was going to play on the screen.  The monkey-bars-and-crows sequence from The Birds would have played horribly on the page but is prime fodder for a master of visual suspense like Hitchcock.  Likewise, a four-and-a-half page verbal pas de deux between two homicide cops at the beginning of his novel Lightning, discussing in black comic terms a woman’s body hanging from a lamp post (“A person hangs himself, you say he got hanged.  Not hung.”), minor characters to boot, would never make it past the first draft of a screenplay; a time-waster by two characters who never reappear in the story and contribute nothing to the main plot is going to get cut.

It’s not that being a jack-of-all-trades – or even maybe just a couple of trades – is an impossible feat, but it’s accomplished knowing that the rules change with the game, that a touchdown is not the same thing as a home run even when the ultimate aim in either case is to score.

Written By

Bill Mesce, Jr.'s books include Overkill: The Rise and Fall of Thriller Cinema, the recently published The Wild Bunch: The American Classic That Changed Westerns Forever (McFarland), and The Screenwriter's Notebook: Reflections, Analyses, and Chalk Talk on the Craft and Business of Writing for the Movies (Serving House), as well as the novel Median Gray (Willow River Press) and Inside the Rise of HBO: A Personal History of the Company That Transformed Television.

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