Friday, September 23, 2016

Re- Formatting

            Not so much a pop culture reference as a tech reference.  Came up with that title and then remembered working with my first computer when I was... nine?  I remember having to format floppy discs before you could use them.  Anyone else remember that?
            Very sorry I missed last week.  Deadline crunch. Which I’m still in, really, but I didn’t want to miss two solid weeks in a row.
            Anyway...
            I was rewatching some episodes of an old show recently, and it struck me that it had a major format problem.  And as I mulled on it, it struck me I’ve seen this problem a few times before. Sometimes firsthand, happening right in front of me.
            I want to point out something... well, I’d say it’s obvious, but I don’t think it always is. I think it’s been muddled by a lot of would-be gurus and experts spreading bad information.  And since that’s what led to the ranty blog in the first place, well...
            Anyway, let me throw some wisdom at you.

            Novels are not comic books.
            Comic books are not television scripts.
            Television scripts are not movie scripts.
            Movie scripts are not stage plays.
            Stage plays are not novels.

            As I said, should be obvious, right?
            Thing is, each of those storytelling formats is unique unto itself.  Seriously. I can rattle off at least half a dozen inherent differences between any of them.
            We always hear people complain about changes when something is adapted from a book into a movie, but the simple fact is things have to change.  I cannot tell a story in a screenplay the same way I’d tell it in a book.  And I can’t tell a story in a motion picture script the same way it’d be told in an episodic television script.
            Let me give you some examples.
            Based off my own experience—as a crew person, a contest reader, and a screenwriter--I’d guess that 99.9% of all film, television, and stage work is done from the audience point of view.  The only parts that aren’t are the very limited POV shots that sometimes crop up in horror movies or thrillers(usually outside windows, inside closets, or across parking lots) and the rare experimental film like Hardcore Henry that was funded entirely by the powerful carsickness/nausea lobby.
            Contrast that with a book, where the author, with full control, can shift to any point of view they want. I can make the reader see, hear, and experience everything through one character’s senses, knowledge, and memories... and then shift to a different character.  There’s no real way to do that on film.
            However... a book is, for a lack of a better term, a one-source format.  I have to write things out.  There’s no way for the reader to know George has blond-brown hair without me putting “George has blond-brown hair” down on the page.  I might be able to get a little subtle with it, maybe pull some literary sleight-of-hand, but at the end of the day all I can do is put words on the page.  That’s it.  I can’t slip in some details in the background, because everything in a book is presented in the foreground—right there in front of my reader on the page.
            If I’m writing for television, I also need to be aware of the very specific format that most television writing requires.  Episodic shows are usually done with a four or five act structure (not to be confused with three act structure, which is kinda-sorta something else) which requires my story to have a series of mini-cliffhangers where the commercial breaks will be.  If it’s a show with an arc, it also needs to address that a week’s passed since the last episode, and some story points may need to be repeated or re-addressed to cut down on audience confusion.
            Of course, if I’m writing for, say HBO or Netflix, then that doesn’t apply and I have a bit more freedom, structure-wise.  These episodes are almost more like mini-movies.  Except that now I need to be clear people may be binging these stories, watching them back-to-back-to-back, and take that into account.
            Stage writing is also unique because it’s happening right in front of us. There’s an inherent storytelling conceit that we’ll accept these actors don’t see us.  Or that they’re not actually in a forest.  Or they can’t hear that guy behind the tree bellowing his lines out to the back of the theater. This is a different kind of storytelling mechanic, and that’ll be reflected in my writing.
            And none of these are like comic books. Comics are this fantastic medium where we can have an active, flowing story that’s being told completely through static images.  So my comic script has to reflect this. Each panel has to be a single moment, and it has to be the right moment to convey the most impact and information while still flowing smoothly into the next moment I choose to continue the narrative.
            You’re wondering why I’m talking about all this, yes?
            These days it’s not uncommon for a story—or a storyteller—to jump mediums. As I mentioned above, we’ve all seen a ton of books and comics adapted for the movies.  I know several novelists and screenwriters who’ve worked in comics.  I’ve worked with theater directors and playwrights on film projects.
            Thing is, a story can’t go directly from one format to another.  The devices and mechanisms I use here won’t always work here.  Usually won’t, in fact. And I need to be able to make those adjustments.  A really common mistake I’ve seen is when people just yank a story from one format to another with no changes.  Or when they start using the conventions of one format in another
            That show I mentioned up at the top?  In one episode it had three reveals. Thing is, each one was essentially revealing the same thing.  But the filmmakers had assumed since Yakko was the main character for that scene, and Dot was the central figure in that scene, and Wakko was the focus of the final scene... well, they could do the dramatic, big music reveal for each of them.  Alas, it just doesn’t work that way, because—as I mentioned above—we can focus on different characters but it’s all really audience POV.  So the second time around it was more eye-rolling than dramatic and the third time was... well, laughable.
            Last year I had a chance to be in an X-Files anthology.  Truth is, though, the main spine of my short story actually came from a spec script I’d written for an old TV show called The Chronicle.  And I had to make adjustments for that.  Most notably, all those mini-cliffhangers in the story had to be smoothed out.  Some things had to be described much more than they were in the script, because now all those details actually had to be on the page.
            Y’see, Timmy, if I want to shift a story from one format to another, I better understand the conventions and limitations of each one.  And if I want to write in a different format. I need to learn that format as well as I know my current one.  I can’t just go in assuming it won’t matter, or that I’ll be the exception who gets to slide.
            So know what you’re writing.  And how you’re writing.
            Next time, I’d like to talk about some artsy character stuff.
            Until then, go write.

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