Writing fiction vs writing for film

I’ve been so absorbed with our short film project that all my free time has been taken up by production meetings, script revisions, scene breakdowns and fund raising. Fiction is squarely on hiatus for the moment, though I’m still sending out the odd novel query.

Novels are like a marathon. Here’s my process: wake up obscenely early; read a few hundred words from the previous day and do some light editing; crank out a target number of words (500 – 1,200); go out and live your regular life; sleep; repeat.  You need a rhythm that you can sustain for a long period of time. Years.

With film scripts, it seems to be a series of sprints. A first draft can take a couple of months only because full time work, family and mortgage-related related obligations conspire to squeeze out the time you have to write. The collaborative aspect of making a film also changes the dynamic. You’ll do a read with cast or crew members and find yourself editing on the fly. One of your actors will be a different age, gender or ethnicity than you’d originally planned, and that will force changes. We had trouble casting a woman in the 40s-50s age range for A Country Wedding, so we wrote her out of the script and added a younger woman in her 20s because we had a strong read from a younger actor.

So one form of storytelling happens in the slog of an isolating routine, and the other happens in the chaos of collaboration.

The key aspect of writing prose fiction is focus. You need to zero in on the emotional core of your work. you need to intensively follow the heart of your story. In screenwriting, it’s all about flexibility. Can you hold the story together when someone throws a wrench into your plans. These surprises come in the form of budget issues, equipment and location challenges, producer notes, etc. Writing prose fiction is muscling through a steep uphill hike through thick underbrush and loose scree. Writing for film is holding everything together while your scampering down the same grade at a headlong sprint.

I’ve tried to make comparisons for my own sake, and I can’t identify any inherent superiority in one form of writing over the other. I enjoy them both, or rather compelled to do them both. Storytelling is that weird, narcissistic compulsion to make something up and share it with other people. Writing film scripts and novels both address this need. If you’re so disposed, it’s not like you really have a choice. Not writing isn’t really an option.

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