Paula Boock surveys the pros and cons of moving from the dark side of TV script writing back to the novel.
Damien Wilkins accuses me of being a scriptwriter at heart. Despite my protestations that this year I am writing a novel, he doesn’t believe I have returned from the dark side. His evidence is that my current novel is being written in Courier font. No self-respecting novelist would use such an ugly font, he maintains. A real writer would work in Times or Garamond.
I have a publishing background. My first publishing company was attached to a printing factory, so I have strong feelings about fonts. The truth is I like Courier. It’s the font most of the great novels of the typewriter age were written in. To me Times and Garamond and their elegant typeface friends are for printed works. They give the page a finalised, polished feel, well above its status as a working draft. I like Courier for its work-in-progress feel. It’s the font of the craftsman, the labourer. So there, Damien. If only I’d thought some of that at the time.
Instead I felt secretly guilty. After 10 years writing books for young adults, I’ve spent the last nine writing for screen – mostly adult television drama. And it’s true that I have at least one foot still firmly planted in the dirty commercial world of television.
Despite what many writers imagine, my experience of the screenwriting industry is one of remarkably high standards. Try not delivering a script on deadline and see what happens. Try delivering a script full of typos and grammatical errors. Try delivering a script that is 30 per cent shorter than what you promised. Try covering your structural inadequacies with a clever style or great one-liners.
Most of the time, in television series anyway, your script will be sent to a group of other writers, producers and the director who will then scrawl comments all over it, and discuss each one with you in a collective script meeting. It’s not a process for the faint-hearted. What does this line mean? Why would this character say it right here, right now? What is this scene actually about? If you want to keep a scene, a character, a line, you may have to fight for it. And it helps if you know exactly why it is there.
Which all sounds horribly combative and anti-creative to most authors. And indeed it can be an intimidating process. But at its best – and I am fortunate to have worked in some best-case scenarios – it can be the most useful thing that ever happened to you.
I come back to novel writing now with a discipline I never had when I wrote my first five novels. I know how to throw work out. I know to rewrite and rewrite and rewrite. I know that nearly always, it gets better. I know that there are always more ideas. I know to go in search of the problem rather than write around it.
I also know a great deal more about structure. Films and television rely on it, to get you to stay in front of that screen. Lose engagement and you lose your viewer. So – first create an intriguing set-up; then develop engaging characters; then it’s structure, structure, structure. What does your character want? What is their obstacle, what are the turning points and surprises in the story? How does the story resolve unpredictably but satisfyingly?
If it all sounds a bit too much like painting by numbers, well that’s what most scriptwriters say when these questions are trotted out, especially from producers who’ve just read the latest script book. All good writers write intuitively. If your intuition is good enough, you get those things right as you go. But most of us need to switch over to left brain at some point and look at our work analytically. Some like to do it when they’re planning a work, others after they’ve finished. Analysis doesn’t create anything, but it can fix anything and, thanks to all those gruelling script meetings and subsequent rewritings, I now have a better idea about what questions to ask and when.
But that’s the difference now. I have to ask them. No-one else is planning this book; no-one else is discussing or arguing with me. If there’s one resounding difference between writing for the page and screen, it’s people. Ultimately, writing for the screen will involve up to several hundred people to realise that vision. And their involvement starts early. Producers, directors, funding bodies, assessors – many like to see and comment on a treatment, a scene breakdown, the first draft, the second, the tenth. Apart from a publisher (usually after you’ve finished the manuscript), there’s virtually no other voice audible at any point of the novel-writing process.
This creative space is what I crave when I’m in the midst of making television. But creative space can also be creative silence. There’s no-one to bounce the ideas off, to wrestle the plot points with, to analyse the weaknesses and strengths of the work. Scriptwriting, love it or hate it, is a collaborative process. It can be noisy, all those other voices; it can be downright noisome. But you’re not alone.
You’d think, then, that coming back to the novel with no hands to hold, I’d structure it within an inch of its life; that I’d draw boxes and arrows on a whiteboard the way we do in scriptwriting meetings. I could, and maybe it would be an illuminating exercise. But apart from a general road map, the thing I’m enjoying the most is the lack of planning. I’m particularly embracing digression, those little flights of fancy that take you off on a left-hand branch road and sometimes deliver unexpected delights. Most of the time the structure in film and television is too tight to allow those indulgences, but, as all readers know, those “indulgences” are often the difference between a good and a great book.
It seems to me that these idiosyncrasies of prose-writing are all part of that mysterious thing we call voice. And voice is the missing piece in the scriptwriter’s toolbox. Or at least, voice is achieved by the invisible hand. Only by selection – which character, which scene, which line shall I choose to explore this idea? – does the scriptwriter develop a voice. I can sometimes tell a David E Kelley, or a Charlie Kaufman or a Jimmy McGovern script without seeing the writer’s credit, because I’ve come to recognise the selective elements of their script style. But it’s nothing like the smack in the head you get when reading a great descriptive passage by Arundhati Roy or David Malouf.
Unless you use voiceover – and let’s face it, 90 per cent of the time that’s just cheating – the scriptwriter’s voice and the tone of the work must be communicated without speaking directly to the audience, even through a narrator.
Which is one of the greatest challenges of scriptwriting. It’s a constraint that forces you to select oh-so-carefully all those other elements. It’s a constraint that focuses you on dialogue as the only immutable words in the project. And of course it encourages you to think visually, finding motifs for the themes and undercurrents you would otherwise weave into your prose.
Apart from dialogue, most of a script is given to communicating your story through action and images, for the director and actors to translate into their pictures and performance. You rely on their art, their vision and their voice to see it through. You are the starting point, the only one who begins with a blank page; but the end point belongs to you all.
If I sound a little wistful about all this, it’s true. The business of finding the right word, of crafting the perfectly cadenced sentence, of building a book stone by stone, can feel like a life sentence. It’s laborious, brow-beating, heart-breaking work, in which I am confronted constantly by my own shortcomings. Sometimes I feel like a sculptor provided only with a toothpick.
There is one great reward of course. For good or bad, knowing a work is yours and yours alone is an experience no scriptwriter truly has. Your words, your voice, your flaws, your successes, your mistakes. All finally printed, when the time is right, in Times New Roman, thanks.