BWS 12.05.21 report: “Screenwriting versus Prose” with Tricia Fish

Tricia Fish is a Canadian writer who studied art; she is best known for her debut comedy feature inspired by her youth in Cape Breton – “New Waterford Girl”, nominated for seven Genies. She writes features, shorts, and television; her new series is in development with Sienna Films.

Today I took a class with Alexander Chee, who teaches at Dartmouth and is the author of “Queen of the Night” and “How to Write an Autobiographical Novel”.  Chee is a fiction writer, poet, journalist, and reviewer whose essays and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, T Magazine, Tin House, Slate, Guernica, and Out, among others. After an inspiring zoom session dense with literary theory and examples of autobiographical fiction, Chee, who wore a black t-shirt decorated with an anchor and sipped on hot tea “to counter the hot day” in Vermont, fielded chat questions. He recommended a few strategies writers can use to try to get unstuck, acknowledging the pandemic has created in many writers a sense of being in a rut, of plowing away at the same thing for too long, and subsequently losing energy. Chee suggested the pedestrian tricks of stepping away from your desk to do a couple of push-ups, or (his preference) karate kicks around the living room. Sometimes, Chee confessed, he changed the font and the margins and pretended what he was writing was a completely different book. He also suggested writing in a form that is alien or new to you. At this point Chee began to use his hands and seemed to sit up in his chair. Chee revealed that he recently took a TV writing class, which he loved. He chose to write a spec script for the opening episode of season four of Westworld. I was shocked. He had fun, he said, and he found it interesting to write within the very formal constraints of TV Writing. He seemed energized.  

I’ve been thinking that for a prose writer, perhaps energy can be found in leaving aside, for a while, the interiority that is such a powerful element in fiction. A prose writer must shift to the outside world as they begin to consider screenplay. At its most essential, a screenplay describes narrative in image, sound, and time. 

Here’s a simplistic example. Perhaps your character, a barista depressed with the inequity of her position, is broken hearted by a philandering partner, a physician who refuses to acknowledge her privilege. You might write a paragraph or a chapter about your character’s reaction and thoughts. In this alien new form of screenplay, you do not write these personal impressions, unless in voice-over narration, which risks rifting the suspension of disbelief. How can you show us interiority? 

Perhaps your character stands in her apartment kitchen staring with hatred at her lover’s environmentally destructive Keurig coffeemaker (over which we have seen them argue). She yanks it off the counter, carries it outside to the driveway, where the good doctor has parked a nice white Audi, as fresh as a lab coat. The scene is without words, without thought. But as your protagonist heaves the coffeemaker against the windshield, smashing glass and the machine, and then takes a long moment to process what she has just done, we know how she’s doing. This is a dramatic and perhaps clunky example, but how are small defeats, victories and desires visible in what people do and say? How can you visualize the imagery and actions you have written as thoughts?

If you are considering writing in an alien form, there are a finicky but basic rule that are easy to find and learn about on-line. Screenplay format is precise. It consists of ninety to a hundred and twenty pages for a feature film, with a strict three act structure and margins and font of courier twelve point only. TV show episodes are thirty pages – half an hour of time – or sixty pages – an hour (or forty-four pages – an hour of tv with room for commercials. Yes, we must acknowledge the soap hawker history of the form.) A page of screenplay equals one minute of screen time. Free software applications available online, like FadeIn, can help you format your work properly. The page of a screenplay is divided into slug lines that tell us where we are, stage directions that describe what we see and hear, and dialogue. It is strict, in order to serve as a blueprint for the crew and cast who works to make the screenplay into a screen experience.  

Prose writers overwhelmed with this experiment may be reassured to know that the length of a feature film screenplay works out to be roughly the same word count as seventy pages of prose. Conversely, a full-length novel often is said to carry “too much story”, and risks evisceration in adaptation. Screenplays are short.

In screenplay, visual and narrative format rules are strict and unbreakable, but script-writing is a form easily learned with a little practice and a sense of play. Attempting screenplay may be an energizing way to write about and explore a familiar topic or situation. 

What have you written that did not turn out the way you had hoped? Is there a way to reframe that story, to see it from a new angle and tell it as a visual screen story?  What situation did you experience or want to explore, and what images and sounds accompany that story?  What would you like to see on screen that has never been seen before?  

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