WRITING: Playing With Prose

The moment I found screenwriting (I was fifteen), I happily crossed out  ‘novelist’ as a potential career path. For most of my childhood, I’d eyed it with trepidation: I knew from a young age I wanted to write for a living and it was the closest thing I could see to a dream career, but at the same time I’d had no lust for that form of writing – even as I loved books. Something about it didn’t appeal to me. I’d rant about how literary fiction spent time ‘describing the curtains’, my shorthand for the indulgences that bored me about the books I found too dry. And the life of writing manuscripts and getting rejected over and over sounded exhausting.

Later on I’d hear the same about screenwriting and be energised by it, which is one odd element of my personality I’ll never quite understand. But that’s a different topic.

Part of what I loved about screenwriting that troubled me about prose, I now suspect, was that screenwriting had clear basic rules for what made for strong writing: concise, visual description and vivid dialogue that differentiated every character. There are plenty of other elements, but these were the foundation on which I built my screenwriting career. In editing a script, I pore over sentences to pick better, clearer words and pare down syllables to sharpen description. It gave me a guide, from which I could stand to build a voice.

Prose, on the other hand, seemed so free. Every good writer has their own voice, their own approach, and the best were always different from the others. Followed different rules. For a fifteen year old who didn’t have a distinct voice, that was terrifying to me. I’d write stories that went on forever with no focus, never quite sure how to progress. My grasp of grammar and spelling was always strong, as was my mastery (if that’s the word to use for a teenager) of the language. Writing books requires an instinct I was nowhere near having developed. Structure, I’d later realise, was my everpresent demon.

Scripts, meanwhile, have a very distinct structure. It started with the hour-long drama: Four ten-page acts and a five-page teaser, which scenes tending to 2 pages. (Now five and six acts, as commercial time has swelled over the years.) Then films: A three-act screenplay with certain key points at different places. Because structure was so difficult to me and formula nearly impossible, this became intoxicating – because it was what I most needed. To force my writing into an agreed-upon structure, to learn how to first impose it on my writing than then develop an instinct for it.

Structure is still my biggest challenge. I commonly do well with character-work and style, but structure and plotstuffs remain my biggest area of struggle. But I’m far better in this arena than I was when I started, by a long shot. And in the intervening years, I’ve finally developed that instinct for how I want a given story to work. A rhythm I can sense in my stomach as I develop it. And in working on the Wattpad extension of Inhuman Condition, I’ve started to realise I might want to try prose again. Reading the sublime The Flight of the Silvers hammered it in for me: I want to give prose another shot.

I took my shot at NaNoWriMo a couple years ago. I got ~12,000 words into an adaptation of a sci-fi passion project I’d originally developed for TV called Two Roads. I loved the couple weeks I devoted to working on it. I’ve been thinking about that project a lot since reading Flight of the Silvers, as that book nailed the balance of thoughtful plotting and rich characters that I’d wanted to do with Roads. Before, my main touchpoint for the project had always been Farscape, one of my favourite TV series. Now I wonder if I could tell the story I’d always wanted to in book form.

I might dabble in it this summer, as an ‘escape’ from my screenwriting projects. So… we’ll see. Should be fun. And perhaps I’ll share snippets of here and you (whatever hypothetical ‘you’ is still reading despite my many absences) can tell me whether I’m wasting my time! Worth the shot to add another form to my tool belt.

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