Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Split Writing Personalities

Today Riordan's Desk welcomes guest blogger Lou Berney to discuss his debut novel, Gutshot Straight, and talk about the difference between writing screenplays and prose fiction.

When I tell someone that I’m a writer, the invariable question is: What kind? I explain that I write both screenplays and prose fiction, but this is not strictly true. The more precisely correct answer would be: One part of me writes screenplays, another part writes prose fiction. And rarely the twain do meet, at least not without it turning into a heated argument.

Preparing for Take-Off

A screenplay is all about moving parts and meshing gears. Screenwriter Me, especially if he’s on deadline, constructs an insanely detailed pre-draft outline. He breaks down the narrative and calculates how many pages each component part – act, scene, beat – will run, and how many amps each will draw. If, for example, you blow your circuits in the middle of act two, you won’t have anything left for the big finish.

Fiction-Writer Me dreams up a fairly detailed pre-draft outline too, but Screenwriter Me would roll his eyes to hear it described as such. It’s more impressionistic and asks as many questions as it answers. It includes notes like, “Maybe some kind of confrontation here? Or a love scene? But does she love him? See what feels right at the time.” (Screenwriter Me is rolling his eyes again.)

The Helluva-It Principle

When you write a screenplay, you’re living in a room with four walls and square footage set in concrete (only 112 or so script pages), so efficiency is crucial. Every scene, character, and description must serve the story. If it can be cut, it probably should be. Screenwriter Me is a ruthless, cold-eyed assassin who enjoys his work. Faulkner wouldn’t have to tell him to kill his darlings, because those darlings are already dead, dismembered, and neatly buried in the backyard.

When you write a novel, you’ve got all elbow room you need. You can add a scene, a character, or a description just for the helluva it – just because, in other words, the addition might help create a richer, more textured fictional world. Fiction-Writer Me likes to throw parties and invite the whole neighborhood. While writing my novel, Gutshot Straight, I happened to read an article about the creepy, fascinating, wonderful “international marriage business.” So I found a way to work that in. Why not? The more the merrier! Just bring beer.

And the Winner Is

There are a lot of other differences between the two kinds of writing. I could probably write a book (but probably not a movie) about them. To sum up, though, I will state unequivocally that it’s a lot harder to write a screenplay than it is to write a novel, and vice versa.

A screenplay’s defined limits can comfort but also confine. A novel’s wide-open landscape can liberate but also disorient. It can be relief, in a screenplay, to be responsible for just the writing and not the acting, art direction, or cinematography. In a novel, by contrast, you have to light the cobbled streets of Casco Viejo in Panama City at midnight, and you need to provide your exotic dancers with watermelon-scented body spray. But how cool is that, that in a novel you get to do, to be, everything?

In the end, I think writing screenplays makes me a better fiction writer, and writing fiction makes me a better screenwriter. Because even though my split writing personalities don’t really get along at all, they can occasionally be coaxed to – grudgingly – read the other’s work and provide a few helpful notes.

Lou Berney is an accomplished writer, teacher, and liar. He has written feature screenplays and created TV pilots for, among others, Warner Brothers, Paramount, Focus Features, ABC, and Fox. He is the author of THE ROAD TO BOBBY JOE, a collection of stories, and his short fiction has appeared in publications such as The New Yorker, New England Review, Ploughshares, and the Pushcart Prize anthology. He has taught at the University of Oklahoma, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and in the MFA program at Saint Mary's College in California. GUTSHOT STRAIGHT, his first novel, was written during the 2007-2008 film and TV Writers Guild strike. Visit his website at


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