Monday, September 17, 2007

How Script Frenzy Saved My Novel

I will confess to you now that I am not entirely of sound mind, when it comes to writing my own fiction. There was a point, and I only tell you this because we are very close friends, where I was almost paralyzed in my fiction by weird little habits and the writing ticks that I had developed.

I was very concerned about the way things looked on the page. I needed the paragraphs to appear in a certain way, very rectangular, all approximately the same size, and I didn't want words hanging down, no strange line breaks. I felt compelled to write my novel in small sections, not really chapters, but three page sections, and each of the three page sections had to be exactly three pages. Exactly. So, when I took out a sentence here, I had to add one there. When I added a sentence there, and it started hanging onto another page, I had to take out that sentence and add a different one.

It was like math, kind of. It was very engrossing. I told myself that the form was being dictated by the very structured mind of the character, by the nature of the book, that I could always go back and change it later. Except, as the book progressed, I was not going back to change anything, and it was increasingly becoming this awful, hard little nut of overworked prose. With no dialogue. Did I mention that? We can't have dialogue spreading out all over the place and messing up our lovely juicy paragraphs, can we precious? No, precious, we can't. You get the idea. What started out with a mild compulsion turned into a book-crushing mania. I have known some famous and clever postmodernists who do this kind of thing with grace and dignity. I, however, was doing it with teeth-gnashing and forehead-clasping. Not the same.

Then I decided to do Script Frenzy. Script Frenzy is a month-long nightmare similar to Nanowrimo except that in Script Frenzy you write a screenplay in a month, whereas in Nanowrimo you write a novel in a month. Script Frenzy is in June while Nanowrimo is in November. I had never written a screenplay before, but I thought, hey, why not. It's not like my novel is clipping along at such an alarming rate that I can't take a few weeks off to do something else. I wrote my script. I used CeltX which is a free, downloadable script-writing software. It forces you do format everything correctly. Watching my script pour out of my frantic fingers, it did not occur to me to count lines in a paragraph of scene description, it did not occur to me to be offended by the dialogue straggling down the page, and by the end of the experience, the screenplay format looked very normal and familiar and right. And I finished 20K words and got to the end, which means I won, as you can see by my sparkling icon at the left.
When I returned to work on my novel, two astonishing things had happened.
1. I can now comfortably write dialogue. This shocks me, because all of my life as a writer I have avoided dialogue whenever possible. I would write "He told her go to home." six times before I would write ""Go home," he said." When I picked up Script Frenzy, I felt certain I would go mad because of all the dialogue I would have to write. Somehow, I bullied myself through it, and on the other side of that experience, dialogue is no longer my enemy.
2. I have a much better understanding of how to describe a scene in terms of the physical surroundings. I used to really struggle with this, and found myself skipping over it a lot, or doing it in some sort of truculent, obvious way, because I could never feel relaxed about taking time out of the scene to look around the room and say, "The walls were green. The ceiling was high. On the floor, there was a carpet. On the chair, there was a dog." Writing scene descriptions in the screenplay was different. You're forced to create a very succinct paragraph to describe the setting, and the purpose of it is not to be lovely, but to be functional. So you find the three objects in the room that give it its character, or you find the scope of the exterior landscape you're describing, or the hat the character is wearing, or the empty diet Coke can under the radiator, and you hang the scene on that. Very useful. The skill translates perfectly into novel-writing. It's okay to drape a whole scene over the cut of glass on the chandelier. It all evolves from that. I get that now.
As I was writing my screenplay, I felt very strange writing a document that was not meant to be read. That is, it wasn't the final product. These words, in this screenplay, are not the art. They're instructions for creating the art. So, while the words are still important, obviously, the way they look on the page has no meaning. They're crammed into a standard format, and there's no deviating from it -- it's out of your hands. Working in this form really made me think about the story, the characters, the dialogue... and stop concentrating on the form.
Writing a screenplay made me a better novelist, for sure. When I returned to fiction, it was as if the hobbles had been taken off my horse. I'm glad I made the effort and took the chance on a new format, even though the screenplay itself may never see the light. At this rate, the book possibly will.


  1. I enjoyed reading this post. Several of my friends did Script Frenzy--with mixed results. I refused to take any time away from my "writing" (if that makes any sense) to participate, and, besides, I don't have a problem with dialogue. Or rather, I may very well have a problem with dialogue, but I like writing it better than description. I can have pages of dialogue and no description at all. Anyway, always like to hear of another writing working things out.

    Hope you do NaNo again this year!

  2. I'll be there, with bells on. Or with sackcloth and ashes on. :)

  3. Script Frenzy sounds like fun! I'll have to check it out sometime.

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