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Friday, 30 September 2011

Screenwriting Ruined My Prose! by R. J. Davnall

Screenplay Writer
Artist: Angel Boligan, Mexico City

We have a very exciting post today from my twitter friend @eatthepen. You might recognize him and if you don't, it's time you met him! And if you're a writer of any kind, shape, or color, stick around! Just a quick note before lift off: I'll be announcing the winner of the Milestone Giveaway (2-chapter critique) tomorrow, so I don't cut into Rik's time. 

So take it away, Ernie! Er... I mean, Rik. (Yes, I'm a Harry Potter nerd.)


It's a very good idea, if you're an aspiring writer, to try your hand at as many kinds of writing as you can. Every task has something to teach, whether you're learning precision and clarity from technical writing or how to construct a beat from humour.

Here's my cautionary tale. I first became really serious about writing when I was about fifteen, and at first I wanted to write novels. I was fifteen, so the results were predictably weak, and I had the added failing of being faddy, so I never finished anything.

And then, two or three years later, I got into cinema and started writing screenplays. This was great, because a complete screenplay is rarely more than a third as many words as even a quite short novel. So, I finished things. Five of them, in the end.

I read some books on screenwriting and film-making, took a film studies A-level, and even attended film and theatre writing courses. My screenwriting actually got half-way decent (by which I mean that I have one screenplay that says at the bottom of the title page 'Draft 7', and might actually be within sight of 'good').

Screenwriting, of course, is heavily dialogue-focused. You have other people to take care of the rest; designers to build locations and outfits (though you might give notes about key features here and there), actors to take care of gesture and expression (y'know, the 'acting' part). Where, as a teenage novelist, my dialogue had been clunky and unnatural, I started to write with flow. Occasionally even zing, whatever that is.

But I didn't write anything except dialogue. And then I went and made things worse. I started writing a webcomic (I did mention I was faddy, right?).

Writing a webcomic is a lot like writing a film, and a few times I actually wrote a film-formatted script before translating it into panels. The big difference, of course, is that with a webcomic, as long as you're doing the art or controlling the artist's brain, you are responsible for the design, setting and gestures.

No problem, then. It balances out, right? If only. When I could be bothered drawing backgrounds and gestures and so on, I was drawing them, usually without putting them into words first and certainly without forming coherent sentences (there's a joke sitting there about webcomic writers and coherent sentences, but I’m not capable of being that harsh to my own kind).

So, when I came back to novels last year, aged 23, I'd had eight or more years of practicing only one skill. My first finished novel, 'Bad Romance' was written in the mad haze of NaNoWriMo, very much by the seat of my pants, and ended up weird enough that it's entirely possible no reader would notice whether my technique was any good, but on my second, 'The Death of John Collins', I really knuckled down and tried to draw on all that writing skill I'd been practicing for eight years.

Let's just say there's a reason I haven't published either of those books yet. 'John Collins' came out as page after page of dialogue, some of it quite subtle and sophisticated, but with only the barest hints of an environment (even when the environment was being torn apart by an apocalyptic storm), and action so stilted it felt robotic. Cinematic, perhaps, but not enjoyable.

By the time I started 'Heaven Can Wait', I was beginning to understand where I'd gone wrong, but even then I spent months redrafting the book to put more setting and visual stimulus into the first half.

The lesson I'm getting at, really, is that it's a good idea to focus on what you want to do with your writing, but not at the expense of neglecting other aspects of your craft - you'll need them all eventually.

R. J. Davnall has been telling stories all his life, and thus probably shouldn’t be trusted to write his own bio. His YA fantasy novel ‘Heaven Can Wait’ was written when he should have been reading for his PhD in philosophy at the University of Liverpool. He lives on *the* Penny Lane, in an attempt to channel any of the inspirational genius that might still be lingering there. When not writing or messing around on Twitter, he can usually be found playing piano or obsessing dangerously over videogames.