Confessions of a Hollywood Screenwriter-Turned-Novelist

“Once you get past all the good writing you can see what the problem is.”

Daniel Pyne

Daniel Pyne’s screenwriting credits include the remake of “The Manchurian Candidate,” “Pacific Heights,” and “Fracture.” He made his directorial debut with the indie cult film “Where’s Marlowe?” Pyne’s list of television credits includes J. J. Abrams’s “Alcatraz” and “Miami Vice.” His latest novel is Fifty Mice. He lives in Southern California. Here, Pyne unravels the screenwriter/novelist paradox.

In a listicle of “dignified writing professions,” screenwriting likely ranks somewhere between Chinese-translation product manuals and HuffPost side-boob top commentators. Poets, by virtue of their rarity and poverty, should be at the top, followed by short story writers, literary novelists, playwrights, lyricists, investigative journalists, and advertising copywriters, who certainly are having their renaissance thanks to “Mad Men.”

But screenwriters? Screenwriters need only look at the way they portray themselves: From “Sunset Boulevard” to “The Stunt Man,” from “The Player” to “Adaptation,” script jockeys are invariably characterized as craven, neurotic, insecure hacks who sold out whatever talent they had long ago for a hillside house and an Audi, and now want only, desperately, to please. And this recent celebration of television writers is the final indignity; the fallback position for any screenwriter used to be that at least they had television writers to look down on. No more.

“Script jockeys are invariably characterized as craven, neurotic, insecure hacks who sold out whatever talent they had long ago for a hillside house and an Audi.”

Even those lucky enough to cross disciplines, write screenplays and novels (or plays, or poems), generally, when pressed, will refer to their screenwriting as slumming, or a way to support their more serious work (and that first spouse they traded in for the new high-maintenance trophy mate they met at a Spirit Awards after-party).

Yeah, and I’m one of them. Guilty as charged.

But having come backward to novels, after some time writing movies (and television), my frankly pretentious ambition was that I’d read so many book galleys submitted by publishers in the hope that someone would make them into a movie, and they were all so transparently constructed and briskly written with that single goal in mind, I could write prose fiction that was every bit as breathless and entertaining as a movie. Go ahead. Mock me. I deserve it. Because while screenwriting, in its purest form the art of concision, of deciding how little you can get away with saying and still tell your tale in less than 120 pages, would appear to be the poor cousin and complete opposite of novel writing, in which the goal is to include everything necessary. But in fact, they’re just different instruments with which to tell a story.

Where a novel can lean on language to crawl inside characters and reveal not just what they’re thinking but what they feel, and how it feels or moves them, a screenplay relies solely on image, motion, the meaning and effect of gesture, of action; what a character does becomes the conduit to state of mind. As a general rule you cannot, in a screenplay, tell what a character is thinking, you have to dramatize it, put it into motion, or have them say it (or lie, and in lying reveal the truth).

And yet, that strict ration of words, the spare suggestion of a movie on the page, the abstraction of story into pictures and the juxtaposition of sound and silence, action and dialogue absent authorial exposition, which at its best takes on the character of poetry, has made me a better writer. The hyper-present first-person voice, the relentless flow, the strange music of a screenplay can afford one kind of storytelling; those same qualities, in different proportions, can also produce a novel.

Sure, films are meant to be experienced in a single sitting, and run relentlessly from beginning to end, never going back (although, in the age of DVR, even that is arguable), so movie writing tends to be simpler, structurally less complex, perhaps more blunt, perhaps less nuanced.

But the terrible truth about screenwriting, the reason for all the self-loathing, isn’t that novelists are the better writers, it’s that a screenplay is not a final product for anyone except the screenwriter. Just when we’ve finished, everyone else starts in. You can’t get around it. Film is collaborative, a collage of acting, directing, writing, music, editing, sound, visual arts — a novelist works alone. Both require you to create a kind of movie in your reader’s mind, but a screenplay is merely a trigger that gets a movie made, one in which your telling of the story is essential, but in which many other artists will have their say. In a novel, open the book, every word is mine. For better or worse, I direct my movie on the page. I find that amazingly gratifying, after so many years in which I felt like the itinerant poet in a Medici summer house, writing for a select few people who might appreciate my prose but, really, are looking at it as a napkin sketch for something else.

“A screenplay is not a final product for anyone except the screenwriter.”

True story: The head of a big movie studio once told me, by way of giving constructive criticism on a script they’d bought in a frenzy but still felt the need to develop, “Once you get past all the good writing you can see what the problem is.”

I know, right?

This article originally appeared on Word & Film.

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