In March of 1939 a 40-year old British gentleman stood before an audience at Radio City Music Hall and gave a lecture at the request of the Museum of Modern Art about how motion picture screenplays are designed. For a modern writer of fiction looking to the current books on screenwriting perhaps the most interesting element would be how oddly compartmentalized the process was 70 years ago.
As he explains, first a scenario is written up, no longer than a single sheet of paper. He calls this the steelwork of the story but we would recognize it as plot summary, not unlike those written for query letters to editors and agents.
From there the scenario is rounded out with narrative until it runs about 100 pages… without dialog. This treatment, as he calls it, is purely visual. It explains what the characters do and what happens as a result. Hitch doesn’t say it outright here, but back in the studio days the scenario could have been the brainchild of a producer while the director handled the treatment.
Here’s where things get interesting. Once the treatment is settled, they hand it off to a dialog person (or team) to fill it in scene by scene. At this point the writers handling the dialog are working up the characters and shading the nuances in their motivations. Though they have narrative bits they don’t concern themselves with integrating them. As Hitch says, when it’s over they have a pile of treatment pages and a pile of dialog pages.
From there they move onto a shooting script. Here’s where everything comes together and scenes are plotted out shot by shot. Even at this stage of the game they’re still adding things – bits suggested by dialog, condensing actions and characters, fine tuning visual themes and motifs. When it finally meets everyone’s satisfaction – director, producer and maybe a star with an ego – it’s cast, shot, edited and shown.
After it’s viewed the moviegoer tells someone about the film they’ve just seen, and Hitch says that however they summarize the movie that “is what you should have had on the piece of paper in the very beginning.” Dialog, narrative voice, description, all these in service of that simple scenario that fills a single sheet of paper.
I find this both liberating and infuriating. I don’t like the idea of a story being reduced to a simple series of events that take a character from point A to point B, and yet this is exactly how we are expected to pitch our stories. Then again, how much easier it would be to set down that scenario and simply build the story up layer by layer until it was finished.
The problem is, of course, we aren’t trained to build stories like that, we’re taught to plot them. We can choose whether or not to outline, we can decide to write out of order and shuffle things around later, we’re encouraged to mount a story along Freitag’s pyramid, but I have never heard it suggested that a story be constructed purely on the action, with dialog created on a second pass, and then a final merged draft constructed after that; everything is built whole from the main character’s desires and driving goal.
Hollywood no longer runs the studios the way they did back in the 30s, 40s and 50s, there are no bungalows with stables full of writers hammering out dialog as their apprenticeship for one day writing the final shooting script that gets them their credit. And perhaps Hollywood movies have lost something by teaching the art of screenwriting as a one-man show that focuses on the mechanics of formatting over really building a story scene by scene the old-fashioned way. But I see a possibility here of approaching the construction of fiction in a slightly different light…
Sure, start with a simple plot summary that can fit on a single sheet of paper. Get those characters down there, explain what they want, and how they get it. Then start fresh with a draft that’s just spewing what happens next, what I’ve heard one writer refer to as “one damn thing after another.” Don’t worry about motivation or even logic – those things can be ironed out in revisions – just follow the twisted path of that story to it’s conclusion. Dictate the story and transcribe it, or use voice recognition software, but ramble that story into place. Then break it up by scene and start playing around with dialog. Play. Play acting. Toy with voices. Give the characters character in what they say with no regard for fitting it in. Then go back and do a merged revision of the two, taking into account the whole range of emotions and motivations that have come from the layering of dialog and narrative.
I think too often there is this sense that, when writing, we must try to fit in everything we can as we go. There are exercises for writing character histories, methods of plotting chapter arcs that mirror story arcs, plots and outlines and charts that jerry-rig a story into submission, where the actual writing becomes a sort of MadLib designed to keep everything on track. There isn’t an organic development of ideas, not a lot of room for exploration, just plot-and-follow and get feedback on pacing and whether the narrative is hitting its marks. We study stories this way as well, examining their plot structures like we’re examining the bone structure of a model’s face. As if somehow quantifying the elements that “work” and comprise the whole can explain the final product.
I’m a little too far into my current story to start fresh, but I think the next time I’m getting ready to start a work of fiction I’m going to try this.