The dwindling market for original screenplays in Hollywood has left aspiring screenwriters looking to the literary market to find an audience for their stories. But the process of adapting from a screenplay into a novel presents unique storytelling issues that have yet to be formally addressed.

This blog is the product of a year-long partnership between Jon James Miller, an award-winning screenwriter, and Charlotte Cook, publisher at KOMENAR Publishing, to develop one of Jon's award-winning scripts into a publishable novel.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Setting: Make Your Own Reality (Jon)

Every writing teacher has said to know my strengths as a writer: “Knowing your strengths will help you overcome your weaknesses.” My particular strength is dialogue. My particular weakness is setting. I never understood how the former was going to help me with the latter. Never saw a connection whatsoever between the two. Then one day I realized what dialogue and setting had in common: Character.

When I was around six, my father took my twelve-year-old brother Tom and me to a carny in New Jersey. Not a circus, mind you, but a CARNY. Circuses are full of animals, some clowns and cotton candy. A carny is a traveling freak show. Going to a carny was like going to a family reunion. But I digress.

My brother and I were two introverted spectacled intellectual children whose idea of a good time was drawing for hours listening to the Star Wars soundtrack. Thrust into a world of sun-baked carny rides housed within death-trap double-wides operated by miscreants who drank and snorted their breakfast was not our idea of fun. More like hell. Needless to say, we were terrified.

Dad shoved my brother and me into a line marked “Haunted House.” My brother, ever the cautious one, used me as a human shield and let me go first. I stood my turn in line, my brain busy trying to process why it was called a house when in actuality it was a trailer truck with wheels. I wore green, corduroy overalls that day and, when our time arrived, Tom used my suspenders like reins, steering me into the dark chasm while dad gnawed the end of a Dutch Master cigar, laughing and smoking it up behind us.

The moment I was inside the pitch-black trailer, I freaked. I broke my reins and ran into the darkness screaming bloody murder. THWACK! My head connected with a wall. To my right a fish tank containing a bright pink skull lit up. I instinctively turned to my left and ran CRACK! into another wall. Another fish tank and skull lit up. Turn, THWACK, repeat.

By the time I saw daylight again, my overalls were down around my ankles, my underwear was bunched up my ass and a bump on my head had grown to the size of an ostrich egg. I cried for my mom, too young to realize I’d been scarred for life by that day at the carny. No different than a family reunion.

What the hell does the above story have to do with setting? For me, everything. When I first started writing seriously, I used to write myself into corners. I had no idea where my characters were in time and space. They’d smack right up against walls I didn’t even know were there. Just like I had back in the haunted dump truck. Except no skulls lit up.

A writer has to know where characters are before you or your characters know where to go. That said, character and setting are not mutually exclusive because they both co-exist in service to the story. Now let’s add dialogue.

Characters initially present themselves to me through lines of dialogue. Within the dialogue, I can discern what kind of character they are, what they look like and sometimes a clue as to where they’ve come from. But only recently did I realize that if I listened closer, they would tell me where they were when speaking to me.

Dialogue in a screenplay doesn’t have tags. You know who’s speaking because the CHARACTER NAME is above the line. PARENTHETICAL DIRECTION, the line placed between CHARACTER and DIALOGUE lines to describe what the character is doing or who they are addressing when they speak, is and should be a rarity. That’s up to the director and actor. But in novels, it’s imperative that tags be used to identify who is speaking, where they are (i.e. SETTING) and what they’re doing. That’s up to you, the writer, to tell the reader.

Setting is not something a fiction writer can afford to be sparse or vague with. Setting describes the character as much and as well as dialogue can. Remember, setting in a story is site specific for a reason. A richly rendered and accurate setting adds credibility to the writer so the reader knows they are in good hands. And what characters in the setting are doing while they are speaking can often illuminate what they are feeling when they speak.

Consider a character furiously hitting the table with his fist, screaming profanities while seated in a fine restaurant during the lunch rush. These actions will not only produce loud SOUNDS, but also VISUAL ECHOES reverberating and reflecting throughout the physical and emotional state they inhabit. Putting this action in the tag will heighten the reader’s appreciation for where the character is mentally as well as physically. How they are interacting with their physical environment gives the reader an added dimension to how they are feeling internally. What kind of material the table is made of (i.e. metal or wood) will produce a different sound, as will the china table setting, the walls, windows and furniture surrounding the character. Then you have the other patrons and how they react to consider. This rich detail will make the reader feel they are in the room with the character and be ever more emotionally invested in the outcome.

All characters, like real people, exist within a three-dimensional world. A writer needs to discover and reveal that space with as much detail as necessary to convey what kind of world the character inhabits. And when all three story elements – character, dialogue, setting – work in concert, a reader doesn’t have to work as hard to understand where the story is set and where it is going.

Setting is what grounds us all in reality, so it must be present in fiction, albeit a fictional reality. If not, the reader will just stumble around in the dark until they hit a wall, or, even scarier – they throw your book at one in frustration.

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