Interview: Paul Finch on genre writing, Part II

Paul Finch, WriterHow does your approach vary when writing for the screen and page?

Well, they both start out the same way, but the nature of the two beasts is essentially different. First of all, in both cases, you have to convince someone – either a producer or a publisher that you’ve got a great premise. In both cases you’ve then got to go off and write an impressive treatment. But from the moment they okay it, the two courses diverge.

If you’re writing a screenplay, you’re in company almost all the way through. Okay, you’ll write your first draft on your own, but after that your script editor, your producer, maybe even your director, will have an awful lot to say about its development, and I won’t pretend that this doesn’t give you problems. Trying to serve more than one master in any walk of like is extraordinarily difficult – and it happens a lot in film and TV, because artistic types differ on what they think will work, and often it’s something that is purely subjective, which can be mind-bogglingly frustrating. You’ll do rewrite after rewrite until everyone is finally satisfied. But when the finance people are brought in, you’ll have to do a whole lot more – because they think that because they are paying for the film, they have a say in its artistic development too. At some stage you may find that another writer gets attached; you may even be replaced. It sounds horrible I know, but that is a hazard of film and TV scripting. Just make sure beforehand that it’s in the contract you’ll still be paid the full fee and still be credited as lead writer.

Of course, that would be unthinkable in terms of a novel. I always say this to people who ask me which is the easiest route – well, neither of them are easy, but can you imagine writing a novel and half way through your editor gives you a call and says: “Thanks for your efforts. Someone else will take it from here.” It just wouldn’t happen. In novel writing, the chain of command is much shorter, and there are far fewer people to try and please. In my novel experience, I’ve dealt with the commissioning editor and the senior editor, and that is about it. Okay, they will always request changes, alterations and sometimes extensive rewrites, but you don’t tend to find yourself in daily telephone conversations about this and receiving reams of notes from various different people, some of which contradict each other. And for that reason, I feel writing a novel is a gentler, more relaxed process.

So when you ask how does my approach vary, I’d have to say that it’s primarily a mental thing. If you’re writing a script you might as well accept from the beginning that it’s going to be much more of a team effort. You can’t afford to be precious or proprietorial about film or TV. Understand from the outset that it isn’t really your project and you won’t end up being disappointed.

Do you think you have gained any skills that overlap from screenwriting to prose?

Yes. Screenwriting has improved my other writing no end. It’s taught me to be punchy and succinct, to try and say much more with much less. Many writers of course do that naturally. But I didn’t when I first started out. I had a tendency to overwrite – it was my main weakness. However, when you’re writing a script the only thing you’re putting on paper is the dialogue and the bare minimum stage directions and scene setters the director needs in order to create his vision. In other words, you’re telling a complete story with as little as possible. You are developing characters and unfolding a subtext as stringently as you can.

It’s an intense discipline, not something you can carry over into a novel completely – the average reader would feel very short-changed if that was something you served him, but it’s a great attitude to have when you’re writing a book because it enables you to do the most important job first – lay down the bare bones of a great story – and then add any necessary extra material, the descriptive prose, the steams of consciousness and so on, to create a fuller picture.

I’ve been told that my prose has a very filmic style in that I tend to write in scenes, each one ending with a cliff-hanger. If so, that’s entirely down to my film-writing experience. It’s not to everyone’s taste – I’m well aware of that, but quite a few people seem to like it, and from a personal POV, I find that it helps me produce a tight, linear and very visual narrative.

As well as writing for The Bill on television, you have penned a number of screenplays. What are the major differences between writing for television and film?

There are less these days than there used to be. In the early days of TV, what you basically got were stage-plays on television. Minuscule budgets, restricted studio space and limited camera facility meant that you didn’t very often go beyond the three walls of the main set, and so you had to tell the story primarily through dialogue, and this meant there was lots of it. Anyone watching re-runs of any classic screenplays of the 1980s and earlier, maybe even stuff from as recently as the 1990s, will probably be surprised at how static and talkie they seem. These days TV is very different and much more tightly edited, much more filmic – as exemplified by the modern incarnation of Dr Who, for example, which has lots of short scenes, very little explanatory dialogue and vastly more FX than it used to. This was the way TV had to go in an era when high-energy computer games provide rival entertainment, and all kinds of blockbuster movies are available on download. That said, much present day television is still strongly based around personal drama rather than pretty imagery, so though it tends to look a lot better than it did, it’s not quite as concise a medium as film.

Cinematic movies are still what they have been since their inception in the silent era: mainly a visual experience. It really is all about telling a story through pictures, which is why the directors are so lauded. As the writer, you still have to lay out the narrative and create the drama, but less is more when it comes to dialogue, and exposition has almost no place at all. I’ll give you an example – take a movie like The French Connection (1971): there is very little dialogue in the entire film – many scenes feature none at all, and many feature no more than one or two lines – and yet it’s so well-made, so visually driven a plot, that you barely notice. It doesn’t matter that we have almost no details about the troubled history of Popeye Doyle, or who the other cop is he accidentally killed, or the drugs baron Alain Charnier, or how he got to be France’s number one heroin exporter – we just accept all this because we’re so engrossed in the fast-moving, skin tight narrative.

Writing that way is a discipline that you must acquire if you want to pen movies. And that’s another thing – not only do you have to tell a story with the minimum chat, you have to make the chat count, so quality dialogue tends to be the rule in movies even if it isn’t the kind of dialogue you hear in real life (just because Quentin Tarantino gets away with scripting the kind of meandering, repetitive conversations people have on the street, doesn’t mean every other screen-writer can). The same applies to scene setting and stage-directions. You need to keep those to a minimum. When writing a movie script, rather than fill it with detailed prose, you only need put in what the producer and the director need to know, a) because they will have their own ideas about how it should look anyway, and b) because it will look as good as they ultimately can afford it to look. So for example, ‘a luxuriant tract of jungle, thick with vine and leaf, with a muddy road winding through it, the sort only pack-animals could use’ becomes ‘a thick jungle with a muddy road’, and ‘the two cars roar along the darkened street neck-and-neck like modern-day chariots, striking sparks off each other, the red one veering in front of the blue one, the blue one veering in front of the red’ becomes ‘the cars race dangerously along the darkened street’.

You also have a duty when writing a movie to keep ramping up the tension. People go to the cinema for the same reason they go to fairgrounds – to experience a couple of hours of entertainment. A couple of hours – that’s all they’ve got – so it’s got to be intense. When writing a movie, there’s no room for padding, and I’m not just talking about action and thriller movies here. Even a serious drama must keep the audience on the edge of their seats, so as the writer it’s your job to make sure that every scene ends on some kind of ‘OMG’.

I was quite fortunate when I made my transition from TV to movie-writing as episodes of The Bill were usually about 30% exterior shoots, often entailing action – fighting, chasing and so forth – fast, fluid sequences which required crisp scripting, minimal dialogue and much variation of camera angles – so I had a fairly good grounding in those essential techniques.

 DAN HOWARTH

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An introduction to screenwriting: suspension of belief

Why do so many horror (and fantasy & science fiction) films play fast and loose with common sense?

Stone Cold Steve AustinYou’re familar with the scene; you’ve seen it time and again, ever since you were a kid sneaking a late-night scary movie on TV after your parents had gone to bed. The ingredients: attractive scantily clad girl-woman; old house in the woods at the dead of night; raging thunderstorm; bolt of lightning that fries the fuses; trembling torchlight exploration; a coughing sound a bit like a chainsaw pull-start coming from the basement…

Okay, so what happens next? Does she: (a) grab some clothes and get the HELL out of there, or (b) tiptoe to the basement door, open it, call “Is anybody there?” and follow the dim torch-beam down the stairs, one small step at a time, to her almost certain bloody demise?

See, that’s the problem, right there in a nutshell. What she does is the opposite of what you’d do, what anyone in their right mind would do, especially if scantily clad. The writing flies in the face of all logic. Even Stone Cold Steve Austin would make Olympic time hightailing it out of there because it’s doubtful that who or whatever made that noise is someone nice with your best interests at heart. At this point the willing suspension of disbelief is shattered in anyone over the age of, say, 14 – the very people for whom you’d be forgiven for thinking horror films are actually made. And once that suspension is shattered, it’s nigh-on impossible to build it back up again.

Many ‘fantastic’ genre films (horror and its cousins fantasy and science fiction) fail to suspend viewers’ disbelief at crucial junctures because of a propensity to formulaic plotting and over-familiar tropes. They habitually display cavalier attitudes to situational credibility and motivational integrity. Horror screenwriting almost by definition issues a licence to play fast and loose with the rules of logic, but this has led to a basic disregard for those rules and, by extension, for viewers. Audiences appreciate careful crafting of a solid three-dimensional universe, populated with believable characters whose actions are driven by their personalities and traits, much more than crude plot necessity to deliver scantily clad Girl A into the bloodstained bludgeoning hands of the Butcher in the Basement.

Fantasy and SF hold an advantage over horror; because they are made for younger audiences they are more easily forgiven for operating on plot logic that poses no problems for the average 14 year-old.

Indeed, fantasy comes with its own inbuilt get-out-of-jail-free card: magic. Once you can invoke magic you can use it to get out of any plot situation, no matter how impossible. This is also known as cheating. It’s the equivalent of the clause in a contract that reserves the right to amend it in any way at any time – so whether the document is one page long or a hundred, that’s the only clause that matters. Why slog to invent an ingenious solution when you can simply invoke the magic clause? And yes, sacred cow The Lord of the Rings, I am looking at you.

From its early days SF too has humped its own anti-logic cross. Frederik Pohl wrote “When print science fiction is translated into film science fiction the subtle parts are left out.” The media coined a pejorative term for these commercial mutations, which unfortunately has become the default for all science fiction: ‘sci-fi’. Harlan Ellison, SF’s most strident voice, summarised the distinction: “The public image of what is, and what ain’t, science fiction film – an image as twisted as one of Tod Browning’s Freaks – is the result of decades of paralogia, arrogant stupidity, conscious flummery, and amateurism that have comprised the universal curriculum of milieu that passes for filmic education for a gullible audience. If it goes bangity-bang in space; if it throbs and screams and breaks out of its shell with slimy malevolence; if it seeks to enslave your body, your mind, your gonads or your planet; if it looks cuddly and beeps a lot, it’s ‘sci-fi’. We pronounce that: skiffy. And if you love fantasy, you’ll love skiffy. And skiffy is to science fiction as Attila was to good table manners.” Skiffy is what happens when you remove the science and allow the fantastic free rein.

Most 14 year-olds will forgive bad science, muddled reasoning, absurd plot developments, ridiculous decisions and 5% solutions as long as things explode loudly, ugly creatures slice each other up in dank caves and scantily clad girls-women look great and scream loudly as they meet their unmaker. Horror audiences should, in theory, reject such clumsy, unsubtle machinations, yet they keep coming back for more despite films digging wider and deeper logic graves from which their characters have no chance of escape. In horror narratives the dangers to protagonists from butchers, monsters and psychos can be chickenfeed compared to those posed by clunky, cringe-worthy plotting.

So if this unholy state of affairs has always existed, what factors are making it worse today? I’ll set the monsters’ ball rolling with a few thoughts, I’m sure you can add more of your own.

Hollywood-led dilution of adult material in favour of a wider appeal to younger audiences

In chasing the extra box-office bucks of the tween generation, studios have alienated those older folks discerning enough to remember and value multi-layered plots, complex characters and narratives that go beyond the superficial to supply subtext, symbolism and thematic depth.

Filmmaking-by-numbers instant production processes

The screenplay is the single most important element of a film but in reality it is often the least developed one, sacrificed at the altar of haemorrhaging production dollars. The producers’ meter is ticking from the moment they commission or purchase the script, so they want to make the film yesterday whether the script is ready or not. And because they rarely cough up development dough, it’s likely to be half-baked at best.

The writer’s need to eat meets the industry’s need to turn a profit

Screenwriters almost never walk into gigs by creating an amazing original work that a producer just has to make with its aesthetic integrity intact. Rather, they’re awarded to whomever might sell the most sausages for producers and investors on the other side of the mincing machine. Commercial considerations often mean that horror scripts are placed in the hands of writers with little understanding of the genre. How can they know what works and what doesn’t if they have no feeling for how the codes and conventions of the genre have evolved, nor how those codes can be extended, or better still, subverted? They’d be well advised to concentrate on building a fantastic universe with its own tight-knit set of rules, as considered as a classy crime thriller. When time is money though, where is their incentive to do better work and take longer over it if the damn flick is going to be turned around double-quick regardless?

What the hell is going on?

Closely linked with the previous point is the ever-growing need for writers to explain exactly what is happening in excruciating detail, or avoid explaining anything because doing so would only give rise to awkward questions. Some auteurs like David Lynch have explored the abstract while steadfastly refusing to explain it, but they tend to have a deep inner understanding of their metaphysical territory. How can Lynch give a meaningful account of why a suited dwarf is speaking in reverse in a room with monochrome zigzag patterned flooring and red velvet curtains? We get it on an instinctual level, but struggle to put it into words. Some writers employ sixth-form surrealism and refrain from attempting narrative cohesion, so the result is beyond comprehension and we’re left not knowing or caring what happens or why. On the flipside, and equally as bad, others over-elaborate by hammering us into the ground with the bleedin’ obvious; a non-aficionado’s desire to explain the inexplicable, thus rendering it ludicrous or just plain cardboard.

Technological advances and social changes

The late, great Dan O’Bannon – creator of Alien; writer, star and de facto co-director of Dark Star; director of Return of the Living Dead – said that when technology is capable of putting anything on the screen, the first casualty is every other aspect of the film. The most serious one is the script. The scariest things are not guts splattered across the screen, but the unseen eviscerations that happen just off it. The spectator’s subconscious mind delivers horror punch-lines far more effectively than 3D CGI can. Directors like Hitchcock knew this very well; indeed, they had to supply most of their shocks through suggestion as the censorship policies of their era did not accommodate on-screen atrocities. And a very good thing that was, too. Modern writers and directors would do well to study and recreate the genuine atmospheric dread of yesteryear instead of decorating apartments with slimy entrails and thinking their job is done.

Tired tropes and contemptuous caricatures

Absence makes the heart grow fonder; familiarity breeds contempt. Zombies, vampires, werewolves, toxic monsters – anything that transforms or somehow cheats death – mostly obey predictable and unsatisfying formulae, and their very presence is becoming a turn-off. On the rare occasions a wunderkind comes along and breathes new death into them, there’s a surge of hope that this may herald a quality watershed – but then the next batch arrives and normal service is resumed. Trying to update the rules is hard but rewarding when you do it right, and far better than slavishly aping them. Just make sure that you don’t try something real stoopid like making vampires able to walk in daylight, and glow in the sun. Oh, er, hang on… (I can forgive Blade for the former, but not Tw*l*ght.)

That’ll do for now. There are plenty more reasons of course, so throw in a few of your own. In the meantime I’ll leave you with a short list of films that in my honest opinion create a good solid force-field of suspension of disbelief around themselves; plus somewhere the force-field is more like a moth-eaten nightdress (not unlike the one our attractive girl-woman is nearly wearing) with holes that leak belief by the moment; and finally a few that are so stylised, mad-in-a-good-way, or both, that suspension of disbelief never becomes an issue – you’re just happy to be along for the ride.

Force-field intact: Pan’s Labyrinth / The Exorcist / Texas Chainsaw Massacre (you know which one) / Dawn of the Dead (ditto) / Alien / The Shining / Henry: Portrait of A Serial Killer / The Vanishing / Halloween / An American Werewolf in London / Psycho

Holy moth-eaten nightdress Batman: The Human Centipede / Tw*l*ght / What Lies Beneath / Prince of Darkness / Planet of the Apes re-imagining (a personal nadir; if only imagination had played any part) / Halloween II / Exorcist II: the Heretic / An American Werewolf in Paris

Divine madness: The Evil Dead / Phantasm / Suspiria / Videodrome / Troll Hunter / Eraserhead / Possession / Audition / Carnival Of Souls

JOHN COSTELLO

John CostelloJohn Costello is a freelance author, screenwriter, script analyst, lecturer and electronic musician. His sole author credits include Writing A Screenplay (2002, last ed. 2006), David Cronenberg (2000) and Science Fiction Films (2004), all published by Pocket Essentials.