Friday, July 23, 2010

Writing long vs writing short

From Shane: It took me awhile to adjust to writing 90,000-word book manuscripts after years of popping out newspaper stories that averaged, oh, 500 to 1,000. Did you have a similar experience going from your tightly coiled screenplays to nearly limitless novels? Also, Das Boot is one of my favorite movies ever. Did you work with Wolfgang on that?


Stephen: Oddly, I didn’t have a problem adjusting to the size of novels after writing screenplays. The process is very similar for me. I wrote outlines and treatments before sitting down to write a screenplay, and I do the same thing when I write a novel. What I did have to adjust to was writing in past tense, since screenplays are written in present tense. I also have trouble “filling out” a scene with all the little actions that characters do when they talk to each other. You don’t want to spell that out in a screenplay, you leave it up to the interpretation of the actors. And you don’t want to over-describe your characters in a screenplay, because it’s not your job to cast the film. So, my editor had to make me add more to my scenes, until I got the picture. It still doesn’t feel natural for me, however. I like to write long, run-on descriptions, a la Jack Kerouac, and counter that with rapid-fire moments of tight dialogue. I also like to mix it up a bit with tight scenes of action or description.


I resist describing every little movement or action a character makes in a scene, even though I know those bits of information reveal character tone and perspective. It just feels like I’m making shit up. Like, okay, the guy scratches his knee, wipes his sweaty palms on the sides of his pants. I’d rather infer his nervousness by how he responds through dialogue. I don’t know, it’s all hard stuff. Sometimes I want to set a camera in there and film it, and say, “Just watch the footage!”

I’ve got this odd sense of tempo that definitely comes from having read thousands of thriller screenplays. The Three-Act Structure is firmly etched in my mind. I think it’s very strange that Boulevard came out to be 335 pages in print, and Beat came in at 336. This was not intentional. But something in my brain tells me this is the proper length for a thriller. I come from the Jim Thompson school of writing, where character and psychology give dimension to a fast-moving plot. I read a lot of Thompson as I wrote my last two drafts of Boulevard, and I learned to cut and tighten and cut even more. Thompson is a good teacher.

I think writing short stories would be another great way to hone my skills. As the great writer once said, “If I’d had more time, I would’ve written you a shorter letter.”I don’t know who that great writer was, but I agree with him.


As far as Das Boot goes—it’s one of my top ten favorite films of all time. If you haven’t seen the director’s cut—see it. Sub-titled, not dubbed. Never see dubbed. The director’s cut is 3 ½ hours of pure fucking edge-of-your-seat action. That was the film that really brought Wolfgang to the U.S. He was becoming a sensation in Germany before that, but Das Boot took him international. So, I didn’t get to watch him at work on it. But I was working with him when he did the director’s cut (he did this while he was directing Air Force One) and I had the pleasure of going to the Director’s Guild premiere, with folks like Harrison Ford and every studio exec in town. They filled us full of food and champagne and then Wolfgang stood at the podium and said, “Now, there’s no intermission in this thing, so I better not see any of you getting up to use the bathroom.” Now, I’ve got a notoriously small bladder and those words began to torture me as soon as he said them. Half-way through the film I couldn’t take it anymore. No one had gotten up and I didn’t want to be the first. But I also didn’t want to be the first one to pee in my pants. I stood, burying my head in my chest, and walked up the very long aisle, not looking at Wolfgang as I passed. When I got to the top of the theater I turned and saw that I’d opened the floodgates. Probably thirty people were coming up behind me.


Great, great film. Although, I’ll never know what happened during those six minutes I spent in the can.

9 comments:

Sophie Littlefield said...

I think short stories are among the very best exercises for honing novel skills. I think of them as being similar to the sketches artists do before embarking on significant works. In some cases the sketches become very detailed; in others they are really just broad brushstrokes.

Of course there are other stories which are meant to, and do, stand on their own and which are not improved by considering them in a larger context. Those are certainly worthy but, for me, I find that writing them requires me to be in a different frame of mind, one which does not include a deadline hanging over one's head...

Stephen Jay Schwartz said...

That's great feedback, Sophie. I never considered that short stories could be seen as artist's sketches, but you're absolutely right. I did write a number of short stories before tackling Boulevard and I realize that I was stretching my fingers, trying to mentally prepare for that leap into long-form. Now I want to get back into the short story for its own sake.

Shane Gericke said...

It is my favorite film of all time, Das Boot, and I've seen all the versions. (Except the original German without subtitling.) You're right, sub-titled is the only way to go. You miss a lot of the crackle and tightness of the movie if you don't hear the actors speaking in German.

Shane Gericke said...

Funny story about when ya gotta go, ya gotta go. I was watching the Titanic movie, and when the ship was starting to break apart and sink, I had to go really bad. Finally couldn't hold it and raced out and back as fast as I could.
Ay, that hurt!

Shane Gericke said...

I hear you on fleshing out scenes. That's the biggest trouble I had switching from newspapers to novels: I had so much space to play I didn't know what to do with it all. So I ran out of story at 50,000 words, and had to go back and add details and color and context--and the stuff newspapers train you to get rid of, or compressed into teensy-tiny bites o'words. Fun now that I have the hang of it, though. Your stuff promises to be great, can't wait to dive in.

Anonymous said...

TS Eliot.

Stephen Jay Schwartz said...

Right-o, Shane. Maybe it's something about water movies. I don't think I had to go during Twister.

Writing a screenplay is like writing a poem - it needs to be tight, efficient, visual. And it's all plot. I think it's harder to write a very good screenplay than it is to write a very good novel.

Anonymous mentioned T.S. Elliot. Why? And how did you know he's my favorite poet? The Love Song of J. Alfred Proofrock...the best. "Let us go then, you and I...let us go through certain undiscovered streets, the muttering retreats..."

Michael Wiley said...

Finding that balance between (among?) talk, action, description, etc. seems to me one of the great challenges of writing novels well, and when you get it right . . . it feels good. The one I turn to see the balance achieved best -- and for so much more -- is Chandler.

Terry Stonecrop said...

I like your comparison to screenplays. Once, I tried writing one but it was too much white space for me.

Blaise Pascal is the writer of that quote, I think. It's a great one, so true:)

It's been fun reading you this week!