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Write On!
Write Form
By Ken Robinson
July, 2007, 15:10

You have a great idea. Itís an amazing story that no one has ever attempted before. It begs to be written. It almost writes itself. You start writing; the outline is exquisite; the story begins to take shape; then you begin to ask yourself, "Whatís going to make the most impact for my audience? Should it be a novel, screenplay or TV script, or a stage play?"

How do you write? Consider your writing strengths. Are you detail oriented? Do you write in broad swipes, short or long stories, mainly description or dialogue, many different settings or just a few?

Each written form weíre looking at here Ė the novel, screenplay or script, and stage play Ė has something different to offer an audience, and most require specific things from the writer. The novel arena, in which Iím going to include short stories, is the most flexible. A short story can be about any subject but doesnít cover the subject in great detail or require characters with multiple levels. You donít have time to build a multi-faceted character in a short story. The author usually has a point to make, and the story doesn't usually reach a large audience unless the author is already well-known.

The novel is a different kettle of fish. It has hardly any restraints, it can span galaxies and eons of time, but to be a good read it requires multiple storylines, well-developed main and secondary characters, and scene description that draws the reader into the moment. If your writing is detail oriented, and I daresay long-winded, this is probably for you.

Whereas screen and stage plays have definite restraints on their form but the story can be as wild and varied as the imagination of the author. In a screenplay there are format restraints that must be followed including a length of about 70 to 110 pages and a paragraph format that leaves a lot of white space on the pages. In the end a screenplay is a blueprint for the story where character development and dialogue are more important than scene description. The scene is given in broad swipes and the director fills in the details. The story is portrayed to the audience by the action that occurs on the screen, not by telling them what is happening. If you have talking heads on the screen you might as well have sold the audience sleeping tablets instead of Raisinets.

Although the stage and screen play are related, one major difference is that the screenplay has the advantage of close-ups to portray emotions. Stage plays donít have that luxury, and so the dialogue and other mechanisms must portray the emotional details. That is why stage and film actors are two very different animals. For example, stage requires voice projection to the audience, whereas the film microphone picks up the tiniest whisper and amplifies it.

Another limitation on the stage is the number of sets that can be manifested in the physical space. The number of scene settings in a novel is almost unlimited, and a screenplay can have almost as many except for the limitation of the length and budget of the movie. But an advantage a stage play has over the other forms is that it can be more organically dynamic at each presentation. Whereas once a screenplay is filmed and edited there is no going back. The only possible changes once the acting and filming are done come with re-editing. And as a screenplay writer always expect your blue print to change before and during the filming, that's just the nature of the beast.

A TV script is very similar to a screenplay, but allows the characters and stories to have more time to develop depth with multiple episodes. But conversely, once the audience is accustomed to the character, they donít want them to change too often or too fast. Itís a balance that can be challenging and restraining to the writer. But a good example of the bad side of change is what happened to the show Lois and Clark with Terri Hatcher. As soon as Lois and Clark got together the romantic/sexual tension was lost between them, and the showís ratings plummeted the next season.

Another distinction between the types of writing is the time it takes to finish a project. In my case a novel can take years, even decades, to complete; whereas the screen and stage play, which can also take years, can be completed in as little as a few months, and short stories can be achieved in a few days. And then it's the revising that takes time.

Quick update: Iím sitting in the break room at 2:00 a.m. on the opening day of the casino waiting on my badge so I can go on the floor to do some actual dealing. I was supposed to start at 1:00 a.m. I worked two eleven hour shifts at the warehouse this weekend and then caught a cold. Great.

But I did have another nibble on the writing front. A person I met while volunteering with a local film society called me to say he had a low budget B thriller he wanted me to work on him with him. He said he liked the way I wrote dialogue. I worked on a short film script for him a year or so ago for free. Maybe that free work will turn into some paying work.

In the screen play business besides having talent, which you continually need to upgrade, success is definitely about who you know. Itís also about not having all your eggs in one basket. Iím trying to keep as many irons in the fire until one of them heats up so I can brand my name on the credits of a movie or TV show. By the way I havenít heard back from last months tease. Thatís the way it goes in this business though. All you can do is Write On!

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Ken Robinson, IN's Write On! columnist, winner of Bare Bones Int'l Film Festival Best Screenplay Award, has written over 10 screenplays, 3 episodes of TV series West Law, is executive producer for the feature Sacred Bloods, board member of the Oklahoma Film Society, founding member of Oklahoma Movie Makers. His email address is:

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