Having studied literature, I learnt a lot about storytelling techniques, fictional genres, literary periods, emerging and passing book trends. But never during my studies I wondered about difference between a writer, who tells stories by writing, and a literary visionary, who sees stories in her or his mind’s eye and then relates them in a written form.
The classical sort of writer, the one that we envisage when refer to the realm of writing, can be divided into a playwright and a fiction writer. There is a third type too, a relative novice in comparison – a screenwriter. All three deal with writing stories, have similarities and differences, but not all of them can be called literary visionaries.
The playwright is a writer of spoken language e.g. oral communication. The first playwrights and their communications – epics, lyrics, and drama – appeared in the Ancient Greece. Almost all what was created back then was ‘written’ to be spoken out. What is more, plays or dramas – tragedy, comedy, and pastoral drama - were written in verses. As oral storytelling in verse evolved, it took various forms like French chivalry novels of 12th and 13th centuries, romantic drama of Italian Renaissance period, verses-plays of William Shakespeare (1564 –1616), novel-poems like Eugene Onegin by Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), theatrical musicals Phantom of the Opera (1986), My Fair Lady (1956) – based on Pygmalion play by the playwright, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950), and musical movies such as La La Land (2016), Beauty and The Beast (2017), The Greatest Showman (2017).
Whatever genre, drama has existed to be listened. Seeing a play surely adds a thrill to the experience of the story. However, it will be perfectly understood even if nothing really happens on the stage or the play is listened to on the radio. The major reason being that in a play the story is told through dialogues, monologues, or conversing of several characters. Everything from characters’ feelings, to their emotions and actions are voiced out. Therefore, playwrights have developed and perfected the skill of eloquence, as it was their tool of telling great stories. But however eloquent the speech of a character or characters is, the playwright is limited by it as well. For, speech alone cannot relay everything or else, plays will last hours, or days.
As writers, playwrights do not have a distinct writing style. Instead, they have distinct opinions and thoughts that are voiced out in their plays. For that they rely on actors and actresses whose personal style may overshadow the opinions and thoughts of the playwright. For, the audience tend to remember what their favourite acting personality said or did rather whose words they spoke out.
Another limitation of a play is the plot’s scope. It predominantly revolves around familiar to the audience political, cultural or personal matters. Something that anyone can easily recognise and pick up from the dialogues. Any references to the unfamiliar and out of cultural or political context pause a challenge for the audience as well as for the playwrights. The audiences might not catch the hint, and the playwrights will struggle to successfully deliver the novelty.
This plot scope limitation was noted by the movie makers back in 1910s. Film directors of the time who attempted to base their photoplays on existing theatrical plays found that they lacked a proper plot. This was not entirely a fault of playwrights. It simply showed the limitations that they had to deal with while expressing their story in dialogues only. The writers of fiction, on the other hand, did not have such limitations. They could touch on a variety of subjects in a variety of styles and genres.
The Fiction Writer
The fiction writer is a level higher in storytelling than a playwright, as she or he writes in prose that is intended to be read not spoken out. The very difference that allows stories of different format, style, and genre to be created, widening the scope of the fictional plot, and therefore providing a bigger variety of stories for the reader to tap into.
The writer of the fiction can choose between the formats of short stories, novellas, novels, or series, styling them as conversational, descriptive, sequential or not, or mixture of all these styles. The storytelling in prose offers the first person or third person perspective, or alteration between several characters’ points of views. What is more, fiction can be coloured by genres. It can be a romance, thriller, detective story, fantasy, sci-fi or a mixture of those.
All of this allows a fictional writer to be unique in self-expression and writing. Literature has writers-personalities as opposed to personal opinions of playwrights. Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Franz Kafka, Leo Tolstoy, O. Henry, Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, Agatha Christie, Erich Maria Remarque form a portrait gallery of personalities that cannot be mistaken for one another.
The distinct trait of the prose is its descriptiveness. Paired with spoken speech e.g. dialogues it gives a 3D experience, as opposed to a 2D experience of plays. Characters, places, events, feelings, emotions, actions - all can be described, explained, and discussed in a book. Readers are offered mysteries as well as their solutions. They go through developments and evolutions of characters, live out intriguing and challenging circumstances, learn about places and other cultures, become wiser, fall in and out of love, and cry for or with their heroes and heroines. All on the pages of a book.
Sometimes, writers intentionally leave things out of their stories, prompting the reader to guess, ponder, speculate. And sometimes, writers use their eloquence to lead their readers to think in a certain way or to believe in certain things. Fiction writers influence, form opinions and break assumptions, educate and entertain, but most of all they reach out to the audience, on individual as well as collective level, and let the reader into their worlds.
However, with all the advantages of the prose, the writer of fiction cannot do what the screenwriter can – visualizing their stories rather than merely describing them. As they say, a picture speaks a thousand words.
The screenwriter is the eyes and voice of the screen. She or he writes stories that can be visualised. The language for the screenwriter is what a brush for the artist. It helps to paint a story for the viewers to see. In screenwriting, the descriptiveness of the fictional prose becomes the visualising – relaying a story through actions, happenings, events, locations, settings, and dialogues.
‘In your mind’s eye you must visualize your plot, just as you would stand on a mountain top and gaze on beautiful scenery surrounding you. You must visualize your characters either evil or good, just as you would pick out, from your mountain eminence, beautiful or unattractive bits of scenery. You must see your characters going through the action on the screen – and when you have seen all of that, sit down and write what you have seen.’ – a scenario writer, June Mathis (1887-1927)
Unlike playwrighting and fiction writing, the screenwriting is a new art – just 100 years old. It started from story ideas for photoplays, and then developed first into synopsises, then into scenarios, and then into continuity scenarios that makes up the foundation of a modern screenwriting. Or at least it should. But often, instead, screenwriters prefer to incline towards playwrighting or fiction writing techniques while writing their screenplays. For, these arts have a long history and more material to rely on. However, in this case, referring to books or plays is not such a great idea, since screenwriting is a language of images. It can be compared to the art of painting or taking photographs. Painters and photographers capture stories into a frame – and what a movie is, if not a sequence of 'framed' images? By looking at a painting or a photograph, one can instantly see a story, whatever it is. The same applies to a screenplay.
A good screenplay is the one that, if read by anyone, professional or not, is instantly seen as a movie. And this has nothing to do with plot developing techniques like three acts or characters arches. It is to do with a gift of feeling and seeing the world around. To be a screenwriter means to possess knowledge of literature, genres, storytelling, drama, have a photographic eye, be able to imagine and visualize, have great intuition and understand psychology of body language. A collection of qualities many of which contemporary screenwriters still lack. Some of the qualities can be developed and some, like imagination and a photographic eye, one is born with.
Some months ago, I posted in a cinematographic community, Stage 32, a thread 'Screenplays To Learn From'. The thread was addressed to screenwriters. In it, I specifically highlighted not to refer to movies and film directors who made those movies but to screenplays and the scenario writing art itself. The answers, however, were based on the movies and not scenarios. ‘Wanna-be’ screenwriters gave examples of their favourite movies, assuming that the screenplays they are based on were also awesome. But when I looked at the screenplays of the movies mentioned, I could clearly see that they were not great, for they did not visualize, they described or were full of dialogues. Both are the traits of writing for reading or listening.
For a screenwriter, it is not enough to have a good story idea or a unique angle or even a developed plot. A good screenwriter must have the skill of literary visualisation. In fact, it is a must. For, unlike fiction writers and playwrights, screenwriters are first of all visionaries and second of all writers. Evolution of storytelling as communication and self-expression tool brought us to a beginning of the era where visual storytelling, in whatever format or platform it is in and on, will be a major art field.