November 25, 2013

The Two-Sentence Pulse Test

By Deborah Valentine

“Why did you write this? What story do you want to tell?” — Kate Leys

Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? So obvious. Yet... this succinct two-sentence quote by the renowned script editor Kate Leys, who has worked on such films as Four Weddings and a FuneralTrainspotting and The Full Monty, is like a finger on the pulse. Why did you write your novel (or screenplay)? What story do you want to tell? Funnily enough, this can be surprisingly easy to lose sight of in a mist of pretty words.

Writing a screenplay is a completely different discipline from writing a novel, so you might — quite rightly — ask, why the quote from a script editor?

Because the basic principle holds true. When you write a script, there are no poetic narratives, no long drawn-out character descriptions and only the gist of the action sequences. There are no internal monologues (you can’t, after all, see one onscreen). It’s a blueprint. You cut back to the spine of the story and, carefully choosing each word, hope you’ve amassed enough of those precisely chosen words that your eventual collaborators will illustrate your vision on film. Okay, they won’t... not exactly. The old adage is when you make a film there’s three stories: the one the screenwriter wrote, the one the director filmed and the one after editing the producers released into the cinema. Films are all about collaboration.

Ah... but a novel. With a novel, the writer is not just the writer, but set designer, cinematographer, director, actor, stunt coordinator, et al... you are the ultimate multi-tasker (or less kindly, megalomaniac). There is poetic prose, there are lengthy character descriptions and if there’s action, a blow-by-blow account. And internal monologues? We thrive on them! And that’s what makes those two sentences from Ms Leys all the more important. It can be very easy when creating a whole world, a world we may be enamored with, to start putting in (or ignore taking out during the editing process) things that don’t serve the story. We can get a bit up our own... well; I’ll leave it to your imagination to supply the word.

A film industry friend read a draft of The Knightmare and suggested I adapt it as a screenplay. ‘It’s cinematic!’ he bellowed. So I did. All I can say is: Thank you, God. Thank you that I did it pre-publication. Because in stripping the story to its bare essentials — and changing it to serve the requirements of the screen — I got back to: What story did I want to tell? Why did I want to tell it?
No, I didn’t rewrite the novel to match the screenplay. Again, they are different disciplines. But it did hook me back into the pulse of the story — it’s very lifeblood. Even if you don’t want to write screenplays, as an exercise in storytelling, I recommend trying it. And isn’t it always fun to get out the stethoscope and play ‘Doctor’?
Deborah Valentine is a British author, editor and screenwriter who once lived in California but far preferred the British weather and fled to London, where she has resided for many years. She is the author of three books published by Victor Gollancz Ltd in the UK, and Bantam and Avon in the US. Unorthodox Methods was the first in the series, followed by A Collector of Photographs and the Ireland-based Fine Distinctions. A Collector ofPhotographs was short-listed for an Edgar Allan Poe, a Shamus, a Macavity and an Anthony Boucher award. Fine Distinctions was also short-listed for an Edgar. They feature the characters of former California sheriff Kevin Bryce and artist Katharine Craig, charting their turbulent romance amid murder and mayhem. They are soon to be available as eBooks on the Orion imprint The Murder Room. With the publication of The Knightmare, she has embarked on a new series of books with a supernatural theme. She is currently working on its sequel, Who is Huggermugger Jones?. She is a Goodreads author.

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