Sunday, January 19, 2020

Podcast Episode 15: Should Novelists Follow Screenwriting Advice, featuring Parker Peevyhouse

Hi everybody, we’re about to do our year-end wrap-up, but first we’ve got a new podcast, and it’s a good one!  We have a special guest appearance from novelist Parker Peevyhouse!   She has two acclaimed novels and a third one that’s coming out this week, and she proposed stopping by with a juicy question: Should novelists follow screenwriting advice?  The result is a pretty great episode where we really get to the heart of what this podcast is about!  (And James has a proposed addition to Believe Care Invest!)


Joel W. said...

I'm always surprised at just how many boxes in Matt's lists get checked off on those Ulmate Story Checklist posts. Even the story-structure ones (which seem to more controversial to some folk, haha) get checked off quite often.

They help internalize what Matt means by his rules i mean tools. I just couldn't really understand what "Every Event Must Be A Character Event" meant until reading those checklists. (and as a new reader who hasn't discussed deeply on posts here, I couldn't ask what this philosophy meant at the time it was posted to Cockeyed Caravan). I dunno, they are fun to read once you get used to them.


Regarding the topic at hand, I can't imagine reading those first chapters of "Beloved" or "Holes" without those internal thoughts the author took the time to write. I have seen some prose drafts that have running dialogue with too many crossing arms and shaking heads and biting lips. In attempts to help readers visualize the characters and actions, some authors accidentally turn their novel into a pseudo-screenplay. Like you all said, ignoring the ability to enter a characters' head, or at least reflect it toward the reader, as with "stupid tears".

I think its a perversion of "show don't tell."

Josh Slater said...

I don't see Matt's advice as "these are the ONLY elements a story needs." I take his advice as, "these are things your story should do in addition to all the other things your story does." It helps your story elements multitask. It's so much more interesting, efficient, and fun when you can introduce a character via an action that also does your worldbuilding and establishes the beginning of it's arc. (Casino Royale and yes, Iron Man are great examples of this.)

His checklists/general advice are just tools to help you target goals for a scene. Not prescribe what the scene should be. Something in the prewriting stage like:

"How can I intro this character, foreshadow conflict, set up a goal, build the world, and do something funny all in one scene" - "What does the audience need to know/feel in this scene to setup the turn in a later scene and how can I best do that?"

I come from comedy, so I see all stories as setups and punchlines. It's literally, "what does the crowd need to know for this punchline to land?"

Matt Bird said...

Joel, thanks so much for reading them! Glad to see my work isn't *completely* wasted. Yeah, one of the reasons I do them is so that people can say, "Oh, that's what that question means." (Another reason I do them is to show that the best stuff in the world says no to a lot of these questions!)

Josh, well said!

Person of Interest said...

Enjoyed this latest podcast -- (as I always do). Finally I get to tell J. K. he's wrong wrong wrong about something -- but first, God Bless You James Kennedy, you are right right right about Save the Cat! Toxic, depressing! Yeeech! Where art goes to die. I read the first page of it, something like 'begin your screenplay with a vivid image that compresses the story or analogizes it... and I just thought "oh fuck I've done that but now everytime I do it I'm going to seem like a piece of shit hack following formula... aaaaaaauuuuggggghhhh... this is ruinous" ... I will not look at another page of that book. It will destroy what little honest impulses I have. Matt, fwiw, your book just doesn't have that effect. It doesn't regurgitate pre-digested ideas into in your mouth like a mother bird, thank god.

The part James is wrong(x3) about is the stuff about pages dying when emotions are withheld. You guys went on about this subject in a lot of detail and all three of you miss the fundamental mark in my opinion. I think it's because there's a central truth about writing that writing guide authors (and their blurberisti) tend to avoid: Craft *is* secondary. Craft is wonderful and helpful... and utterly fricking secondary. 99% of writing fails on the primary --(and it also fails on craft, which leads people to think craft is the main problem, but it usually isn't)... the primary is IMAGINATION. Most people's imaginations are weak. They don't observe closely or carefully or honestly, they can't imagine closely or honestly, and ultimately they aren't even interested in serving their own (weak) imaginations... the replace imagination with solutions derived from the work of others. I realize almost everyone's work is to some extent derivative... Im not saying be utterly original (it doesn't hurt though, viz. Saunders) but soooo much work is utterly derivative, phrase by phrase character by character beat by beat... craft won't ever bring that stuff into the light... there's a pervasive wallowing in cliche that is hard to fathom or explain, you have to see it to believe it... I've read slush pile literature professionally, I'm speaking from experience. 90% of the time a reader doesn't read past 10 pages and it's not because they aren't engaged with your main character (although they aren't, that's for sure) but because your work fails on every conceivable level, it is dull, false, uninvolving, and imitative, in style and form and concept. The study of craft _can_ actually help you see this deficiency in your own work... but it's an agonizing process by and large and more often hopeless than not. (Sorry matt, I'm probably not improving sales, here!) (end blog response part 1...)

Person of Interest said...

begin blog response part 2...

Those ubiquitous crossed arms indicating determination -- that's less a craft issue than laziness, laziness of imagination. If your imagination is a sparkling lucid dream and everything is particular and specific, you can render emotion from without and it will be compelling... uncertain perhaps, but in a good way. If your imagination is lucid, your character won't cross her arms, she'll do something exactly her, that is her exact physicalization of her inner state... she'll do _what you saw her do_ ...when an author has fully inhabited a character we see them when they speak. We begin to know them. Tolstoy is the master of this. By the end of War and Peace his characters are just freaking _there_ -- the precision of his imagination and observation of people and his ability to render it is staggering, it's slow magic.

Derivative stream of consciousness and/or emotional gush will die on the page right alongside the interiority witheld stuff... neither approach solves the other because the approach isn't the problem... the solution is better truer writing which starts with better truer imagining.

One of the great examples of the power of lucid imagination and withheld interiority is Hemingway's great short story "Big Two-Hearted River part I and part II" ... I'm not alone in thinking it's his greatest story-- it's the story that editor Max Perkins read in mss from the unknown young man that convinced him he was dealing with a genius. I won't bore you with my exegesis of it, but if you haven't read it, do. Fair warning/spoiler alert, it is a story in which nothing happens.

Silent, black and white, grainy from the corner of the elevator type security camera footage is tense as hell. It's so helpless!

Matt I 100% believe that getting the audience onboard with a main character early is a very very good thing -- I'm not against craft or saying it's useless, that would be absurd, and I wouldn't be an avid listener and reader of yours if that were the case. I'm just _permanently_ mystified by the relationship between craft and this other thing I'm calling imagination.

As for writer's of novels consulting books for screenplay writers and vice versa... It doesn't hurt, it stimulates the mind and suggest things -- but Craft is secondary. If the primary stuff is working no decent craft advice will hurt and a lot of it will help. Your guest was helped by Matt's book... she seems to think it made a big difference... you both seem to agree she starts with an extraordinary imagination... I rest my case.

Here's the beginning of a piece I came across this morning... the emotions are ... somewhat subdued... yet I think it works:

"One morning, as Gregor Samsa was waking up from anxious dreams, he discovered that in bed he had been changed into a monstrous verminous bug. He lay on his armour-hard back and saw, as he lifted his head up a little, his brown, arched abdomen divided up into rigid bow-like sections. From this height the blanket, just about ready to slide off completely, could hardly stay in place. His numerous legs, pitifully thin in comparison to the rest of his circumference, flickered helplessly before his eyes..."

The emotional restraint (which carries throughout the piece) is the engine of the story's effect. Nothing is gained if Samsa wakes up screaming -- WHAT THE.....??? AAAAAAGGGGG!!!

Matt Bird said...

Great comments, Person of Interest. Yeah, I don't talk much about the imagination side of things partially just because I never had as much problem with that personally. As should be evident from the Free Story Idea segment of the podcast, I've always been overflowing with imagination and I've generated a lot more ideas than I thought I could execute properly, so I devoted my guru-hood to helping authors with execution. The line between imagination and craft is hard to define. Are Tolstoy's characters so great because they're more fully imagined or more lovingly crafted? It's hard to know. I do feel like it's easier to improve your craft than to improve your imagination, so that's one reason I focus more on the latter: greater return on investment.

Person of Interest said...

"Are Tolstoy's characters so great because they're more fully imagined or more lovingly crafted?" It's hard to know.

I think it's imagination, not craft. If you can tell me the loving craft that I can learn/apply that will let my characters live like Tolstoy's do, I'll buy a second copy of your book, by golly I'll buy three copies ;).

I fully agree that it's easier to improve craft than imagination. In fact I don't think imagination is very often improved, but I do think something good can happen (no guarantee) when an artist is told that they've failed or ignored their imagination and it ought to be engaged. I think a lot of would-be writers sense some failure in their work and go looking to craft _instead_ of imagination.... and I think that's a serious mistake... I think a lot of the most useful craft is saying, "here -- this right here, work on _this_ this is the stuff to apply (or reapply) your imagination to ... you have to dream, dream again, and if the dream isn't good enough you'll have to dream harder." Saying (and doing) that at the right spots is a good kind of craft in my opinion. It's easier said than done because... (I feel this in my own relatinship to my work) ... once I've imagined something I am reluctant to change it. It seems so strongly _mine_ I don't want to call it inadequate or less than ideal. And to reimagine feels like some kind of self-betrayal and somehow extra-laborious. Crazy stuff, i know... but subjecting my own authentic imagination to craft is _painful_. Is resented. I'd be more successfully productive if this stuff weren't the case, i'm sure.

Revision = re-vision = re-see = re-image = re-imagine.... trite? Or something meaningful?