My screenwriting studies have led me to discover a very big difference between scriptwriters and authors; idea theft. It is pretty universally accepted in the book writing world that there is no such thing as an original idea. We all get ‘inspired’ by other people’s tales, to put our own slant on them and write a ‘but what if this happened instead’ story.
Screenwriters don’t seem to hold the same belief. The universal law of copyright is not enough to cover your screenplay when you send it out, you actually need to register it (for a fee) with an organisation whose sole purpose is to say that you have written this script at this time. Most US production houses won’t even open a script unless it is registered here.
I guess the thing that makes me think it is weird is that I’ve got several rejections for my stories where the publisher says that they liked my story, but they have just accepted a similar story. Now while this might just be a line, I believe them. In all likelihood they may have just accepted a story about vampires that don’t sparkle when the sun hits them, or a monster/alien/genetically modified creature hunting people finally gets killed by our hero. At their core, they are not original ideas, it is all about execution; do we like the hero, is it full of typos, is it logical?
So why are screenplays so different? I know we are talking about fewer words than a novel, so language and voice is not as different between scripts, but story, character and theme are still king. The chances of two people doing the exact same thing are pretty remote, and if they have stolen it copyright and plagiarism laws cover you.
I guess I will go through with the whole registration thing if I do manage to finish a script, I want it to be read after all, but I can’t help but think it is a just another way to scam money from already struggling artists by preying on writer paranoia.
This week I’ve been looking at novels compared to their screenplays. It’s been really interesting to read a chapter of the book and then read the equivalent bit of the screenplay. Sometimes 5,000 words is replace with two pages of talking, or a paragraph, or it is cut completely! The strange thing is that the screenplay does not seem to suffer for this loss.
It makes you realise how much of a novel is asides, superfluous back-story, world building, scene setting and description, none of which is needed in a screenplay. The thing is, it is these extra bits that make me love the novel. I like knowing that the lead character has been fighting a battle with mint Aero for most of his adult life, or that the heroine still blushes in her 30’s when she remembers embarrassing dating episodes from her early 20s. It is these little things that make us know the characters and feel like they are friends.
I do barrack for the lead character in a movie, they are written that way after all, but would I feel like they should know me if we passed on the street? No, they are just actors. Characters in books really move into your brain for a while, if we passed on a literary street I would expect them to at least look at me with a hint of recognition after all we have shared.
Having said all that, I do still love movies. I even love movies of books that I have loved. Some movies I even like more than the books, but they are very different beasts and my expectations are very different. I think I’d like to have a go at writing a movie of a book. Maybe one of my own 🙂
I didn’t start out wanting to be a novelist. Originally I wanted to make movies. As a kid I loved films. I loved getting lost in them, it was a place where magic was real and dreams came true. It was only as I got older that I realised books did this as well (better even).
I worked out pretty quickly that I didn’t want to direct movies, act in them, or produce them; I just wanted to come up with the ideas. Movies back in the 80s and 90s were very limited by budgets, which is why I thought about writing books instead. There were no limitations on the special effects or cast size in books.
Leap forward twenty-plus years and I’m still writing these unlimited-budget-special-effects stories, but very few of them are getting out to the big wide world to be read. I am finally conceding that perhaps what I find interesting and funny does not appeal to the average person. Which begs the question; how much should this realisation shape my next steps?
It all comes down to why I write. The past five years have slowly killed my dreams of being published to the point where I can live off my writing. I’ve known too many people now who have been published by big publishing houses and they are still working in ‘temporary’ jobs to pay the bills. Mix with that the fact that I actually like my day job, and enjoy the people I work with and suddenly living off my writing becomes less of a goal.
When I think about why I sit down at this computer for so many hours, the same truth comes back to me; I like stories. I like to live in a world of my own making and explore all the what-if’s. I would love to have others read my work too, but that is just a bonus. I am my first audience, and I love to watch the stories unfold.
So I know I will continue to write, and I’m comfortable with the idea that I’ll write the stories I want to read. Who knows, maybe now that CGI is so cheap I could turn my hand to a special-effects script after all? It is all about getting the story out.
Last week my flash fiction story Ice Mine was published by Antipodean SF. It is but one of the many flash fiction stories that has tumbled out of me this year. Hopefully I’ll be able to find a few more homes for the other stories before the year is through.
Antipodean SF was the first place to publish one of my stories many years ago, so I will be forever grateful to Antipodean for giving me my first taste of success. Ion Newcombe is the tireless editor of this magazine and he is not afraid to work with new authors. He wants to see you published!
The magazine looks pretty schmick too, so if you haven’t seen it, please do check it out and lend your support to this fantastic little zine. And if you don’t feel like reading, there is a radio version of the show you can listen to as well.
Thanks Ion, and I hope you all enjoy Ice Mine 🙂
My bus was stopped at the lights and my eye immediately landed upon a pigeon doggedly going after a scrap of food on the road. The only problem was the turn right arrow was green, so a stream of traffic kept running over the desired treat. While I watched, the pigeon must have made at least twenty aborted attempts to walk out on the road, each time getting cut off by a speeding machine of death.
I know this next part is anthropomorphising on my behalf, but I swear each time a car came past the pigeon looked surprised. How could it not learn that the road was a dangerous place to be, no matter how inviting a treat looked? Just for the record I couldn’t see a damn thing on the road, so no idea what was worth risking one’s life for.
Then I was sitting with my cat and I had a heat pack on my eyes (long story, eye issues, fixing them, enough said). I sat there blindly patting her and then she moved so I had no idea where she was. She meowed because the patting stopped before she was ready. It then struck me that she had no idea what the implications were of me sitting there with my eyes covered. Even more striking was the idea that she probably had no idea that she even saw with her eyes.
This led my brain to the only place it could possibly go; if a superior being observed me, what insanely obvious thing would I be missing? It is hard enough to grasp the concept of not being able to put two and two together to make four, but what is even harder is to conceive that there would be connections and cause/effect relationships that we are missing that would probably be blatantly obvious to us if we had another 100+ IQ points.
I’m sure I’ll waste hours though trying to imagine what that would be like. That’s what writers do.