authors vs. screenwriters — using other people’s genius vs wearing all the hats

It took me a long time to get into Farscape. Back when people used to change channels to see what was on, Farscape seemed to be every second show on the Space Network, Canada’s answer to Syfy. So I’d randomly turn the channel to a moment on the show that was one of the most pivotal moments in it but without the context as to why any of it mattered, I found it dull and flat.

I did eventually watch it though because I love puppets and Jim Henson was involved. I loved everything about the show. The premise, the puppets, the gender dynamics where he’s the overemotional oversharer and she can’t be arsed with anything that isn’t kill, kill, kill, THE PUPPETS, the writing, THE PUPPETS, Scorpio’s weird pseudo-sexual relationship with John and THE PUPPETS ...the show hit every button I had. I binged that show before shows were made to be binge-able.

The number of brains that needed to come together to make all of that work as a whole must have been staggering. The writers and the puppeteers would have had to work in tandum to make what was written work within the budget. All the actors were fantastic in their roles, which is not something you always get in science fiction shows filmed in Canada. The fact that it was shot in Australia meant every shot didn’t just look like some part of lower mainland BC or the Simon Fraser University. Even the location scouts did a brilliant job looking for a ‘this is an alien planet’ look.

The screenwriter just needs to provide one aspect to the process that has multiple other people all at the top of their game and super-invested in taking what is and making it what it could be given all the time and money restraints any production has. Nothing spurs creativity like the limitations of a steady gig.

The author, on the other hand, is all of those hats. They have to do the jobs of everyone, from finding meaningful locations to directing a cast distinct characters that all need to act and think as individuals. They need to be the cinematographer, all the editors, and the production assistants. They even need to do their own catering.

A picture will always be worth a thousand words but most people never know how many millions of words end up on the cutting room floor. They cut and cut and cut from the raw material filmed until every picture in the medium only says what is necessary for the consumer to understand what they need to, when they need to.

Getting back to Farscape — most of their episodes start with a cold opening and the viewer is left wondering how their favourite cast of characters got into that moment and how they’ll possibly get over it during the first commercial break. Who the characters are and why the viewer should care about their imminent fate has already been established through all the episodes leading up to the cold start.

And yet, a lot of the unpublished work I have read over the years starts with the same type of cold beginning. A fraction of the work managed to deftly create forward momentum and backstory at the same time in a way that doesn’t feel like they’re just throwing the reader into the deep end of the story and hope they engage with it before they give up on it.

The rest fall into one or two categories. They are the waterslide stories that ask the reader to get past the staircase after staircase of conversation in which what they learn they need to remember for the next conversation or it’s a story that starts in the middle of the climax and expects the reader to not care they don’t know the significance of what’s happening. A story that starts in the middle of a dragon battle doesn’t tell me why the battle matters so it’s just another dragon battle.

Then there are the bacon guys of Stargate Atlantis. In the commentary of the first episode of the two-part season finale in season one, the director talks about how pages of dialogue between two red-shirted characters who are about to bite it only had to be reduced to a single line of dialogue before we truly care that they’re murdered. One character just needed to talk about his love of bacon so that when they both die, the viewer is fully invested.

Star Wars might have a prologue that starts with the Star Destroyer, but the first character the average child could have actually empathized with was Luke and cool Landspeeder. Game of Thrones starts with finding puppies. We see Trinity doing cool, Trinity stuff at the start of the Matrix but Neo is introduced as a common officer worker.

Writers don’t have an entire creative team dedicated to a common goal of telling the best story they can with the resources they have available. They have the rewrite process where countless revisions take the place of everything that is done to the work after the screenwriter or team hands in a working draft. Revision is the cutting room, the reshoots, and the beta readers’ feedback.

But some writers today think of editing as Ed Wood did. By the time work gets to the final draft stage, a million more decisions need to be made after the first draft is finished to make sure the best version of the story is the story being told. First drafts are almost never the best draft of the premise.

There is nothing wrong with learning how to polish prose. But it’s the last stage of the rewrite process for a reason. It should never be the only first and only stage for writers who need to learn how to wear the multiple hats of their process.

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