Novel? Screenplay? Comic? How to Choose the Right Medium For Your Story
Ken Pisani on Writing Across Disciplines
A film and TV writer by profession, I also write stage plays, documentaries, comic books, novels, and even stand-up comedy. (I know what you’re thinking: “Ken needs to learn how to focus.”) Writing across mediums is similar to being a decathlete, working across a variety of disciplines, but without the sweaty grunting.
Sweating and grunting notwithstanding, the decathlete analogy is also apt because writing across mediums requires different muscles. I use a different skill set to write a novel than I do for a screenplay, and call on still another part of my brain for a comic book; the single setting and limited characters of a play require yet another avenue of thinking, while a documentary demands not so much writing as harvesting a story from its parts and assembling it, like Dr. Frankenstein. And much like the story of Frankenstein, it all starts with selecting the correct brain.
That’s not to say such writer-brain-multitasking is easy. While each medium offers different storytelling opportunities, each also poses unique challenges. Some ideas will work across multiple mediums—witness how many books and comic books, stage plays and documentaries, are made into film, television, and even video games. But many won’t translate as well; some stories are innately suited to a specific medium. By developing different writing muscles, I feel I can best tell the best story in the best medium, but only if I understand how those mediums work. For example, I’m probably not a very good essay writer or I wouldn’t have used the word “best” three times in that sentence.
What if your idea basically entails two people doing nothing but sitting in a room and talking? That isn’t a comic book, which requires more visual stimulation than alternating talking heads, and no network executive would ever put it on television unless it was punctuated with frequent explosions. And it certainly isn’t a feature film, the single historical exception being My Dinner With Andre. Recognize that what you have here is a stage play.
I had an urge to explore the early days of the civil rights movement through the eyes of two former boxing champions, one white and one African American, who fought against that backdrop and are reunited in old age. As a period piece with older protagonists, it’s a hard sell as a film, and I didn’t think it would work best as a novel—I wanted to hear these guys bicker and quarrel and lash out at each other as their past lives trickled out and their true selves were revealed to an audience. That last part—that it could happen in front of a live audience—made it feel more nakedly real. Thus Glove Story became a play, with an immediacy and intimacy no novel, comic book, or even screenplay could match.
Conversely, a bigger world requires a bigger canvas. My first attempt at a graphic novel, COLONUS, was a sci-fi political thriller about colonies on Mars and Venus. Could it exist as a film or TV series? Yes, but the high production budget required is a bar to probable success. Unless it’s based on a wildly successful existing property—or your last name is Lucas, Spielberg, or Cameron—it’s difficult to sell a two hundred million dollar space opera, while the world-building I had in mind was something I could accomplish for a relative pittance with the right artist in a comic book format.
I stumbled immediately, writing my first script in Final Draft, screenplay formatting software that seemed to make sense: after all, comic books, like films, are all settings and dialogue. What I neglected to consider was that all that crackling tough guy dialogue may read well on the page, but porting it over to the sequential panel illustrations of comic books proved problematic: there just isn’t the physical real estate for it. Those word balloons can only hold so much—25 words of dialogue is a lot—and there are limited panels in which to say it. So it becomes an exercise in writing economically, paring that florid speechifyin’ to only what’s essential. The happy surprise for me was that the end result was better than what previously lived on that endless white page. Sometimes constraints will set you free.
And a graphic novel lets you do things like this: here’s some classic thrust-and-parry banter between the villain, momentarily holding the upper hand on the story’s protagonist (I resist calling him “hero” since he’s an outlaw who just beat one of his adversaries to death with a shovel). As the villain discusses the future, we get to see it as his captive envisions it, continuing the conversation in captions. It would be unusual to do this in a screenplay, difficult to convey in a novel, impossible in a stage play.
While both film and comic books are visual mediums, another difference is in how you write those visuals. In a screenplay, I might have a character enter a dark room, cross to a desk, pull out a bottle of whiskey and pour it into a glass, downing it in a single gulp. (In a novel, I’d have to write it more elegantly than that; in a stage play I’d have to set at least a full act in that room, and possibly my entire story.) But I can’t give that description to my artist as a single panel because that’s actually three or four panels of art: he stands in the doorway, framed by light from outside; I can cut him walking across the room and go directly to his hand pulling the bottle from the desk drawer (but only if I’ve told my artist to establish the desk in the first panel); then he drinks. A single throwaway line of stage direction in a script becomes a half page of storytelling art in a comic book.
It’s a pretty common rule not to overdirect your “action” in a screenplay, or the actual director will hate you and shout at you in front of the crew (which he’ll probably do anyway). But in writing a comic book you have to write exactly what you need to see in each panel, and sometimes the point of view. At the same time, you need to be very careful not to treat the artist like your art monkey, or s/he will hate you and scream at you in front of… well, nobody, because creating a comic book is a very small affair. It’s just the two of you, so it goes without saying that your artist is incredibly important to the process. Sometimes you’ll receive the finished art and discover that your artist has done such an amazing job of visual storytelling you start revising what you’ve written to match the images, and can actually start cutting captions and dialogue that you already believed had been cut to the bone. It’s gratifying to see pages you’ve written rendered so well that they require less writing; it feels a lot better than cutting dialogue because your actor is struggling with the word “marzipan,” or rewriting “The spaceship takes off in a fiery blast that scorches the earth” to “The spaceship is gone,” because production can’t afford the spaceship.
If I were to write COLONUS as a feature, it would be a very different process: writing on little colored cards. Any good screenplay starts with an outline of the big story beats and the individual scenes that make them up. Then those beats and scenes are written on color-coded index cards. For my screenplay about real-life heavyweight contender Two Ton Tony, because it covered an expansive life from the 1920s through the 70s, those scenes were coded as flashbacks (yellow), flash forwards (blue), boxing scenes (purple); additional cards indicated the narrative device of a deceased Tony telling his story (green), and cards indicating his antagonist, champion Joe Louis, culminating in their third-act confrontation (pink). Pinning all these cards on a board I can see at a glance how well I’ve paced and balanced my story: too many purple cards means there’s too much boxing, long gaps between pink and I know I’ve lost my antagonist and therefore my conflict. I can also move the cards around—show this flashback earlier to set up this fight later—or to tell the story in nonlinear fashion (in watching a film like Pulp Fiction it’s easy to imagine Tarantino dropped his cards and then pinned them up at random and liked what he saw). Then, I only had to sit down and write the damn thing, over weeks and even months, and hope it made sense.
That solitary endeavor is vastly different from the “writers room” of television. A TV staff can have upwards of a dozen writers, pitching both stories and, on a half-hour comedy, jokes. It’s like growing up in a large family with a need to get noticed around the dinner table, and maybe even snag a waffle before they’re all gone. The inclination might be to shout the first joke that comes to mind, but a general rule of comedy is never shout the first joke that comes to mind. In a room full of comedy writers everyone else will have thought of that same joke, and yours will be greeted with the kind of disdain usually reserved for a cat at a dog show. (And yes, for the record, shouting at a writers’ assistant while s/he types everything into a document is considered in television a form of “writing.”)
Then that story will usually be assigned to a single writer, sometimes two or more, who will seclude themselves and drink Red Bull and surf the Internet for anything that might make the other person laugh or extremely uncomfortable, preferably both. Eventually, they’ll get to work on scripting the story, which will be submitted to the showrunner for rewriting, and then further gang-rewritten by the staff—punching jokes, adding character moments, clarifying story, all making it presumably better but gradually less recognizable from its original draft. And by the time the writers see it on television it will resemble the vague memory of a lost love, blurred by the infidelity of the many episodes they went on to write before this one could air.
Writing in such a collaborative environment isn’t for everyone. In fact, it suits very few. Ok, let’s face it: psychopaths. There’s a misconception in Hollywood that if you don’t like collaboration, you should write a novel. It’s a terribly dismissive sentiment for several reasons, not the least of which is writing a novel is hard. More significantly, it’s only true that you can write whatever you want without the input and collaboration of others if you don’t care about it ever being published.
Your agent will have notes. Your editor will have notes. And so will your publisher. If you’re smart, you’ll listen to them; they’ll have insights and ideas that come from experience, a knowledge of the marketplace, and a fresh perspective lost to you after living with your book in your head for so long. The good notes will make your novel much better, and even the “bad” notes might lead you to improvements you might not have thought of on your own. My own agent and editor are very, very smart and gave me excellent suggestions. Also, they’re reading this.
But back to the idea that writing a novel is hard. It’s not “coal miner” hard, nor does it require the precision of a diamond cutter or come with the life-or-death stakes of being a hostage negotiator. (Note to self: thriller about a coal miner who finds the world’s biggest diamond and takes a gem cutter hostage.) The muscles required to write a novel aren’t bigger or stronger or in any way better than those required in other mediums, just different. There are so many decisions that don’t have to be made in a screenplay or stage play or comic book or haiku: what’s the point of view—is it objective or omniscient, first person or third (or, inexplicably, second person like Bright Lights, Big City)? How much do I tell in dialogue, and how much do I tell from the distance of the observer or from inside the characters’ thoughts? Do I have a single protagonist or multiple, interlocking stories? (Yes, I’ll argue that this is unique to literature; despite sometimes large ensembles, very few films or TV shows have more than a single protagonist an audience follows, and around which the other characters orbit and function.)
Then you have to write it. And whether striving for eloquence or simplicity, the consideration of language in a novel is much more demanding than other forms, and it simply takes time to get it right. A lot of time. In my case, years, on and off. (And the jury’s out on whether or not I got it “right.”) On the other hand, I can write a comic book in a couple of days or a TV pilot in a week. They might not be very good, but now they exist on paper and I can spend a reasonable amount of time honing them into something that is; a decent novel from beginning to end simply cannot come into the world that quickly. And those other forms are finite—a screenplay around 110 pages, a TV drama around 50, a comic book 24 or 32 (print signatures are in multiples of eight). This means you know when you’re done. I believe it was Paul Valéry, whoever he was, who said “A poem is never finished, only abandoned,” and the same is certainly true of a novel.
For me, one of the attractions of novel writing is not to be hamstrung by the usual rules of screenwriting. There are wonderful screenwriters who can make a story seem unique—and even brilliant ones, like Charlie Kaufman and Terrence Malick to name two, who break the form completely—but most films, no matter the genre, essentially tell the same story: introduce a protagonist, set off an inciting incident, send him or her off on a hero’s journey; throw obstacles in the way to overcome and a mid-point reversal, bring him or her to a lowest point only to ultimately triumph and most importantly, change as a person for the better. It’s the template for nearly every film fiction, from The Gold Rush to Star Wars to Showgirls, although the biggest obstacle to overcome in Showgirls may be the ordeal of sitting through it.
I was having none of that in my novel AMP’D, “the most fun you’ll have reading about a guy whose arm is hilariously amputated™.” My inciting incident has already happened before the very first page, and it’s clear this guy is ruined. He’s not going to overcome obstacles or transcend his terrible circumstances; he’s going to weep and flail and suffer, albeit hilariously. Yes, he will enjoy small victories, and he’ll even learn something. But if this were a screenplay it would go like this: meet Aaron, he’s super awesome as a lawyer or executive and has the world on a string (if he’s a good guy) or by the balls (if it’s a redemptive story); this goes on for ten pages and then the terrible thing happens and we watch him lose everything, only to slowly begin to hurdle every obstacle in his way and come out of this a better man.
I wanted to be free of those rules to explore how real people face adversity, however darkly comic a take that might be. I believe we look up to exceptional people who do triumph over terrible adversity and overcome incredible odds because in real life they are the exceptions. Which means most of us are not. Few of us are on the hero’s journey, and we don’t have a transformative story arc. We don’t change all that much over decades (never mind an hour and forty minutes), or have a “super want”—the thing we want above all else—and numerous biblical-sized obstacles that keep us from it. Rare is the inciting incident that sends us off on a journey, and we certainly don’t have an accelerating third act where, after our lowest moment, we rush to triumph.
Real life isn’t like that. It can be mundane and extraordinary, filled with great love and longing, grand success and failure too spectacular to overcome, the dichotomy of isolation in crowds and small enormous moments. That’s real life, and that’s what I wanted to write about. And a novel seemed the best medium in which to do it. (Did I mention “hilariously”?)
Now, to get to work on that screenplay adaptation.