Show not tell

Show not tell --

On my kitchen table sit three small piles of coloured index cards, each with a few handwritten words: Jigsaw; Rose-tinted; Social Death; British Guiana, shorthand for scenes that survived my most recent, ruthless cull. Having edited the script from 107 to 75 pages, I’ve now cut it to 47 if “Voyageuse” is to become a feature-length film of 90-95 minutes duration.

Screenwriting purists might scorn this approach. To discard 60 pages out of a 107-page script admittedly looks careless but making a film demands modes of storytelling that go beyond words, the 'show not tell' that moving image affords. Only by writing at length could I locate the spine of the story and how best to convey Erica's mindset; the random triggers of the memories that ruled her waking moments.

Reading her journals, I struggle with the desperation Erica expressed and her curious habit of repetition, as if seeking patterns to bestow order on her quietly chaotic world. Among these papers are multiple drafts of essays and letters, often written years apart, in which she rehearses the same concerns ad nausem. Often she wrote to complete strangers, mostly academics, upbraiding them on some trivial point in their published works as a pretext for iterating her own small tragedies. In the context of this film I ask myself, how do I reveal her sequestered existence and obsessive behaviour? How to show what it’s like to sit in the same room every day for over 30 years haunted by one’s past yet unable to imagine a future? How best to recount the events of 40 years in an hour and a half?

When I began writing scripts in the early 1990s I bowed at the altar of industry wisdom. I bought/borrowed books, attended courses and workshops and learned a few tricks on the way – until I realised how so few of the people promoting this stuff had a writing credit to their name. I realised too that in over a century the craft of screenwriting hasn’t progressed much beyond a blueprint for a filmed stage play, possibly accounting for the term ‘theatrical release’, a reference not to what appears on screen but to the bricks and mortar housing it.

The screenplay is the only measurable component of a film prior to its making. Other elements – the cast and above the line talent – are less tangible, just as how best to assess a set of words on a page depends on the proposed film and the maker’s intentions. No film was ever greenlit based on how it will be edited or the type of fabric used in the costumes. Yet after multiple treatments, step outlines, beat sheets and drafts the screenplay, already scrutinised to the nth degree, is rewritten to appease the backers before being written again to meet the approval of leading actors. What goes unmentioned is the degree of subjectivity involved where the reader's judgement is often predicated on little more than a penchant or pet hate.

The definition of commercial vs. cultural film, e.g. films made for profit as opposed to aesthetic worth – is fuzzy and problematic because most of the films produced in the UK and Europe, particularly those underwritten by public funds, are designed for neither. However defined, nothing can guarantee a film’s success, not the starriest cast or the most heavyweight of PR machines; for every box office success there’s a hundred money-haemorrhaging stiffs. What they share in common is they've all been subject to 'development'.

Of the many crafts associated with film, screenwriting is perhaps the most managerialised. Among those nations where public funding is involved in film, script development, mandatory even on the lowest-budget films, has spawned a lucrative industry: film agencies, courses, how-to manuals, reader services, editors, workshops, consultancies, websites and blogs. Most are well-intentioned of course, but the advice conforms to a standard template; a 3-act structure, the protagonist/ antagonist dynamic, the want/need question, the correct plot points, the moment of recognition, the resolution. Even the art of the pitch is hostage to regulation – recently I noticed a promotion for a company offering to create the 'perfect' pitch for TV drama.

Based on delusional notions of formula and technique, screenwriting has hardened into an orthodoxy where genre, plotting, act structure and character types are so tightly prescribed there’s little room for alternatives. The rare exceptions, films that subvert or interrogate the screenplay form – I hesitate to use the term ‘experimental’ – fail to gain exposure let alone a theatrical release in both mainstream and arthouse venues. Indeed outside of the specialist festival circuit and art spaces, few ever make it to the screen.

The maxim - there are only seven stories - may well be true but the ways of telling them are limitless. Anyone owning a copy of Adobe After Effects can conjure entire multiverses or defy gravity (usually in their bedroom) but it helps to have a story to start with. The lack of risk-taking in screenwriting is not to deny the relevance of Aristotelian methods because the rules do work - hence my three small piles of cards - but too often their application produces predictable, stultifying results designed to appeal to that holy grail of cinema, the target audience.

While this may (or not) work for a conventional film, for “Voyageuse” I’m unconcerned. I still have a way to go to convince myself that the script is 'right' but until I do I'm consoled by the thought that less is probably more.

The above image is an extract from a paper written by Erica, 'Actuarial data for the Bengalese Finch (Lonchura striata: FAM. Estrildidae) in capitivity'. Currently the copyright resides with Elsevier and costs $39.95 to download.