First Things First

Today’s guest blog comes from Robert Gordon Sumner. His short story, “Only So Much More,” will be featured in Issue 13 of The Quotable.

On a recent episode of The Colbert Report, Seth McFarlane plugged his new novel, A Million Ways to Die in the West, that he’d written during the filming of the movie with the same title, the screenplay for which he’d also co-written. Stephen Colbert pointed out that the usual process is the reverse, that screenplays are usually adapted from already-published novels. Why this is so perplexes me.

There are several advantages to writing a screenplay before a novel or short story, the main one being that a screenplay makes for a useful, detailed outline. Most novelists outline on some level before beginning to write a story anyway. Take the intermediate step and expand that outline into a feature-length screenplay (likewise, a short screenplay is useful in writing a short story or novella.) Although the plots of many prose pieces are arranged in a non-linear fashion, the underlying chronology has to be sorted out before deciding how to rearrange the component events. Most screenplays are written in such a linear, chronological order, not withstanding the occasional flashback. Working out the plot holes and the sequence of events at the screenplay level is much less complicated than it would be in the chronologically-scrambled prose.

The task of writing a novel also becomes less daunting when the writer considers that not only has the plot been thoroughly revised during the screenwriting process, but much of the dialogue has already been written and polished. Though a considerable amount of work still remains (screenwriting is easier than prose writing, despite Robert McKee’s defensive insistence to the contrary) – the bare bones descriptions in the screenplay must be elaborated, the characters’ memories, thoughts, and physical sensations which are mostly omitted from the screenplay must be written – having a portion of it done is a psychological boost.

The visual aspect of screenwriting also improves the final prose version. A series of scenes geared to be entertaining on a screen will be captivating imagery in a reader’s mind. Screenwriting offers many free workshopping opportunities that a novelist or short story writer does not enjoy. For the price of a cup of coffee a screenwriter can attend a meetup and hear feedback on their work in progress. Many aspiring writers will eagerly read portions of your screenplay who might be less enthusiastic about proof-reading your hundreds of pages of prose. They might not be familiar with the literary technique you plan to use in your prose, but they can always assess the plausibility of the plot, the naturalness of the dialogue, your characters’ likability or lack thereof, and the tone.

The final potential advantage to writing the screenplay before the prose version is remunerative: would you rather get the credit and the pay for both a novel and a screenplay, or hand the story over to a screenwriter to figure out how to adapt your story for you, and thereby take the screen credit and split the royalties that you could otherwise keep? If your answer is that you’re planning to do both, but adapt your own story after the prose version is written, then you have it backwards.