[The decision to reopen The Divining Wand was based on the goal of offering more diversity in both books and authors. For example, today’s guest showcases other forms of storytelling to prove how a writer can transition between formats and highlight his natural talent. Enjoy!]
Daniel Pyne has been at home in the world of film, TV, and books for over 30 years. His long list of screenwriting credits include The Manchurian Candidate, Fracture, Any Given Sunday, and Miami Vice. Currently, he is a writer, executive producer, and co-showrunner on JJ Abrams’ new TV show Alcatraz on FOX. He is also author of the cult noir novel, Twentynine Palms (which was also made into a feature film). His new novel, A Hole In The Ground Owned by a Liar was released on January 17th.
What I Write
I never really intended to be a screenwriter.
It was supposed to be a fallback position I would take while developing my prose writing skills, and in case I couldn’t make enough money to support myself writing the fiction I loved. You know. Serious fiction. Write one episode of television a year, a movie here and there. Imagine my surprise to discover that screenwriting was a career that people spent their lives mastering and that – initially, anyway – the skills required were hardly compatible with the skills required to write a short story, or novel. Not that they weren’t equivalent. Just different.
But as the literary magazine rejection slips piled up, it became clear to me that I might have to take a different path and, because my writing was always peculiarly visual, the shift to screenplays was, eventually, both gratifying and right for me.
I loved movies. I loved dialogue, and description – so much so that much of the early criticism of my scripts was that they were too literary, e.g. too many words. It’s a fair comment and a sin of which I am still guilty.
Screenwriting is the art of visual storytelling embellished by dialogue – one picture followed by another, and another, until the story concludes. Television (I’m sorry) is radio with pictures. Short stories are almost impossibly hard. And novels live in the imagination of the reader, requiring a kind of painting with words.
It hasn’t been that difficult for me to move between the different disciplines. I think, however, ironically that it took many years of screenwriting to prepare me for novels. The concision of a screenplay, the momentum, the architecture have all bled across into my prose storytelling more than I ever would have believed possible. Initially, the hardest thing was letting go of the rigid discipline of “showing and not telling.” The internal life of a character in a film, or on television, is the product of indirection and suggestion. You can never know what they’re thinking, you must express it with an action, or through dialogue, or in the spaces between the action and the dialogue, like a kind of bastardized free verse poetry with its own syntax and shorthand.
At first, it was a fitful process, in which my prose fiction characters would move and then think, move again, and then think again. It’s probably just that the underlying foundations of each form are so at odds: film is the art of discovering how much you can leave out and still tell your tale, novels are an endless process of discovering how much you can put in before your reader loses interest and falls out of the chair.
Using the past tense was also a challenge, strangely. You get so used to present tense writing screenplays that you forget how much it defines your style. Screenplays are inherently sloppy – sentence fragments, funky grammar, half-formed thoughts. Screenplays are a gesture.
Writing screenplays has liberated me for prose writing. I’m no longer intimidated by the blank page, or the necessity of the perfect word, the perfect phrasing, the perfect idea. There’s a powerful momentum in a movie narrative, carrying you forward in the way that the great novels will, pulling you instead of pushing you.
Unfortunately it doesn’t work both ways. The more prose I write, the less patience I have for the blunt force trauma of movie and television storytelling where subtlety is generally discouraged, and the end product (a script) is just something transient to get everybody to agree to make a movie that may or may not, in the end, be what you wrote. And I’ve been so over-exposed to novels written solely with the intention of selling them to a movie company, that I am even more determined to take what I’ve learned as a twenty-first century screenwriter and bring it back to the prose form in a way that can tell stories in a new and dynamic voice without surrendering all that is unique about books, and that has stood the test of time.
The first time I saw my prose printed, and bound – and realized that it would never get changed, noted, revised, re-interpreted, spun, overanalyzed or subjected to audience testing – I was blown away.
People would read my words, and my words would tell a story, beginning to end, without mediation.
What a concept.
“Daniel Pyne’s A Hole in the Ground Owned By a Liar will put to rest any idle fantasies the reader may have of setting out prospecting for gold. A harrowingly funny story of brotherly strife, amorous misconduct, and small dreams blown disastrously out of proportion. I loved it.” –Scott Phillips, author of The Adjustment and national bestseller The Ice Harvest
“Smart, sexy, funny, and a brilliant storyteller. And that’s just me. Wait till you read Dan . . . ” –Eric Idle
Now a major thank you to Daniel Pyne for providing an excerpt that exemplifies his hybrid style between book and screenplay. Yes there’s .
Chapter 5 from A Hole in the Ground Owned by a Liar
—Hi. Ken Lightfoot. Sorry about the wait.
—It wasn’t bad.
—Don’t worry about it.
—Understaffed and underpaid. Follow me. You want some coffee?
—No, thank you.
—Or we’ve got bottled water here somewhere.
—’Kay. You’ve probably figured out we are not a Jefferson County operation; we’re a private sector contractor. More and more, local governments are outsourcing parole and probation services to for-profit operations like ours.
—So . . .
(shuffling through a file)
—Damn straight. You’re out.
—Out. Out. Am I right?
—Yes, that’s right.
—First time in?
—You don’t want to talk about it?
—Fair enough. A winner listens, a loser just waits until it’s his turn to talk.
—Felony assault. Guilty plea. Three years knocked down to twenty months. Certificates of completion, anger management and substance abuse. No issues inside?
—No. Other than being inside.
—I hear that. You want to talk about the crime?
—I got mad. I hit a guy. More than once. The whole thing just got away from me, and . . .
— . . . drinking?
— ’Kay. It says here you were under the influence.
—Yeah, well. That’s a convenient excuse, but no. The drinking was an afterward.
—So what is the excuse?
—I don’t have one. It was stupid. I was stupid.
—Think like a man of action, act like a man of thought.
(a moment’s thoughtful reflection)
—Between us. The guy you messed up. He deserve it?
—You didn’t even hesitate when you said that.
—I see that you’re from around here.
—Right. Yeah, that’s here too. I’m sorry.
—It was a while ago.
—Your brother’s a schoolteacher.
—And you’re planning to stay with him.
—Until I get on my feet, uh-huh.
—You got a job lined up?
—Um . . . no.
—I see a college degree here.
—The girls’ school.
—Coed since 1971.
—Ha. Yeah. It’s a weird-sounding place all right.
—How the heck’d you wind up at a girls’ school?
—They let me box.
—Seriously. I was Eastern Collegiate Middleweight Champion.
—Bachelor of Arts, it says here. Good for you, man. An investment in knowledge always pays the best interest. What’d you major in?
—Is that a joke?
—No. Well, yes. It’s what I really majored in. But I guess the joke applies.
(Lightfoot’s salacious grin as it dawns:)
—There you go.
(requisite forced laughter)
—Okay, Grant. Okay then. You signed the contract of your parole; I assume, college degree, you read it, you understand what we call the parameters but I’ll just go over them briefly anyway: Stay clean, stay sober, stay employed, regular contact with me,
no contact with the victim, you can’t leave the state for 180 days without written permission. Don’t let your victories go to your head, or your failures go to your heart. The only difference between try and triumph is a little umph.
(a perplexed silence)
—How often am I required to call you, Mr. Lightfoot? Or do I come into town for office visits?
—Make it Ken, Grant. Mr. Lightfoot is my dad. And you will be phoning me once a month for the first six months. Unless we, you, got a problem, by all means, let me know, ’kay? Thereafter an email or a text’ll do me, just to let me know you’re there. I will contact you about a yearly review, and I would remind you that I am permitted to show up unannounced from time to time to check on you in your environs. But, this being a for-profit enterprise, I carry a pretty heavy caseload, Grant, and you strike me as a one-off, so you’d be doing me a big favor if I never had to think about you again. If you’re not part of the problem, you’re part of the cure. If you catch my drift.
—I do. You won’t.
(the file closing)
—Women’s Studies qualify you for any particular line of work?
—Ha ha, yeah, that’s another funny variation on that rich double entendre you’ve already mined, Ken.
—What’d you do before you went in?
—Taught some boxing to rich women. Construction. Sales. I biked across Africa, backpacked through Asia, worked in a free clinic in Turkmenistan, couple of winter seasons lift-wrangling at Copper Mountain. Summer camp counselor in Estes Park.
—Follow your bliss.
—I don’t think about it. I’m not career-oriented.
—That sounds like an excuse. The only time you run out of chances is when you stop taking them, Grant. Opportunities slide away like clouds.
—I’ll keep that in mind.
—Plus the job market’s shit right now.
—So I’m told.
—And you got a record. It’s not going to be easy, Grant. What I’m saying is, circumstances don’t make or break us, they simply reveal us. Don’t let anyone make you feel like you don’t deserve what you want.
—Make sure the juice is worth the squeeze.
—You got a girl? Someone special you been thinking about, thinking she’s been faithfully waiting for you to get out?
—Good. Because they don’t. Wait. Typically.
(sigh, stretch, chuckle)
—My old man would of beat me like a redheaded stepchild if I’da come home from Durango saying I was gonna major in Women’s Studies.
—Mine was dead, so . . .
—Plus I don’t like getting hit.
—Mmm. ’Kay, well. I guess that’s it. Any questions on your end?
(sliding back of chairs)
—Good luck, Grant.
(shaking of hands)
—Remember: A winner is a loser who never gave up.
—Um . . . Wouldn’t that more likely be a longtime loser?
(Lightfoot already opening the next file:)
—’Scuse me, what?