The Divining Wand

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Guest Daniel Pyne: What I Write

January 31, 2012 By: larramiefg Category: Books, Guest Posts

[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.

Oh well.

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.

And yet.

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 (more…)