Ticking clock keeps best scripts lean

Michael Cunningham, novelist (“The Hours”), screenwriter and a teacher of writing, spoke to Variety features editor David S. Cohen for Cohen’s upcoming book “Screen Plays: How 25 Scripts Made It to a Theater Near You — For Better or Worse.”

Cunningham saw David Hare’s adaptation of “The Hours” nominated for an Oscar and went on to adapt his own “A Home at the End of the World” and Susan Minot’s novel “Evening” for the screen. He discussed the differences between writing a novel and a screenplay.

A novel can include a sort of panorama of characters, a little like the Breughel painting with Icarus going down in the lower right-hand corner of the canvas. That’s one of the reasons there are novels. That’s one of the reasons we need novels and we need movies. A novel can account for randomness and can include a wide range of people whose fates just barely impinge on one another. I can’t think of a way to tell a story like that in a movie that I would want to see.

I think movies are more closely related to short stories than to novels. A short story actually involves the compression you need for a movie, whereas a novel is another category of thing entirely. Was it Henry James who called a novel a big, baggy monster? That’s what it is. That’s why we love them. I think a short story, very much like a movie, has no room in it for extra baggage. It needs to move, it doesn’t need to move directly, but it needs to move swiftly. It needs to be lithe and light and nimble, and though that forty-page digression to the Crimean War and how it resembles what’s happening at the family dinner may be interesting, there’s no room in a short story for it. Nor is there room in a screenplay for it.

In adapting a novel, (what I do is) first to try to reimagine it as a short story. Reduce it to its fundamental elements, and then adapt that.

There’s something a little bit mathematical about writing a screenplay. You have a certain number of elements. You probably have about two hours to tell the story; no one’s going to make a five-hour movie, or a forty-five-minute movie, for that matter. And it’s a little like solving a puzzle: Okay, these people, these events, this outcome. Tell it in two hours. Go.

That clock ticks relentlessly throughout every page and line of dialogue. There’s no slack, there’s no surcease, there’s no room to stop and take a breath and provide a little background. It’s tremendously structured. It’s like doing sprints, as opposed to a marathon.

(Whatever you write), what you’re doing is asking people to pause in the middle of their very busy lives and look at (your story). “Wait a minute, stop what you’re doing and look at this! Don’t have sex, don’t have lunch, don’t learn French, get someone else to pick up your kids at school and do this instead.”

You’d better give them something that’s tense and taut and deep and meaningful. Otherwise, the fact that you wanted to do it, (or that) it expresses some untapped beauty of your own soul, isn’t enough. You’re doing it for yourself and you’re doing it for other people. If you don’t understand that both elements are equally important, narrative in any form is not really the job for you.

From “Screen Plays” by David S. Cohen, HarperCollins Entertainment, February 2008

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