Writing

How I Transitioned from Writing Screenplays to Writing Fiction

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Editor's Note:

Hart Hanson wrote for Canadian television before moving to Los Angeles, where he worked on various TV programs before creating the series Bones, the longest-running scripted hour-long series on the FOX network. The Driver is his first novel. Hart joins Signature to share his experiences in becoming a novelist after working in TV.

The first thing TV taught me about writing novels is that I’m a credit-stealer and a fraud.

The scriptwriter types “hipster” after a character name and a strike-team of gifted professionals bursts into action; Director, Casting, Wardrobe, Make-Up, and Hair all present you with concrete examples of what makes a “hipster” and then you get all the credit.

Write a book and you are on your own. In a book you have to provide your own telling details. It’s exhausting. But that’s not the end of it.

Write stanky dialogue in a book and no actor is there to read it out loud for you in an accusatory tone. Similarly, if a book writer sets a dramatic confrontation in a clichéd location, no Cinematographer lets you know that he or she is unlikely to be able to “bring anything new to the tableau”. (That’s a kinder way of saying that you’ve written something hackneyed, cliché, and boring…)

The scriptwriter types “they fight” and the Stunt Coordinator, Director, and Actors work for hours to choreograph a heart-pounding physical confrontation. The same goes for when you type “they make love” (minus Stunts unless, y’know, your characters are making love atop a runaway train filled with explosives.)

Luckily, after years of writing TV scripts, I started to internalize many of those voices even before putting out a first draft. In fact, it’s now gotten to the point where I hear my favorites – the pros I worked with over a number of seasons – while thoughts are still tumbling inside my head, before I even hit the keyboard.

“I know you did hours of research on this,” mutters a director I respect, “but that doesn’t necessarily make it interesting.”

These helpful coach-voices in my head might explain why the protagonist of my book, The Driver, is guided by helpful ghost-voices in his head.

My favorite casting director reminds me to define character elements. Directors nag me to move the camera – which, in prose, translates into the avoidance of non-static scenes. Production Designers demand colors, shapes, dimensions, and atmosphere. Editors urge pacing and point of view. Props and Set-Dec insist that clues and red-herrings must be placed artfully, in a manner which is memorable to the reader without blowing the big reveal.

Makeup Artists poke at open wounds. (I’m not being metaphorical – Makeup Artists know enough about crafting realistic trauma wounds to make you barf. Don’t even get me started on burns.)

Technical Advisors list facts about cars and guns, cops, the military, money-laundering, the law, and parrots. (Yes, there are parrots in the book.) Composers expand upon the underlying emotions of a scene.

Script Supervisors point out continuity errors. Executives prompt consideration of diversity and marketability.

Assistant Directors – those martinets of the stage, those schedulers, those deadline-enforcers – whisper about how much material must be generated each day to remain on schedule.

You know what my professional years as a scriptwriter didn’t help with?

Smells.

Turns out, for obvious reasons, nobody cares about smells in a TV script. Perhaps that’s why I wrote The Driver in first person: so that the narrator could comment on smell when it was appropriate.

There was another reason I chose first person. Scripts are written in present tense and after decades of writing that way it was extremely difficult for me to switch to the past-tense. An observant reader might notice that I begin every chapter in The Driver in the present tense before switching to the past tense.

Why?

It was intended as a kind of sacrifice or appeasement to the Script Gods in the hope they wouldn’t smite me dead for switching religions.

I guess whether that worked or not is up to the reader….