Saturday, 31 October 2009

Genre Writing and Writing Genres: Storytelling and Idiosynchrasies in Different Media and Genres

I recently wrote the post "Comics – A Medium Not a Genre", and I would like to follow up on that with a discussion on format, both in terms of medium and genre. The reason behind this is that there sometimes exists a flawed assumption that any good storyteller by default can tell a story in any medium or genre, and even worse, with equal skill. As if the art of storytelling was so universal as to negate any idiosyncrasies of medium or genre. True, there are universal elements, elements that can be used in many (if not all) media or genres, but there are nevertheless differences that cannot be overlooked.

A great poet need not make a good novelist, nor vice versa. By the same token, a great science fiction writer need not make a good fantasy writer. Nor does a writer in the medium of literature necessarily play well in the medium of film, or a film script writer well in the medium of comics.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying that one thing excludes the other (there are plenty of writers who have mastered writing within several genres and within several media). All I'm suggesting is that it is by no means a given.

Even if we look at the most ordinary type of narrative prose fiction and compare some writers' efforts within the same type of content genre (I will be talking more about genre in an upcoming post), but in terms of novels and short stories, there are clearly some writers who are either better at the succinct format or at the longer one. The former might seem to drag his/her material out or even get lost in the effort when writing in the longer format, whereas the latter might seem cut short in the briefer format. In fact, it might not even be so clear cut a deal, not a question of good or bad as much as "not quite as good." The point, however, nevertheless stands.

And what this points to is that a writer must know and master the format. Whether the format is a genre or a medium (or even more likely an intersection of genres in a medium; say a science fiction thriller novel, citing a cross-breed of two content genres (SF and thriller), one format genre (the novel), told in the medium of literature), it is a question of knowing how that genre and/or medium functions.

In my post on comics as a medium (referred to in the opening line), I brought up the example of Angel After the Fall in order to show a difference between the media of comics and film. This difference was shown by my pointing to a failure on Brian Lynch's part to understand it in his writing a comics script that (at least partly) reads like a film script. The end result in this particular case, as stated, is not bad (not at all, I hasten to add), but there is no escaping the fact that the inclusion of Lynch's script reveals an intended effect that has not only failed to come across in the finished product; it never had a chance of coming across in that way in the first place, simply because comics aren't film (for details on the argument, see that earlier post).

From my own point of view, understanding a medium or a genre is part of the fun of tackling a particular medium or genre. Writing the script for a film or a comic should not be handled the same as writing a novel, nor even writing a comic script as you would write a film script. There are differences (sometimes subtle, sometimes not so subtle), but the writer needs to understand these. He or she needs to play to the strengths of the medium at hand, and be aware of any potential weaknesses.

For instance, adapting Joyce's famous stream of consciousness ending of Ulysses to film with an ongoing (near mad) voice-over narration would, most likely, be catastrophic in terms of film-making and most likely quite boring (and yes, there are, of course, those who would argue that Joyce's own version isn't exactly a whole lot of fun either, but bear with me). Translating the sequence to a visual stream of consciousness perspective, however, might better suit Joyce's idea in itself, not to mention work much better in the medium of film. And, while a director is clearly the artistic captain of the film-making ship, it behoves the script writer nevertheless to write for the medium at hand. Because why should he or she write a lengthy, wordy, voice-over adaptation of Joyce's monologue if it is to be thrown out from the get go? Why not think that little bit extra and write a set of visual cues for the director to stage and operate? After all, a script writer for a film is not writing a novel (something that should be even more abundantly clear in a case of adaptation as just hypothetically described), but a script for a film. Shouldn't that script in itself be a blueprint to a successful finished product? Shouldn't it be all about visualising just that?

Maybe it's just me, but it seems strange to happily attempt to write for a medium or a genre without contemplating what it is, how it works, and how you could make it work for your story.

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