Genre-hopping

There’s an interesting article in the Guardian Unlimited about the apparent incompatability between mastery of the novel and mastery of theatre. And I think the writer has a point. The thing is, though, it assumes that this is something strange, which uncovers the assumption that if one is a great writer, one ought to be able to write anything.

Now, having both taught literature for many years, and written since I can remember, I know that genres are different. It’s obvious that poetry is different from fiction, which is different from non-fiction and essay-writing, which are different again from journalism. But there are subtler, yet fundamental differences: screenwriting is not like playwriting, and short stories are very different from novels.

So genre-hopping (speaking as one who has done it, with more or less degrees of success) is far harder than it looks. I consider myself ultimately a novelist, though I haven’t written any novels so far (well, though I haven’t finished any novels, unless you count my NaNo stuff and the mystery novels). I tend to ramble when I write, and there’s a strong narrative impulse that comes out even in my poems (though that is largely by choice these days), but the easiest thing for me to do is set scenes, draw descriptions in words. Novelling, specially the literary kind, can sustain long descriptive meditations that don’t really do much more than commuicate through the piling on of words and feelings. Very little else can.

But if you look at what I’ve finished, you might consider me a playwright. I’ve written more stuff for the stage than pretty well anything else, except poems. Writing for the stage was damn hard work. It took me several years to overcome my tendency to write dialogue that sounded good but went nowhere — something that could work in a novel (as the article points out) but that flops on stage. I also had to learn to think in terms of cues as well as lines, and to tell a story through character (not dialogue!). Theatre more or less boils down to characters in conflict, and once you understand that — and understand that audiences are not patient and that everything that happens on stage must have a purpose — you can write it.

Screenplays, which I haven’t really written, are quite different. What matters in a screenplay is not character so much as action, plot. The focus is much tighter, and the storyline far more linear in a peculiar way than it can be on stage. Perhaps linear isn’t the best word; perhaps narrower is the word. The camera is a single eye, and the story is told mostly in single shots. Montages are possible, time can be leaped, but what you can’t do is convey subtext at the same time as the main plot unfolds, the way you can do on stage.

Novels, as is stated, have the canvas of an entire world. Every boundary can be broken. But I can tell you, once I mastered the tightness of the play, I had trouble returning to the freedom of the novel form; the canvas is too broad. I’m happier at the moment with short stories, but they are damn hard to master themselves, and (to tell the truth) I wouldn’t really go out of my way to read them if I didn’t have to.

Anyway. We talk a lot about poetry on PFFA. This was a chance to touch on other genres.

And go read the article in the Guardian. I don’t agree with all of it — for instance, Chekhov was an absolute master of short fiction as well as of plays, but that did not mean he could write novels (and, I suspect, it meant that he probably couldn’t to save his life), but at least it recognizes what few people do any more — that genres are different, and to hop from one to another is a whole lot harder than we might like to admit.

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2 thoughts on “Genre-hopping

  1. Thanks, that was absolutely fascinating. I’ve never written anything but poetry (that’s not true, I wrote a scene of a play and a page of a novel and then gave up). I have always wanted to try but it terrifies me just because the skills required are so different.

    Eloise

  2. Thanks, Eloise. It’s something that maybe we don’t talk about enough — but every genre requires its own mastery. And writing for performance has its own peculiar demands, because it’s the only writing that moves straight from the page to its listeners without any editorializing in between. And listeners are impatient beasties.

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