Week six in my Drama Writing class, and we are making the transition from stage play writing to screenplay writing. As I have said from the very beginning, we are blessed with two great textbooks, and I am learning a lot not only about scriptwriting, but about novel writing as well.
One of the words that came through loud and clear when we were studying the book “The Art and Craft of Playwriting” by Jeffrey Hatcher is the concepts of Spectacle. Hatcher makes it clear that spectacle is one of the big differences between writing for stage and writing a novel. People expect to see something in a play that they wouldn’t see at home or anywhere in real life. You want to be authentic (as I mentioned on Monday), but at the same time, you want escapism. You want to dazzle. It could be a swordfight, an on-stage murder, forbidden romance or characters coming out of the ceiling or out of the audience, singing at the top of their lungs. But breaking down those walls of expectation are what makes a play a success.
But I think both screenplays and novels call for spectacle as well, just in different ways. Movies are good at including spectacle, and blockbusters are usually about spectacle and nothing else. The challenge comes in providing spectacle that is not a cliche. A bigger explosion isn’t necessarily the answer. Instead, make it more personal.
Spectacle can be nuanced as well. The idea is to surprise the reader–or the audience. And that surprise needs to make sense, of course. It’s not as simple as having aliens suddenly appear in the middle of your Victorian-era epic. But if you are able to give your audience a surprise–positive or negative–they will love you for it…or not. Joss Whedon, the creator of Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and the Firefly series, has developed a reputation for getting you to fall in love with a character, only to kill them off. That frustrated audience, but it also keeps them interested. And it’s not to just arbitrarily kill someone–or have to be justified in doing so, as far as the storyline is concerned. And that can be spectacle as well.
Robert McKee, in his wonderful book “Story” (our other textbook) states the axiom: “Give the audience what they want…but not in the way they expect.” That’s a truth that every writer needs to hold onto. And spectacle plays a part in making that happen.