Writing for the screen, and writing for children, share a common trait. They both depend on someone else’s creativity to convey ideas.
That became apparent at a winter writing conference when both seminars were offered back-to-back.
Each speaker stressed that authors have to leave room for actors or illustrators to do their job.
Scriptwriting, for example, “is meant to be heard and seen, not to be read,” said US director/producer Justin Evans. Evans made his first film when he was 15 and built a career in the States and China.
Actors interpret and project the writer’s words onto the screen. Those words cost money. “Dialogue for the screen is about editing, reducing fat,” said Evans.
“People talk in glancing blows,” he said. He advises scriptwriters to “put your dialogue on a diet. If it’s conveying information, it fails.”
One tool is the ellipses. Those three little dots indicate a character thought something, but held it back. This allows space for actors to develop characters on the stage or screen.
Similarly, picture books use illustrations to convey ideas. The illustrator makes links with the writing to tell the story in frames. Jennifer Mattson, associate agent at Andrea Brown Literary Agency in California, explained that relationship:
“Children’s authors should leave out unnecessary information so illustrators, and children, can think on their own.”
As an example, Mattson cited a manuscript where the only change she suggested was to delete a café in the phrase “… in the bookstore at the outdoor café.” Instead, the illustrator drew the character at an outdoor café in front of a bookstore, thereby creating the desired image and drawing the child reader into the scene.
“These are children’s first introduction to language,” said Mattson. “Lyrical and beautiful storytelling, with a little humour, appeals to both kid audiences and parents.” That’s key because they are the gatekeepers of what their kids read. And, they have to be prepared to read it aloud until the pages fall out.
Child heroes have great kid appeal, and are often used to make non-fiction interesting for children. Fireside Publishing has a Leaders and Legacies line about famous Canadians in an adventure or crime. The next one features past Prime Minister Paul Martin as a 12-year-old.
In the case of adult characters, said Mattson, the writer and illustrator together portray the childlike quality or curiosity that is ideal to convey adult ideas to young minds. That’s what makes folk tales, usually filled with adults, talking animals and fantasy figures, work.
“There’s lots of room for cultural diversity in folktales if the author can find a fresh, fun, kid-friendly way to write it,” she said.
By extension, graphic novels, such as Maus which deals with the Holocaust, combines the two media to investigate tough issues, including racism.
Whether a writer has 90 minutes on a screen or 90 words in a book, good writing leaves room for all of the artisans, the readers and the audience to interpret the word.