How are screenplays similar to sheet music?
“Books are just screenplays with adjectives.” – Dan Mirvish
More and more, I am struck by the differences between writing a literary work (like a novel or a short story) and writing a screenplay. Writing a story is exploration. You are building a world from your imagination and you follow its contours for as long as you have the patience. Ray Bradbury said that when he wrote he was “at play in the fields of the Lord.” Of course, different writers have different habits, but in general, authors discover their stories through extensive exploration.
Screenwriting is completely different. Dan Mirvish is wrong. Screenwriting, by it’s very nature, is technical and precise. In some ways, a finished screenplay resembles a piece of music more than a work of fiction.
- Both a screenplay and sheet music are incredibly precise, yet leave room for “interpretation.” In fact, both die if life is not breathed into them.
- Both follow a conventional style, which moves from key or genre to variations on a theme, and then lands either on the tonic of the chord or hints at some future development.
Over the centuries, sheet music has developed a very specific format. This is partly due to the fact that many different people have to read the same piece of music and understand it the same way (with direction). If the first violinist is reading in a different format than the guy playing the bassoon, they’ll have trouble communicating.
Similarly, a screenplay follows a very rigorous format, which allow many different people to read the same thing and work together. In both situations, the director is the one who gives everyone a common vision and helps them interpret the document.
Once I noticed the mathematical similarities between the formats of screenplays and sheet music, I began to wonder if they were alike in other ways.
Donald Burrows writes how skillfully Handel keeps the music in his Messiah alive, “maintaining and extending musical interest by arousing, fulfilling, and diverting musical expectations.” This strikes me as a good summary of screenplay technique. In many engaging movies, narrative expectations are aroused, fulfilled, and diverted. If a screenwriter were called upon to always create something new and surprising, he would find the task all but impossible. But fortunately, he can use the audience’s knowledge of movie cliches and narrative arcs to make his story feel new. He can set the audience up to expect one thing, then deliver something else. We love it when movies do this, when they genuinely surprise us. It goes back to Aristotle’s maxim that each event of a satisfying story must inevitably lead to the next, and yet must still surprise us with their conclusion. Musical compositions often follow a similar pattern.
I’ve often wondered what other art form is mostly closely related to the three-ring circus that is making a movie. Because both are storytelling, it is often linked to writing fiction, but I wonder if making music may be a closer cousin.