Set In Stone?

12 Jan

Reading Comedy Rules by Jonathan Lynn, I was struck by his oberservation that filmmakers tend to shun the test audience as interfering with their vision, whereas a new play will be given a test-run before being unveiled in London or on Broadway, allowing any flaws to be corrected before the big premiere.

This reflects a difference between film, television and novels on the one hand and stage plays and short stories on the other (although television once fell on this side of the equation, as any Doctor Who fan can tell you). Of course, any writing will go through some degree of polishing before being revealed to the public as the author redrafts it, test readers feedback and editors edit, but the first set aim at a permanent creation to which little change can be made, while the second set are more ephemeral and allow change to occur over time. (Of course, you do get ‘director’s cuts’ of films and, sometimes, revised novels, but these tend to reflect the effects of ‘executive meddling’ or, for films, changes in technology, rather than changes in the creator’s vision.)

The difference is that a film, television show or novel is intended as a finished product and, after being presented to the public, isn’t expected to change. A play, on the other hand, is effectively a new entity every time it is performed and as is a short story when published anew. The feedback of cast and audience may cause the playwright to rewrite their opus as they search for perfection, just as the edits imposed or suggested by individual editors and reader feedback can lead the short-story writer to modify their piece before it reappears in print. Unless a play is recorded or made into a film, even a version regarded as ‘definitive’ is just one among many, a suggestion rather than an immutable form, just as only a collected edition of an author’s stories offers any permanence of form (and, even then, may be superceded by a later collection).

This is not to say that one way is superior. While reworking a piece over time may lead to perfection, it is to be hoped that the road to publication or release for a novel or film will be rigorous enough to have much the same effect. (Although, of course, the lack of such a process is a risk that self-published novel authors must be aware of and compensate for.) Nor is it necessary that more feedback is always a good thing – sometimes a minority opinion may echo louder than it deserves or the taste of the majority of the audience may be at odds with what the author wishes to produce, and they will have to make a decision about how far to follow such suggestions.

But, it is worthwhile keeping in mind the differences between the two camps if you produce work in each, or are contemplating doing so, as some people are best suited to working in one way or the other. And, if nothing else, it’s an interesting comparison!

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