Hi There,

Another bumper newsletter this week as I return to the 2nd (and final) part of the 2nd question of the 7 I asked you back in June (yes – loads more of your great answers to my screenwriting-related questions coming up in the next few weeks!)
Reading novels is where most of us start in our passion for good writing, on the eventual road to screenwriting. And I firmly believe that we can all draw inspiration for our screenwriting from novels – and it looks like (most of) you agree!
Thank you again so much for your fascinating and inspiring responses – a lot of ideas here if you’re looking for a good novel to read, and looking for another way to re-energise your screenwriting

THE QUESTION – What novel (not just in the last year) has inspired your screenwriting and your writing generally and why?

‘The Adventures of Kavalier and Klay, by Michael Chabon. This is by no means a recent book, but its story has resonated with me, and I make a yearly pilgrimage to re-read it. As a screenwriter it’s inspired me on a number of levels- the most obvious being it’s made me consider the difference between writing for screen and novels, as Kavalier would be an extremely difficult adaptation. So ever since I’ve read it, I’ve been working on ways to bring it to screen – which storylines to bring to the fore, which to leave alone. So as a screenwriter, it taught me to be leaner in my writing and to let the action tell the story.’

‘I’m more inspired by short stories than novels. Mostly cautionary tales such as Philip K Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and M R James’ Casting of The Runes. I like a good twist and a touch of moral ambiguity.’

‘Cougar Annie’s Garden – proof positive of the strength of the human spirit.’

‘The Secret History by Donna Tartt because its bold driven narrative combines the modern and classical, and it’s storytelling at its best which I admire no matter what form.’

‘The novel which has probably had the biggest impact on me was John Irving’s: A Prayer For Owen Meany. It’s a big, beautiful and life-affirming masterpiece, with one of the most unique characters in all of fiction. I really felt like part a part of those characters lives and experienced just about every human emotion reading it. I laughed out loud often – and cried deeply at the end. More recently I’ve enjoyed Hilary Mantel’s: Wolf Hall. Actually, my favorite play growing up, was Robert Bolt’s: A Man For All Seasons. I thought Sir Thomas More was a great and good man who died for his principles and Thomas Cromwell was this horrible and ghastly villain. Mantel’s book, along with its extraordinary prose, has been a nice reminder about the dramatic principle of character and viewpoint. In Wolf Hall, Thomas More comes across as a sanctimonious nut, whilst Cromwell is brilliantly … and thrillingly … human.’

‘I was pleased that Lydia Davis won the Booker prize. I enjoyed her Collected Stories (not strictly a novel but hundreds of tiny stories!) She tells a whole story in just a few lines or a paragraph, fitting in character and drama to convey so much with just a few carefully chosen words. As a screenwriter I’m aware of keeping my descriptions brief but also meaningful and eloquent.
I’m inspired by Lydia Davis to think that storytelling means using simple words well. She makes me want to write screenplays that have subtext and aspire to art, even in a 2 line scene description. It may be a big ask, but why not aim high?!’

‘Conference of the Birds by Farid ud-Din Attar (12th century Persian Poet). To have presented the awesome task of seeking the Knowledge of GOD in such a simple, yet delightful way is truly proof of its greatness, and its having maintained its freshness for the last 800 years.’

‘Kurt Vonnegut The Slaughterhouse Five.
I have been reading a lot of science fiction recently, and as well as Phillip K Dick, I have become obsessed with Vonnegut’s work. Since reading The Slaughterhouse Five I have been writing and planning various science fiction screenplays that deal with some of the major themes that he explores in his novels, such as time travel. The Slaughterhouse Five works on two levels, as it is really an anti-war novel disguised as a time travel story. The underlying message of the novel only becomes clear once you have read the whole book.  This can be applied to screenplays and films as well: If a film excites and engages you, you will watch it and enjoy it, but if this film has an underlying message about society or just life in general, the film will stay with you for a lot longer.’

‘John O’Farrell – This is your Life. How any person can achieve the achievable and how a story can be built up to a surprising conclusion.’

‘So many – Middlemarch comes to mind for two reasons. 1) for the way it tells the story of a community through the lives of many characters and thereby emanates this amazing humanity and 2) for its final paragraphs which are firstly an amazing piece of writing and also set out what I think a lot of good fiction and drama does – which is to draw attention to the small things and small lives in order to show a greater truth or story.
Also classic American novels like The Great Gatsby and To Kill A Mockingbird that have such an incredible unity of character / theme / story / plot so that each strand becomes inseparable and everything inside the book’s covers builds on everything else and ultimately the sum exceeds the parts. Also multi-strand stories like A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and Small Island by Andrea Levy. For pure story telling technique and narrative drive – to the very last page – The Little Stranger by Sarah Waters is the best book I have ever read.’

‘When I was a teacher in a junior school, I read a book to my class by Garry Kilworth – ‘The Drowners’ . It was quite unique in that the protagonist who myself and the class invested quite heavily in early on, seemingly vanished from the story by chapter 6 and his bullying nemesis assumed his role for the rest of the book. Of course, all is revealed later on but if I could afford to option it I would and write an adaptation of a brilliant story idea.’

‘Cloud Atlas – for its fantastically inventive structure, and just for being so bloody ambitious. It was so wide ranging and encompassed so much and just about managed to pull it off, it gave me ideas/made me think about/re-appraise just about every idea bubbling away at the back of my head. I also loved it for being ultimately hopeful. Although (like Mud) not upbeat in an easy or sentimental way, but – despite acknowledging all that is awful about life – there is that ray of hopefulness at the end.’

‘The Life of Pi, written by Yann Martel. Not a book I would normally have chosen, I read it as a favour to a special friend of mine – who assured me I would love it. I did! I was immediately immersed into the story and so many times, I had to set the book down just to marvel at the author’s talent.’

‘This is a very tough one, as I don’t read many novels these days (Phil Gladwin’s recent post struck a big chord with me)! It’s either D H Lawrence’s “The Rainbow” or Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” The first because it communicates the ordinary life of the time in an incredibly rich, sensitive and emotionally-charged way — it gave me confidence that it was ok to come from a non-privileged background and still write about life, sex, art, nature, relationships in such poetic and passionate language, yet remain clear and accessible. The second, because it dramatized a moral hero facing a great social injustice in such breath-taking prose — it showed me it was possible to depict that world and take a critical view about it, and evoke it with such vivid, succinct mastery of language. All of these lessons I am still learning…’

‘It seems like a cop-out answer, but Dan Brown books. I don’t particularly like his style of writing, however you cannot deny the level of research that goes into his books, alongside concocting some amazing story arcs. The plot twists that he introduces I can rarely see coming. I finished Inferno this morning which has an ending that you don’t often see (I won’t divulge in case you have not read it). For my TV project, I have been looking for similar ‘wow, didn’t see that coming’ plot twists and I believe these books have helped.’

‘I started reading Kate Atkinson’s One Good Turn recently and she also constantly plays with the reader’s expectations. At the start of each chapter you think you know where you are and which character you are following, but by the second paragraph you realise your assumption was wrong. Even my assumption about the protagonist completely changed between the first chapter and a few chapters later. Like Tarantino, this forces the reader to be active and read more carefully, but also to ask questions constantly.’

‘The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon by Thomas Spanbauer. I found this novel in a big pile of books that were being sold for 50p to £1 in the Bristol Waterstones in the early 90’s. At the time I had just formed my band and was obsessed with writing songs many of which were really long, so many lyrics and convoluted narratives; plot twists, even! If I’d been born 10 years later, I think rap would have been a better outlet for my ramblings. This book spoke to me in a language that I had not heard before, direct but also lyrical and full of audacious, memorable characters that stay with you. For years I tried to find out more about the writer but there was little or no information available on the internet and then, all of a sudden in 2009, things started to appear and then a website with an ‘info@…’ contact and so I immediately sent email and within days got one back from the writer himself and it turned out that he was coming to England to speak at the Lancaster Lit Fest and run a few short courses, one of which I was able to attend. Thomas Spanbauer proved to be every bit as inspiring and insightful as his novel and I came away from that weekend more determined than ever to write. I can honestly say that the next time I felt like this was after The Two Phil’s Course early last year!’

‘A Song of Ice and Fire’. It’s so epic, authentic and is based on such a wealth of historical knowledge I find it overwhelming. It proves the more you know about the world, the more you can write.’
Reading it alongside watching ‘Game of Thrones’ has also provided me with a weekly lesson in book-to-screen adaptation, which I have found informative, fascinating and inspiring.’

‘Pereira Maintains by Antonio Tabucchi. I’d been hearing about this book for years but hadn’t realised it had been translated from the Italian, so reading it in English was a great thrill. This book proves that if you decide to break a writing rule, then do it well and do it consistently. Written as if it is a police statement it holds true to its form throughout and in minutiae detail takes an anonymous character living a comfortable life, obliviously immune to the moral dilemma the Portuguese faced watching their neighbours torn apart by the Spanish Civil War, through to when he makes his own “big decision”. Read it, but don’t spoil it for anyone else; it’s just too delicious.’

‘”Homicide” by David Simon has been the biggest inspiration on my writing. The book details a year with the Baltimore police department homicide division and is perhaps more cynical than “The Wire” which Simon went on to write. It is the way he creates a world where there is no black and white, where people are doomed by their circumstances and location rather than the actions they are forced to take. It is a dark look on the world, something which I am particularly fond of tonally. I like to embrace this darkness in my work, just need to try and find a bit more hope to include!’

‘’The Master and Margarita” by Mikhail Bulgakov. The Devil as both antagonist and saviour, a host of wild characters, two contrasting but cinematically vivid worlds, social satire, romance, and an ending that had me in tears for days. Makes you laugh, makes you cry, makes you think.’

‘Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, or The Lacuna, for her ability to create personal dramas against the background of a much bigger political and historical story. Her research is detailed and meticulous, but you don’t feel bludgeoned by it; instead she creates an entirely believable and colourful setting. I’m always nervous of using real people and events in my writing, but I think she shows you can create compelling stories that use real history to inform and challenge the audience.’

‘Notes on a Scandal. Zoe Heller
Because the devil gets all the best lines. Barbara is such a great character. She made me realise a protagonist doesn’t have to be a hero or even likeable and that they’re all the more interesting for their flaws. There’s lots to admire and take from this novel, from the sleight of hand which has us thinking Sheba is the focus, (she is, but not in the way we first think) to the ambiguity we feel about the characters at the end. Lessons in character and theme aside, throughout there is an undercurrent of deliciously dark humour expressed in cutting observations which draw the reader in however unwilling they are to join Barbara’s dubious high ground. There is subtext and menace in virtually everything Barbara does. A grown-up novel with a subtlety and intelligence to aspire to.’

‘I recently read J K Rowling’s A Casual Vacancy which inspired the feature film I’m currently writing as I decided to write it in a way that there would be a number of individual stories within the same neighbourhood going on at once which, at some stage would link, often unexpectedly.’

‘Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road” – it’s sparse style is direct, which is a must-learn skill for screenwriting, but most importantly the central theme of fathers & sons struck a real chord with me. The book can be read in two ways – it can be about the fear of a son knowing they will eventually lose their father and be alone in the world to fend for themselves, or it can be about the fear of a father knowing they won’t always be around to protect their child. Indeed, it can also appeal across that divide – eventually the son becomes the father, and their concerns & fears shift. It’s also mercilessly real in how it presents a potential apocalypse – as it would be (a breathless struggle in a savage and barren world), not as you’d like it to be (the “fun-pocalypse” as I call it).’

‘I have recently become hooked into fanfiction and it has inspired me in my screenwriting due to the main fact that people have taken a fandom such as Sherlock and twisted into their own alternative universe. It has revitalised the creativity process for me instead of nervously saying “I can’t do that” to “WHY the hell not it works with my character/plot”. I salute the fanfiction writers who do it for the pleasure of it and it is the idea that I have taken with me to screenwriting.’

‘Novels ? I wouldn’t know where to start. I was very moved by the screenplay (no, not a novel) of “Penda’s Fen”, originally a 1974 Play For Today by David Rudkin. This influenced the play of mine you read recently.’

‘Again, so hard to choose just one but if I have to, one novel that has stayed with me ever since I read it several years ago is Philip Pullman’s, His Dark Materials, in particular the first novel of the trilogy, Northern Lights (later made into the disappointing feature film, The Golden Compass) I also write children’s books and this particular novel opened my eyes to the world of children’s literature (which has changed dramatically since I was a young reader.)
The story is moving, bold, epic and imaginative, and the world Pullman created is inhabited by memorable and vivid characters not only on the page but that sprang into life in my imagination. What’s particularly interesting is that Pullman doesn’t really describe his characters in great detail yet they appear to be fully-formed three-dimensional living and breathing characters. I think the depth of character he achieves is particularly inspiring and should be an intrinsic part of any writer’s creative process. Real people are complicated creatures and characters should reflect this. I think lazy storytelling and character creation leads to stereotypes and cardboard cut-out characters. I try very hard to write characters that are multi-dimensional, flawed, ambiguous, complicated, because there’s nothing duller than a cardboard cut-out character be it in a book, on stage or on screen. Take Lyra, the feisty young girl and main protagonist in the Northern Lights, even as an adult I wanted to be her and to have my own daemon, I can only imagine how I would have felt as a child, especially as a girl, when strong, independent female role models who aren’t obsessed with boys, clothes and make-up can be hard to find.’

‘The Third Policeman

Flann O’Brien is an understated Irish novelist who was very active in the early to mid- last century. That he had THREE different pen names is arresting enough (as a government employee, he had to hide his tracks and safeguard his wage) but “The Third Policeman” is truly fabulous. What I would like to replicate (in some similar form) is his brilliant achievement in inventing a character through footnotes in the text (the philosopher, de Selby, is referenced with such unrelenting frequency that this fiction within a fiction almost convinces one that such a person MUST have existed).’

‘Are you serious? You really want me to restrict myself to just ONE? In second place has to be Audrey Niffenegger’s The Time Traveller’s Wife for its sheer ingenuity of idea
and brilliant plotting but after much debate it’s beaten to the post by Susan Hill’s The Woman in Black. It is short and the plot is deceptively simple but it builds such a strong atmosphere that the story literally haunts you for years after you’ve read it.’

Until next week

All the best


Twitter: @philipshelley1

Oct 11th 2013