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“You oughta be in pictures”: technical writers as screenwriters

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G.J. 2002. You oughta be in pictures: technical writers as screenwriters. The Independent Perspective 12(1):1, 12–13, 15. [This article was stimulated by a presentation given by screenwriter Tony Babinski at a meeting of STC’s Montreal chapter.]

It might seem unlikely at first glance, but as a technical communicator, you make a great Hollywood screenwriter—though that’s probably damning you with faint praise given the quality of the competition. But unlikely though it seems, you’ll find surprisingly many correspondences between the two professions. We’re increasingly being told to think visually when we write and design documentation, but what’s much less obvious is the fact that we’re already halfway there.

What does this mean to the freelancer? Well for one thing, work has dried up for many freelancers after the recent dot-com fiasco. Although it’s sufficiently difficult to sell a script to Hollywood that I don’t recommend this as a career choice, many companies need to produce multimedia presentations or even outright film scripts for their products. Once you understand that you already know much of what you need to know to do such work, looking for opportunities to develop scripts might prove to be a great way to expand your repertoire of skills and find new jobs you’d never considered looking for.

Discovering what’s important

In adapting a novel for television or for a feature film, screenwriters recognize that even relatively short novels contain far too much material to fit within the 2-hour span of a typical movie. Thus, to produce a good script, they must find the quintessential essence of the novel they’re adapting. You can see how this is done if you understand the concept of “narrative theory”, an approach to literature which suggests that all stories contain three components, no matter how the author actually subdivides these components:

Any scene or action with a scene that doesn’t provide one of these types of information fails to reflect the novel’s essence. Even if the scene or action is interesting and innovative in its own right, screenwriters can’t afford to devote the time or production resources to capture and present that information.

These stages obviously parallel the process technical communicators follow. Just as in producing a script, we must sort through an enormous amount of information, including functional specification documents, marketing literature, scrawled notes from subject matter experts (SMEs), and so on to determine the truly crucial information that our audience needs. We then perform an audience analysis to identify the reader’s needs (what those protagonists want), figure out how to meet those needs (how they get what they want), and determine the consequences of meeting those needs (what happens afterwards). In effect, we provide the context readers need to understand a task, lead them through the steps required to accomplish the task, and tell them where to go from there.

Writing instructors sometimes claim that all literature is based on “only five plots” (the actual number varies), including that traditional favorite, “boy meets girl”; in their eyes, all stories simply retell one or more of these plots. (For example, a modern twist on that plot could be “boy meets girl over the Internet”.) Documentation illustrates this hypothesis much better than screenwriting, since our arsenal of plots is even more restricted—for example, to tutorials, user manuals, reference manuals, and policies and procedures documents. Our creativity becomes evident only when we elaborate on these standard “plots” to create something new and effective.

Writing as an act of translation

Adapting a novel to the screen transforms a long series of words into a far shorter sequence of images, punctuated by dialogue, just as technical writers turn engineering specifications or an obscure interface into documentation that instructs and enlightens. In effect, both screenwriters and technical writers take concepts that exist solely in the minds of a product’s designers (whether that product is a novel or software) and translate them into something the audience can understand.

Even when you’re working in a single language, technical writing requires the same act of translation as screenwriting: we start with abstract concepts and translate them into something the audience can grasp more easily. SMEs and our audience often speak dramatically different languages, with nonoverlapping vocabularies, and have entirely different needs and goals for a product. This creates a gap between the information the audience must receive and the information we must use to meet those needs. By translating from one set of information into another, we bridge that gap and ensure communication occurs.

The medium constrains the message

When writers choose between (say) developing a film script rather than a theatrical play, they explicitly pick the medium for their message just as we do when we choose between online help and printed manuals. In both cases, the choice of medium constrains the tools available for presenting our message. For example, movies permit the use of astonishing special effects and changes in location that are simply not possible in plays. As well, picking the actors and location imposes very real constraints on what writers can accomplish with their script: for example, actors can’t reveal their inner dialogue without speaking it aloud, very few can successfully show complicated emotions that a writer took pages to describe, and none can survive some of the more interesting environments (e.g., the inside of a volcano) we might want to show on film or in a novel. The need to show these things onscreen may dictate the choice of actors and production methods; for example, it’s hard to imagine making movies such as Jurassic Park and Final Fantasy without recourse to modern computer animation.

Technical writers face the same challenges when we design printed manuals and online help. Sometimes, only an animation will adequately convey the information we must communicate, and because most types of animation can’t be achieved in print, we may require online help to communicate a concept that depends on animation. Conversely, we must sometimes sacrifice an effective technique because we lack the tools or time to use it; for example, if we lack film or animation experience, we can sometimes achieve a reasonably good result through “sequential animation”, in which a series of static images shows the most important steps in a dynamic process.

Another parallel involves the need to pick the most effective combination of visuals and text to achieve a certain effect; where screenwriters would choose a particular visual sequence, we might use graphics, and where they would choose dialogue, we’d choose written text. The balance between visuals and text falls within the realm of information design. Consider, for example, the difference between a relatively verbose film such as Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado About Nothing and something relatively inarticulate, such as most Schwarznegger films. The producers have different goals, and thus choose a different balance of text (speech) and graphics (action sequences).

The time-tested patterns available to authors form a third parallel between screenwriting and technical writing. Films use tropes, clichés, archetypes, and other familiar “patterns that work” in much the same way that technical writers use certain rules of thumb to produce our manuals. Sometimes, we must use these tools in specific ways to meet an audience’s expectations; other times, we must break away from these conventions and challenge the audience to respond differently. Knowing which strategy to pick makes all the difference between success and failure.

Revision and more revision

After we gather the material required to produce a script—or a user manual—we play around with it until we develop what seems to be an appropriate structure. Once that’s in place, we write and rewrite the material until it’s clear and stripped down to its essence. This material then collides hard with the constraints imposed by our medium and our audience: TV writers often have less than 45 minutes of actual story time per hour-long show, whereas software users have limited patience for reading long documents. Thus, conciseness is vital. Everything that we present must work, and must work well; to do so, it must build on what’s come before and lead into what follows. Anything that doesn’t move the story along briskly should end up on the cutting-room floor in a film and should be excised from our manuals. Interestingly, this approach is one part of the philosophy of the minimalism movement.

We don’t get no respect

Having completed what we consider the perfect final draft, we then show it to someone who will rudely disabuse us of this notion. In screenwriting, that person is the film’s producer or director. Like SMEs, these people may have considerably less artistic talent than we do—not to mention less taste and less audience knowledge—but they’re the ones who call the shots. In both screenwriting and technical writing, the writing is the relatively easy and inexpensive part, even if it doesn’t seem that way to us, and both factors are unlikely to inspire respect for our work. Producing the actual product (whether film or software) costs so much more that the cost of the writing nearly disappears in the final accounting. In this context, it’s not surprising that writing becomes an afterthought—something to be done quickly, long after completing the marketing and product development. This is why Hollywood films usually aim for and meet appallingly low standards—and why we often complain that we lack the resources to produce manuals we can be proud of.

In the film business, producers and directors often consider writers to be the enemy of production. Just as product developers don’t want to waste time on documentation and marketing managers don’t want to delay a product’s ship date to accommodate our needs, a producer’s response often becomes: “Why are you interfering with production? Just write the script and leave us in peace so we can make the movie.” Developers often do their best to avoid interacting with us, particularly when we’re constantly acting as user advocates and trying to improve the user interface, just as producers often actively exclude writers from the set of a film; a writer who really cares about their film will frequently protest what the directors, producers, and actors plan to do to their precious script. One cause of the recent labor unrest between the film industry and its writers lay in exactly this problem. It will be interesting to see whether they have any more luck establishing a means of living together with mutual respect than we’ve had.

Audience incompatibilities

A final problem we share with screenwriters is that of mutually contradictory audiences. Screenwriters must write both for the producer who’ll buy the script and for the audience they want to see the movie, whereas we must write for both the managers who will approve our documentation for release and the actual readers of our documentation. Where these audiences have different characteristics, their contradictory needs require serious compromises in what we produce. To accomplish our goal of producing something to be proud of, we must learn how to produce something the producers and managers will accept but that still satisfies the audience’s needs. As is true for any situation where compromises are necessary, the solution lies in negotiation in an effort to achieve consensus; where the other party in the negotiations has far more power than we do, the solution lies in developing both a mutually respectful relationship and strong powers of persuasion.

“Cut! That’s a print”

In the end, when the product finally ships, technical writers experience the same sense of insecurity about our role that screenwriters undoubtedly do. A film may be garbage by any reasonable literary or artistic criteria, yet still earn hundreds of millions of dollars if the special effects or the actors provide what the audience seeks. In an environment shaped so strongly by economic needs, the true judge of a product’s quality often becomes how well it sells, not whether it lives up to our own subjective standards for merit. Most technical writers I’ve spoken to feel much the same about their efforts: we would have done better if we’d been given the time and support we needed.

On the plus side, the cliché that every technical writer is a budding novelist has some truth to it and offers some hope for those of us who are frustrated novelists. Given that novel-writing is a tough business to enter, perhaps we’ve been targeting the wrong market. With all our skills and experience in the trenches, we’d probably make better screenwriters.

Thinking of a career change? Maybe you’ve got a bright future in Hollywood!


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