Screenwriting & Storytelling In The Age Of Coronavirus

The Age of Trump made fiction-writing redundant. No one could write characters or a story half as batshit bonkers as what we were living through before coronavirus and get away with it. Now, we’re just out in the stratosphere of “Whatever!” Twists might surprise us as they happen but nothing really surprises us any more.

Stories will now exist “pre-coronavirus” and “post-coronavirus” — exactly like with a war. If you were writing a love story on December 6, 1941, you had to revise it the next day — after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor — because a war started and the world all your characters lived in were going to war too — whether you knew it or not. Any visual storyteller who shoots a video where people are dressed like they used to — without masks or other protective accessories — without social distancing — is telling a period piece. Everyone might as well be wearing petticoats.

Shows like Fox’s Empire — as of now — gave up on the idea of finishing. In Empire’s case, the show’s creators are bailing on shooting the series finale for that very reason. Their show takes place in the present. In the here & now. That is, Empire took place in the present that was — in the there & then. Having to choose between suddenly (but inexplicably) wrenching their story and characters fully into coronavirus world or building coronavirus world into their story (very inconvenient when you’re wrapping your story up and lots of what you planned relied on the characters living how we used to), Empire’s producers (I think wisely though my heart breaks for them) chose to just “walk away”. To allow their creation to end where it did when the virus struck.

Like the show itself was a victim of covid-19. Which it absolutely was.

Simple conventions that storytellers have relied on forever now have to be rethought. Bars and restaurants might open again but they won’t look like they did pre-coronavirus. There won’t be “packed restaurants” or “pulsating night clubs” or “crowded bars” here in reality for a while. That means it’ll be tricky to write about them. It’s pointless to write a scene in movie script that no one would ever shoot because it’s not how people act anymore. It’d be like our love story writer insisting on his love story taking place in a world where Japan never attacked Pearl Harbor or Corregidor or Nanking or anywhere else. It’d be like writing Casablanca — except everyone just “shows up” in North Africa for no reason — the second world war no longer being a “thing” for them to worry about. No need for exit visas or Nazis or Vichy French.

For reference — I’ve spent my career in the entertainment business. I’ve been a writer & producer in film & TV for over 35 years. I’ve run TV shows (HBO’s Tales From The Crypt & Showtime’s The Outer Limits), sold pilots to Fox, ABC, HBO and the old UPN. I’ve written and produced feature films (Children Of The Corn II fer pete’s sake, Demon Knight and Bordello Of Blood!) I’ve written stories that take place in the past, present and the future. I’ve had to imagine how humans might problem-solve in a future beyond my imagining.

That’s one of the challenges for all of us who’ve been cooped up in our homes, imagining new TV shows to fill the void now that everyone in the whole world has watched everything on Netflix and Hulu and Amazon for the thousandth time. What world will our new creations take place in? What are the rules? If we get them wrong, the “here and now” we’re describing will turn off our audiences.

It’s like getting a character wrong. Writers have to know people better than even their therapists do. We all have experienced the great story idea ruined by characters who don’t act like anyone we know. The moment a storyteller loses her audience, it’s over. The audience is gone for good — hoping the next story they decide to invest in pays them back a little more generously.

On the one hand, one can see the coming waves of infection-and-death, shut-down-and-re-opening as an obstacle. Or, one could see them as an opportunity to tell a story that’s never been told before — putting modern, tech-savvy humans up against a primordial foe who sees their bodies (and cells) as a cheap sex hotel where they can slum for a while and reproduce.

The very good news for the world’s TV audiences is that when storytellers are allowed to get together in the same place again to practice their art, the stories they tell will be amazing. On the one hand, they’ll be familiar because we’ve all just endured the same wrenching experience together. On the other hand, we hope, they’ll be eye-opening for what’s new in them: new insights into human beings and how we react to stress; that’s pretty much the basis for all storytelling.

If the writers get it all wrong and don’t come up with a single binge-able idea coming out of the coronavirus quarantine, there’ll always be reality. When all else fails, we’ll know, if we want real entertainment that can’t be beat for compellingness, all we have to do is turn off the TV and walk outside.