This week, I’ve been working on a feature, a TV pilot and the stage musical of Big Fish. It’s gotten me thinking about the nature of different forms of dramatic writing.

Writing a TV pilot is a sprint. It’s only about sixty pages. You can easily write an act a day. Sure, there are outlines and notes and rewrites, but everything happens incredibly quickly, and if you can’t write fast you shouldn’t write TV at all.

Writing a feature is a marathon. You might have a few sprints along the way — the first act, those last ten pages — but it’s ultimately a bit of a slog. Like a long-distance runner, you have to pace yourself and accept the page-after-page, scene-after-scene grind. When it come time to actually make the movie, it’s the same experience: seemingly endless, but the finish line finally comes. Just like many sprinters can’t run a marathon, many TV writers struggle when facing a feature.

Writing a stage musical is a migration. Race analogies fail. You’re covering distance, but there’s no real finish line. Like pioneers crossing the plains, you may have a destination in mind (Broadway), but you’ll be making many stops during the trip, setting up camps that may turn into towns, before eventually hitting the trail again. Along the way, people will come and go from your little community. And if you finally reach your original destination, that’s still not the end of the journey. You’ll go back on the road with other stagings of the show. As a writer, you have to make peace with the unfinishability of a musical.

As I mentioned on the podcast, one of the goals for this year is to accept that I’ll probably be writing some form of Big Fish for the rest of my life.

I suspect other art forms have a similar sprint/marathon/migration triad:

  • You can sprint through a short story, while a novel is a marathon, and a franchise like Harry Potter is a migration.
  • “Rapper’s Delight” is a sprint, Paul’s Boutique is a marathon, and hip hop is a migration.
  • One painting is a sprint, a gallery exhibition is a marathon, and cubism is a migration.
  • In coding, perhaps that Flash game is a sprint, Karateka is a marathon and building Gmail is a migration.

If you think of others, by all means tweet ’em.