What Novelists Can Learn From Screenwriters

Writing Advice

You will, at times, encounter a somewhat cocky, snobbish attitude (we’ll henceforth refer to this attitude as the attitude of the cocksnob, or as an act of snobcockery) that elevates the book above the film or TV show.

This is, of course, a microwaved platter of gopher diarrhea.

It is in fact the attitude of those nose-in-the-air, lips-frozen-in-an-everlasting sneer literary types who have elevated the novel to places where most people cannot reach it. They cite television shows or films (“Uhh, hello, Jersey Shore? Transformers 2?”) as emblems of how this visual format might as well go stick its head in doo-doo. Of course, these people fail to ever mention the most powerful illustrations of the TV and film format, whether we’re talking The Wire or Mad Men or Casablanca or UHF starring “Weird” Al Yankovic. Further, this act of literary snobcockery often fails to gaze toward those examples of the written form that are so rank and vile that one must assume they are gassy corpses: let us all bow our heads and remember the time when the greasy orange homunculus known as “Snooki” got herself a book deal.

Books, films and television shows all aim to do similar things, and chief amongst all those things is tell the audience a story. They tell different stories or, more accurately, tell stories differently.

But that’s a good thing.

And it’s a thing from which we novel-monkeys can learn.

Screenwriting has its own tips and tricks of the format, and that’s something novelists can look and learn from if one were to choose, and that’s what I’m talking about today. What, then, can you learn?

The Purity Of Narrative Movement

A screenplay reduces the storytelling form to a very simple form, and that form is this: characters act and talk and in doing so, move the story forward. It’s almost like playing with action figures or dolls when you were a kid: Tomax and Xamot siege the Ewok Village and save Strawberry Shortcake who had been captured by Wasteland Barbie. (Damn, did I just give away the plot to my next book? Sonofabitch.)

Characters talk. Characters act. The narrative steps forward.

What lives on the page — and by proxy, what lives on the screen — is all the audience gets. The internal life of the narrative is only given if it’s made external; glimpses of it are assumed, but never confirmed.

That means the screenplay is the ultimate version of show, don’t tell. Because that’s all it can do.

Now, should you do this with your novel? Probably not, no. A novel has its own host of unholy powers, and one of those powers is the ability to wander off the beaten path and move into dark spaces. The novelist can rip away the story’s facade and show the internal workings in ways the screenwriter cannot.

That said, we’ve all read novels that get boggy, right? That feel like you’re stomping through clayey mud? That make us shake the book like a baby and cry, “I need something to happen, godsdamnit.”

Here novelists can turn to the narrative purity of the script: while you should never be afraid to move toward the internal, you also should master the external, because a lot of subtext can live there. Master the movement of, “Character does shit, character talks about shit, and then the story jogs-runs-leaps-karatekicks-forward.” A script must always be moving forward, and so too must your novel.

The Economy Of The Page

A screenplay has very little real estate with which to work. You’ve got your ~110 pages, and the formatting on those pages is precise. Can’t cram a lot in there. The best scripts out there have an almost poetic grace (and some of the worst offer pages that look like brick shithouses, just blocks and blocks of text). Mastering the screenplay is in part mastering the format, which is to say, understanding the economy of the page.

Novelists don’t always learn this from the get-go. Hell, you find yourself as an English Lit major and one of the novels you read is James Joyce’s Ulysses: a book so big and uneconomical Luke Skywalker could’ve used it to choke the fucking Rancor Monster. It’s a beautiful, strange book, no doubt there, and novelists can learn a lot by reading Joyce. The economy of the page is not one of those things.

A script must rely on short sharp shocks. Description for an entire scene comprises little more than a short paragraph. Characters are created and built in hard, brief strokes: in a single scene, page, or line of dialogue you must perform double- or triple-duty to get those characters established neatly in the minds of the audience. Dialogue, too, cannot go on for pages and pages — you ever try to write dialogue in a screenwriting template? It’s like watching gremlins multiply. Like watching a garter snake breeding ball. Like watching Jabba the Hutt eat those little froggy critters. Okay, I don’t know what that means, I just know I can’t stop thinking about Return of the Jedi all of the sudden. You know how David Lynch was once on the docket to direct that movie? Imagine if James Joyce had written Return of the Jedi. Man, that’s weird. That hurts my brain. I instantly come up with:

“The ineluctable modality of the Force: at least that if no more, thought through my mind. Signatures of all droids I am here to scan, lightsaber and mynock, the vaporators of moistness, that rusty robot. Two-suns, starfields, sand: villainous hives.”

Man, I should rewrite all the Star Wars movies in the mode of James Joyce.

What the hell was I talking about?

Ah. Right. On the script page, dialogue builds bulk fast, and in scriptwriting, it helps to stick the landing and nail your page count. Only way to do that is to keep control of your descriptions and dialogue. But eventually, you learn to use this to your advantage: you can start using spare but elegant language and storytelling tricks to pack more oomph into every page. Novelists, take note. Monitor then the economy of your own pages. A page shouldn’t exist unless it deserves to be there, unless it pulls its weight, unless it does more than one thing. Don’t bloat. Don’t go long just to go long. Concentrate the story. Include only those things that you feel must must must be included.

ZZZzzZZzz… Bo-ring

Think about all the ways you could take a film and drag it through the mire to make it as boring as possible. What would you do? “Not much happens for 30 minutes.” “Two characters stand and talk to each other.” “Nobody says anything.” “Long internal monologues.” “No nudity or flamethrowers or nude flamethrowering.” Ta-da, you’ve just found some of the same stuff that threatens to make your novel boring. Novels don’t get a pass. Why some novelists feel a novel should be dull as a potato to read, offering as much fun or entertainment as a brick to the tits and/or testicles, is beyond me.

Find the boring parts, and do the same thing the film editor would do: chop ’em out, leave ’em on the floor.

Cede Your Authority

A screenwriter only has so much power. You’re writing a blueprint. A highly-detailed and terribly valuable blueprint, but a blueprint just the same. So many others will bring effort to the table in terms of telling the story, other writers, actors, the director, the cinematographer. A film or show is a team effort, and this makes editing a screenplay oddly easier, at least for me. Even though you know the script still has to rock out with its [insert euphemism for male genitals here that just so happens to rhyme with “rock”] out, you still know that it’s a group effort. You’ve less ego baked into these brownies.

With your novel, relinquish some mental authority and recognize that the manuscript still remains a team effort (though arguably one where you remain the quarterback, pitcher, or some other arbitrary controller of team sports). You’ve got agents, editors, beta readers. Other hands will mold this clay. And that’s freeing. With some of your ego extracted from the equation, you may find it easier to attack future drafts.

Structure Matters

Scripts are written with structure in mind. Even if you’re not a fan of the three-act structure (and I’m amazed at how often I read screenwriters trotting out the same tired “fuck you” to the three-act structure), screenplays are still hammered out according to structural beats: beats into scenes, scenes into sequences, sequences into acts. You have very clear breakdowns of when one scene ends and another begins. You simply cannot avoid it.

In novels, you can avoid structure all day long, ceding to structure only when it’s complete and recognizing that some skeleton has crawled his way into the skin of the thing to help it stand up.

Except, don’t. Go the other way. Embrace it, if only for a time. Think in the same structural sense that you would with a script: imagine the beats, build beats into scenes, and add scenes into sequences. Consider act breaks and turning points. Think about catalysts for action, about inciting incidents and dramatic shifts. Don’t resist them. Open yourself to them. Bend over the barrel and spread the ol’ flapjacks and allow structure to enter your body. (Wow, that got weird. Did I just refer to buttocks as “flapjacks?” Eeesh. ) I was just saying to my writing partner the other day that the mark of a storyteller isn’t in how he resists these beats or these structures but how he owns them, how he turns them to his will.

Nobody ever looks at a flash fiction challenge and barks about how it’s “too strict” or about how the structure of the challenge is “stifling.” Yet that’s what you often hear in regards to narrative structure. I’ve said it before and here I’ll say it again: if your creativity is defeated by structure, you weren’t that goddamned creative to begin with. *poop noise*

View it as a challenge, and accept it.

Own structure the way the best screenwriters do.

An Imperfect Fit

Again, novels are not screenplays and screenplays are not novels (this is a tip from my forthcoming book, “Duh, No Shit, And Fuck You, Sherlock: Writing Advice Tips From Herr Doktor Obvious, Esq.”). You shouldn’t try to make one be the other; they are their own creatures and deserve to abide by their own crazy rules and break those crazy rules in their own unique ways.

But that doesn’t mean you can’t learn some lessons.

So, noodle it. What am I missing?

Further, what can screenwriters learn from novelist? (First answer there: “A novel has to be a compelling read and so too does your script. Just because it’s a blueprint doesn’t mean it shouldn’t leap off the page.”)

What else?

Your turn to school me, Internuts.

24 comments

  • I write novels, but I started out by writing screenplays. I still write that way; it’s the closest I get to outlining. I’ve found that if I turn on Celtx and freewrite scenes as though they were for a movie, it’s much easier to get things in order (and get them out period).

    Starting fresh on a novel is daunting – there’s just so MUCH that has to go into it. Stripping it down to a screenplay format shifts some of that stuff to the back burner. You get the basic setting and action down. You get a sketch of your characters. It’s all there waiting to be expanded on.

    In my case, I’ve also found that dialogue comes much more naturally that way. And with natural dialogue comes natural emotion and response. When the dialogue flows the right rhythm, then the characters are more likely to speak up and say things that will surprise you – and that’s when you figure out who they really are and what they really want.

  • You know two of your points is actually often hammered out in the theatre. To summarize old professors of mine when discussing Hamlet or King Lear or some such “Almost no set or blocking direction but the story is there. The dialogue is tight, and it gets right to the story. Also: Theatre is a communal art form, so get over yourself and work towards the end product of the show.”

    Now as to what film and novel writers can learn from each other: the only thing that leaps to mind immediately is an extension of the economy of the page. Given only a few words to create a scene or describe a character a script can set the stage. Now of course novels have more leeway in that but still: evocative precise description can help keep the novel moving.

  • I’d strongly encourage anyone who intends to write a novel to read Robert McKee’s “Story”. It’s the best goddamn book on structure and flow I’ve ever seen. Incorporate its lessons, and your writing will keep readers glued to the goddamn page right through the whole book.

    • @Tim:

      I like some of what goes on in STORY, but found the book (which is as big as Joyce’s ULYSSES) to lean a little too much toward structure, rendering the act of storytelling to be a bit dispassionate. I almost feel like the book would’ve been better titled PLOT.

      A valuable tool in the tool chest, but it was a bit heavy (literally and metaphorically).

      — c.

  • If we’re talking screenwriting books, I’m a big Save the Cat fan. And Blake Snyder himself was a good guy. He got me my manager.

    As someone who started out in screenwriting, and then dabbled in novels for a bit, I have to say that screenwriting has made me a better writer overall.

    Screenwriting is doing more with less, and when you’re used to writing in that concise form, it spills over into your novel. Also, when I’m writing a novel, I use the novel template in Movie Magic. I still do all the dialogue in screenplay format so I can do a “voice pass” for each character before I finalize anything.

    Yes, it takes some getting used to, and it’s a bit of a pain in the butt having to go back and edit, but it makes my writing tighter, and it works.

    What else are you missing? Um, don’t use adverbs, find a better verb. He didn’t “walk slowly”, he tiptoed or trudged or shuffled.

    • @Annaliterally:

      I’m a fan of SAVE THE CAT. The book is a little OMG EXCLAMATION POINTS in its execution, but the tips and templates contained within are really, really helpful.

      He helped you get a manager? That’s awesome. Go you.

      And my novel on submission, BLACKBIRDS, is one I effectively “outlined” in screenplay form before writing the long finished novel form. This after aborted efforts to write it, unoutlined, sans structure. I really like using the screen format as a way of outlining and doing prep work. Fast, easy, and kinda fun, honestly.

      — c.

  • As a screenwriting student finishing up his MFA and wanting to dabble in novels, I have many thoughts on this issue.

    Thoughts which I will codify once I’ve finished this Western script so that I can… actually… you know, GET my MFA.

  • I’m with Josin – my first drafts tend to be screenplay-like, all dialogue and action sequences, with only occasional bits of description. Working that up into a proper novel-like narrative takes work, but it means I have a chance at nailing the story on the first pass, through character interaction. And if a scene isn’t working, I can ditch it without having wasted too much time on it – to switch metaphors, it’s like doing computer animation in wireframe, and only rendering the sequences you decide to keep.

    I think it helps that I love movies and well-written TV drama (and Shakespeare’s plays) – although prose makes for easier exposition. Gotta hate that “as you know, Bob” dialogue…

  • @chuck: I agree completely re Story, of course; anyone who thinks that Structure Is All is doomed to be dry and mechanistic. But in the vast majority of cases, structural problems fall into the “too weak” category, not the “too strong”. You can hammer out a sequence list, even a scene list with beats, and still have a lot of room for creative goodness.

    I suspect a lot of writers struggling to make the words flow would find a solid backbone to be a great help in making the blank page less intimidating, too.

    And yes, I loved Save The Cat, but “OMG EXCLAMATION POINTS!” is pretty much spot on 🙂

  • @anne Gods, yes. Any section of ANYTHING starting “As you know…” should be dragged screaming out into the back yard, tied to an old bed-frame, and shotgunned into teensy little pieces, just like my grandmama. It’s right up there with having a viewpoint character look in a mirror and make any observation other than variations of “Christ, I look like hell.”

    Although to be honest, I loathe anything that feels even vaguely expository. Exposition is like a top-class waiter — if you notice it, it’s not doing it’s job.

  • First — Strawberry Shortcake better be the original version, not the trumped up, hussy “new” version. She looks like a Bratz doll. Or like she’s going to charge Richard Gere fifty bucks for directions. BAD.

    *ahem*

    Second, I like this post. Dialogure really matters in a screenplay, because it’s nearly all there is to it. Same goes for stage plays, too. There isn’t a whole lot of visual description in screenplays, which tend to bog down novels, sometimes. That’s not always the case, but that’s what I most often end up cutting. I found an entire paragraph describing someone’s bathroom, while editing something. I couldn’t delete that fast enough. Too much detail.

    I think a script can also help teach pacing. Plus, it really relies on the “if it doesn’t serve the story, axe it” idea. In a movie, no one wants five minutes of the protagonist lamenting about how green the grass is. Same goes for novels. If it doesn’t help the story, it must be removed.

    Great post, as usual.

  • I studied with Syd Field. The classes during which he discussed his famous paradigm and his thoughts on what he called the “circle of being” changed me as a writer.

    I’m deeply convinced that careful structure makes every story both more accessible and more effective. (I’m also deeply convinced I see a lot of writers mistake midpoints for act breaks, but even then I think hey, at least we’re still talking about structure and plot like they’re not naughty words.)

    Both Meets Girl and The Prodigal Hour adhere to three-act structure.

    • @Will:

      I’ve seen some recent talk about how, in reality, that midpoint does represent a new act break, that in reality it’s best to write the film as a four-act structure, with what is normally the “middle” act (and normally the saggy mushy middle, at that) broken out into two acts instead of one longer one. I don’t dislike this, really, and I think there’s value there in finding ways to prop up the 2nd act so that it doesn’t sag. If an act turn of some sorts does that, so be it.

      — c.

  • I also second loving Save the Cat despite the OMG EXCLAMATION POINTS!

    James Scott Bell has a great book on structure called “Plot and Structure”. I think he does a good job of explaining that once you really nail structure, you have a lot of creative leeway to experiment.

    The main problem I keep running into when I try to plan out the structure is I don’t always know how many words certain events are going to take. It’s all well and good to plan out the big gun fight for the Midpoint Reversal, but there’s a lot of times when the events leading up to the mid point took far longer to write out than I thought. Or vice versa.

    Most screenwriters do a great job of this, but there’s some movies that are a less than eloquent with the character’s inner life. Novelists get to explore internal thoughts, but just because it’s a screenplay doesn’t mean you can’t work that stuff into the dialogue and action.

  • I think, as mentioned, that structure is one of the best things a novelist can get from studying screenwriting. I’ve been a municipal liaison for NaNoWriMo for years now, and people tend to come to me with plot/pacing problems because I have a knack for sorting them out; screenwriting is the reason why. When you can take someone’s novel and break it down for him in a straightforward structure, it makes it much easier for him to figure out what comes next or what goes where. It’s one thing to say “something needs to happen here” and another thing to say “at this point, you’re in the second act and your character should have failed at achieving his goal, such that he attempts to approach it from another angle that will also fail because he’s still influenced by his overriding character flaw, and this time he has to fail even bigger and raise the stakes.”

    My screenwriting studies also focused heavily on character, and how character creates plot, which I think is another huge help in novel writing and planning. When you pare things down to character want, need and flaw and make sure that those things inform the story from start to finish, it’s harder to wander off into Harry Potter camping tangents that don’t move the plot forward. Structurally, each scene should also focus on character, especially scenes with dialogue. When people are talking, they should each have goals and motivations, ideally ones that don’t mesh well–you know, to create conflict! If you just have people yammering clever lines or waxing poetic about irrelevant crap, it gets boring. But if they have underlying, opposing goals and are each trying to come out on top…

    There’s also the old trick of adding a third character/component to a scene to spice it up, something that isn’t directly involved with what’s being discussed but interjects in some way. I always think of When Harry Met Sally, at the baseball game, where a relatively long almost-monologue about divorce is broken up by the characters having to do the wave every so often. Classic.

  • I haven’t written a screenplay, yet, but I think that they have a lot in common novels, short stories, jokes, whatever. They can’t survive… uh, I can’t think of a better word for this… fluffing. Not, you know, THAT kind of fluffing.

    Man, talk about a tragedy.

    Anyway, every word has to be there.

    This guy, Rob Roberge, says it better than I could (http://therumpus.net/2010/09/the-rumpus-interview-with-rob-roberge/). I had him as a writing instructor at UCLA. If you get a chance grab some of stuff. His novel MORE THAN THEY COULD CHEW is phenomenal.

    “I’m not certain I view novels and stories that differently. There’s a section in Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft, which is a very good book, I think, where Janet Burroway says that if you write a story, you have to be as succinct as possible—there can be no wasted words. But in a thousand page novel, you have room to not care about that as much. I disagree. If a story is ten pages long, every word should be there for a reason. If a novel is a thousand pages, it better need to be every one of those thousand pages, and every word should be essential. There’s never more room to be sloppy.”

  • This was a great post. The only thing I’ve written that comes even remotely close to a screenplay is a little script i wrote for my TV production class in High School, but I am a movie buff, so this is something I think has influenced how i visualize scenes during the writing process, and how the beats of my novel(s) flow. One thing i can think of off the top of my head is i’ve seen too many writers that will spend a paragraph writing about how a character’s personality is this or that or the other thing and then leave the reader with 3 or 4 lines of dialogue to support the point, rather than using dialogue like an actor would so show that stuff to us without any unnecessary exposition.

  • I took one class on screenwriting and the process of learning to write in that format was like having your teeth pulled out without anesthesia by clumsy and drunk dentist student, but I survived and wrote two scripts that will never see the light of day. I was humbled by the experience, since I’m used to writing some ok poems, I thought this would be easy, but I think I will stick to poetry for a while.
    I have always wanted to write novels, but I’m starting to realize that short stories might be the way to go for me, until I learn not to fill pages with black marks just because I can.
    Thanks for the advices, it seems like there’s no end to polishing this craft!

  • If the characters in your novel are not moving your story forward, try rewriting a chapter as script. If (like the good man says) you end up with a housebrick of narrative peppered with flashbacks, you need more ACTION. 🙂 Liked this. Shared it.

  • I always write out all the dialog in a scene first. Mostly so that I don’t forget it all. A lot times when I reading things online the dialog doesn’t make and sense without the paragraphs in between. That just doesn’t make sense to me. Those characters aren’t in each others heads and would never answer a question they didn’t even know was asked.

    So I do dialog first, then I go back and do the action and then I go back and add the scenery.

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