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.