How Screenwriting Made Me a Better Novelist

Now, I’ll have to admit, when I was first introduced to screenplays, I thought they were pretty lame. All dialogue. Almost no description. The page looked practically naked. Empty. Without the stylistic adornments and embellishments of fine literature. I turned up my snooty nose, tossing page upon page of screenplay away, swearing that I would only ever write novels.

Now, several years later, after writing a few screenplays of my own and gaining a little bit more maturity (I hope), I’ve come to realize that screenwriting and novel writing are not that different. Readers, after all, are just like a movie audience: they’re both sitting there expecting a story to be told to them. The only difference is that readers experience the story playing out inside their heads instead of up on the big screen.

Recently, then, I’ve been approaching my novels in a cinematic way. And I can’t tell you how much I think my writing has improved. Here are just a few of the lessons that I learnt about novel writing from screenwriting.

1.       WRITING IS MEANT TO BE VISUAL

Ok, this first one seems a little obvious, but it’s worth going over. Your readers need to be able to envision your scenes in their heads, so you’ve got to make them visual. That isn’t to say that your description has to be long (see point #2), but it does need to be dripping with colors and shapes and texture and light (or lack of).

An easy way to make your scenes super-immersive and visual is to treat each piece of description like a shot in a movie. Make your description short if a character is only fleetingly looking at something. Make it longer if a character is staring intensely at something. In an intimate, emotional scene, describe everything as if it were really close up. In scenes where you want to create a sense of detachment, describe everything from further away. Create a zooming in effect by slowly describing an object in greater and greater detail. Create a panning effect by describing your landscapes from left to right (or right to left).

2.       CUT DOWN ON LENGTHY DESCRIPTION. NO ONE WANTS TO READ IT.

There’s a reason you hated reading Tess of the D’Urbervilles in high school (anyone else have to read that beast?). Yup. Because of all that unnecessary, boring description of cow fields and sheep. And more sheep. (Lots of sheep). We get it. You can write. You know big words and can lace together complex grammatical structures to capture the very essence of the sparkle of that one sheep’s eye. Cut it all out. Readers get bored quickly. In screenplays, less is more. The same applies to novels: you can imply so much using fewer words and paragraphs.

How to cut down? Remove those clunky adjectives: choose one instead of five. Replace adverbs with powerful verbs. Most importantly, CUT DOWN ON CHARACTER DESCRIPTION. Go and pick up your favorite book. Right now. Read the first few pages where the characters are introduced. Do you see great long paragraphs describing every last detail of the character’s physical appearance? Height? Eye color? Hair color? Shape of the lips? Pant size? Nope. And that’s the way it should be. Every time we meet a new character in your story, try giving yourself only a sentence or two to describe him/her. Chances are, your writing’ll feel a lot less clunky and if you pick the right words, the reader’ll be able to picture your character almost immediately.

(Yeah, I’m still not too great at this part myself: I like words too much. But I’m working on it. I promise.)

3.       DON’T UNDERESTIMATE THE POWER OF YOUR SETTINGS

(^Yes, I do realize how epic that sounded).

Settings are HIDEOUSLY important. They provide a location for your action to take place. And you don’t want your action to take place somewhere boring, right? Right. Don’t, then, have a scene take place somewhere ordinary like a coffee shop, or a bar, or a restaurant, or a car (if you’ve read/watched any of my stuff, you’ll realize I’m guilty of all of these…Hmm). You want to take the reader somewhere new and unexpected. We’ve seen fights happen in bars: have a fight happen in a library or a swimming pool or a Best Buy instead.

More importantly, your settings (and therefore your world) become instantly more interesting when your character interacts with their surroundings. Having your character climb a jungle gym while they think/spout out dialogue creates a much more vivid picture: your world will seem a lot more three dimensional and a lot less like a painted backdrop.

4.       DIALOGUE IS THE MOST IMPORTANT PART OF YOUR WRITING

Screenplays are mostly dialogue. That means your dialogue has to be slick, perfect and witty. If your dialogue is lame, people are gonna make fun of it. Some suggestions as to how to use your dialogue to its fullest:

-Give all your characters, no matter how minor they are, different voices.

-Jam most of your characterization into dialogue instead of long descriptions or your characters’ thoughts. This is a subtler way of fleshing out your characters (you know, that whole “Show, Don’t Tell” business).

-Make your dialogue, like your descriptions, as short and snappy as possible. Don’t have your characters repeat themselves or talk in long, drawn-out ways (even though people do this ALL the time in real life…myself included…). It’s boring and unnecessary. Just get to the point.

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I could go on for pages and pages about screenwriting, but I feel like the best way to learn about screenwriting is to actually read some scripts. So, I really, really urge you to read the script of your favorite movie or TV show. Some of the best writing I’ve ever seen has come out of screenplays.

If you’re interested, some books I recommend on screenwriting (which you’ll learn a lot about novel writing too):

-Cut the Crap and Write That Damn Screenplay! Nicholas Iandolo

-Writing for Emotional Impact, Karl Iglesias (This is probably the most well-worn book I own…apart from the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).

-Save the Cat! The Last Book on Screenwriting You’ll Ever Need, Blake Snyder

Now, stop procrastinating and write!

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Also, for the record, I actually LOVE Tess of the D’Urbervilles. It took a while. A long while. There were times when I didn’t want to read it so badly that I threw the book across the room, picked it up and started biting it (Yes, Mr. Lennie. That was me. Not my dog…Sorry). I can now safely say, however, that it is one of my greatest sources of inspiration. Thomas Hardy is a beautiful writer and an awesome story teller. Check him out at some point, all right?

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