Screenwriter to novelist: tips for adapting to a new storytelling medium

106883364_01d431ba83_oI’ve had this great question from a reader:
Do you think somebody who has only done screenwriting would be able to write a novel? I have spent the last 18 years writing screenplays and, while there has been some success (two distributed films, a screenplay option, meetings with nifty LA people, admission letters from both USC Film School and the AFI Conservatory), I know that to take the next step would require me moving to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, I have a medical condition that prevents me from relocating. However, I do love storytelling and would like to attempt novels.

I know the story structure is basically the same. I worry about the novel seeming too bare, particularly when it comes to description and inner monologues. Thoughts or suggestions on how to get past this?

What a good question. Thoughts and suggestions coming right up.

First: expand your story ideas

A screenplay plot is little longer than a novella, so for a novel you usually need to spread the idea further. Often writers have a natural length they’re comfortable with, according to the demands of their medium. Short story writers, for instance, are often daunted by the much bigger task of a novel. They’re used to a certain number of characters, or they look for an idea they can explore and resolve in a short time. Here’s a post on how to turn a short story into a novel, adapting to a longer distance by adding subplots, beefing up other characters’ roles and delving further into the potential of the idea.

Here’s an experience of mine that might help. One of my early writing jobs was TV and film tie-ins. I’d be given the script and a wordcount – but no matter how much I lingered over narrating the action, there wasn’t enough story for the size of book the publisher wanted. Sigh. So I had to get creative and invent more scenes – without padding, of course.

I explored the characters’ thoughts and gave them scenes where they were alone, dealing with an aspect of the plot or their lives that was around the corner from the main action. I looked for moments that had been condensed for the sake of fitting the show’s time slot, especially explanations that could become a sequence of scenes. And I had to make them interesting or they’d be red-penned. The key to that was usually humour, interesting characterisation, irresistible back story or a cool bit of info or procedure. If it had been my own story, I could have used these to enlarge my original idea as they often had interesting potential.

You never know what you might discover once you start opening some cupboards, lingering with a moment you were intending to dismiss in a single line.

Specialised reading

Here’s your first piece of homework. Read novelisations written from filmscripts and compare them with the original. The author probably had to add like crazy to make the wordcount.

Also look at plays that have been made into movies. Two of my favourites are Peter Shaffer’s Equus and Amadeus, which had extra scenes written for the movies (and also because the action could be more realistic).

And try the other way around. Study novels that are now movies. Which characters were spliced together? Which plotlines were dropped? What was wildly skewed or simplified, for better or for worse? (Sometimes it’s an improvement. Sometimes it’s sacrilege, like Hitchcock’s Rebecca, which steamrollers a complex story into a rather angst-ridden romance.)

The English PatientSometimes the different versions each stand up as artistic works of their own – think of the two English Patients – Michael Ondaatje’s novel and Anthony Minghella’s film. Here’s a post about that.

So think long. Think deep. Indeed, if you usually write on a three-act structure skeleton, try stretching that. See what potential there is in your material if you aim, perhaps, for five distinct phases. Going back to TV, look at the recent adaptation of House of Cards, which was a four-episode mini-series on the BBC and is now a multi-season monster on Netflix. Watch the movie of Fargo and notice how it was enlarged – without a single ounce of flab – for the FX series.

Second: develop your narrative style – by reading (again)

In your question you mentioned thoughts and description. Screenplays aren’t the final form of the story, as I absolutely don’t have to tell you. Novels, though, are – and that’s one of the reasons I find prose so exciting. The novelist has the direct line to the audience, one on one. We pour the experience into the reader’s mind. This is why prose is my weapon of choice.

As a screenwriter, you already know some vital voodoo – how to control the reader’s understanding and emotions from the structure of the plot. With prose you have so much more. In a movie, you’d have emotional effects from lighting, shot framing, foley, staging and the actors. In a novel, you do it all yourself – from your tone, word choice, the shape and fall of a sentence, the careful use of themes. Whatever you’re going to write, read some great examples in your genre and pay close attention to how the authors do this. Savour every sentence that gives you a thrill or a shiver or a smile. (You might become an extremely slow reader, like me.)

And, by the way, relish the fact that you can do this solo. Depending on the kind of story you like to write, you can be more than a director of actors and action, more than a describer of what happens. You can be an illusionist, a mesmerist, a singer.

You said in your email that you’d already seen some of my posts on how movies and prose differ, but in case others are reading this, here they are. Thanks for a great question and welcome to our perhaps megalomaniac world.

How description can do more than just show what’s there.
Handling passage of time in a novel.
Dialogue in prose.
Story tricks that don’t translate well from the screen.

(Thanks for the pic Derrick Tyson)

Guys, what would you add? Have you transitioned from one storytelling form to another? And are there any book-film or TV combinations you’d add to my reading list?

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‘Watching the wintry sea and reflecting on a marriage’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Clare Flynn

for logoMy guest this week has written the story of a marriage. Her novel spans many decades, from when her protagonist is a 17-year-old debutante in the 1930s, to the swinging sixties, where the character finds herself revisiting old haunts and sifting through her memories and her hopes. It’s a poignant post, honest and searching, and full of loss. She is Clare Flynn and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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I invented you, honest. An author’s apology to a blameless town

5137935272_2d404cceb6_bI’ve nearly finished the second run-through of Ever Rest, and now I know the characters well, I can flesh out details that I’d previously left vague, such as where they live and what I want that to suggest. But this brings certain hazards, as I found when I published my first novel. I thought you might like this post from my archives, originally penned for Authors Electric.

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It’s a funny thing, releasing a novel. You think you’ve made everything up, then someone informs you that it’s not as fictional as you’d hoped.

And moreover, you got it wrong.

Like the time when I received an email telling me the fusty village where I’d set the action in My Memories of a Future Life was not spelled Vellonoweth but Vellanoweth.

‘No it’s not,’ I replied, thinking my correspondent had a cheek. ‘I made it up.’

‘It’s near Penzance,’ he said.

Oh dear. It was.

I honestly had no idea the place existed. My Vellonoweth, with an o, was inspired by a stand-out surname I spotted in a magazine. It embodied everything I needed for my setting – a fusty, sleepy hell full of dreary people. If I used a real town I couldn’t take it to the stifling depths I needed.

But it turns out there is a real Vellanoweth. So I may have some apologising to do. Here it is.

hydra arts1. I’m sorry I gave you a terrible amateur dramatics society, which was performing a musical they’d written themselves about a lost hat.

2. I’m sorry I gave you so many atrocious singers and musicians and I’m sorry my narrator didn’t find that endearing.

3. I’m sorry your only watering hole was the Havishamesque and immense Railway Hotel with its curry-coloured carpets and paintwork like melted royal icing. In earlier drafts it was much worse so I’ve spared you a lot.

4. I’m sorry I gave you a dismal 1950s high street with concrete shoebox buildings.

5. I’m sorry I made it rain most of the time, which made the precinct even more depressing.

6. I’m sorry about the spiritualists.angelhead

7. I’m sorry no one could pick up TV or radio, except for the barmy local station in the old wartime fort which most of the time played industrial whalesong.

8. I’m sorry the electricity supply was as bad as the weather and the singers. But on the plus side I did give you a decommissioned nuclear power station which attracts more tourists than Glastonbury Tor and allows the locals to sell home-made radiation detection badges. See, it wasn’t all bad.Abode of Chaos

9. I’m sorry the people I despatched to this hell from London behaved so bizarrely and upset these good folk, who as you can see had enough to contend with.

On the other hand, as the novel is about other lives, perhaps you’ll enjoy Vellanoweth’s literary alter ego. To allow some respite, I did give you the neighbouring towns of Nowethland and Ixendon. If they really exist I’ll eat my atlas.

Yours sincerely, Roz

(Thank you for the pictures, Recoverling, Hydra Arts, Angelhead and Abode of Chaos)

Have you ever invented a place or a character and later discovered it was real? Have friends or family members ever spotted themselves in one of your stories, or imagined they have? Confess in the comments.

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‘Battle songs’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Naomi Elana Zener

for logoMy guest this week is writing about a character trying to find her way to happiness. Love and career have not gone as planned, and the protagonist ends up living with her parents in Los Angeles – a cue for a feisty, fighting soundtrack of Guns n Roses and Chumbawumba, and a story where relationships, family and pseudofamilies are key. And it’s the first time AC/DC has appeared on an Undercover Soundtrack, would you believe. She is Huffington Post blogger Naomi Elana Zener and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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NaNo oh no? Let’s discuss the good and bad of NaNoWriMo

3435380297_d9af6286fd_zI recently published a post about NaNoWriMo prep, and it provoked this interesting comment on Facebook:

I really hate this initiative! Shouldn’t we be learning to write novels that are better, higher quality, more considered, more rounded, better thought out, that TAKE MORE TIME!!! rather than just trying to whack one out in a month? We don’t need more books on Amazon, what we need are BETTER books if we are to promote reading in the twenty-first century.

So who is this firebrand? It’s Kevin Booth @Kevinbooth01, a writer, translator and editor, who writes contemporary fiction and arts-based commentary as himself, and eco-fantasy as K. Eastkott.

Kevin Booth

Kevin Booth

I don’t disagree with him. And yet I barefacedly, two-facedly, published a post promoting NaNoWriMo?

I think it’s time to discuss the good and bad of NaNo.

In a nutshell (or a nanobyte):

The good – NaNoWriMo can be the confidence boost to get you started. NaNoWriMo is a community; a race; a deadline. It’s an appointment to get something done, like a new year resolution, but just in time for the Christmas letter. Beginners use it as their first go at writing. Seasoned writers use it to get a first draft done, for yea, drafting always makes us as nervous. It’s like the London Marathon, open to all to use as we wish. Perhaps as a one-off special event, this year’s challenge; or a handy lockdown in a bigger writing plan.

The OhNo – NaNoWriMo creates the idea that you can rattle out a book quickly, without editing, redrafting, or, as Kevin says, thought. And woot, a lot of them get put on sale. Look at Twitter in November and you’ll see anguished messages from literary agents, imploring people not to send their NaNo draft in search of fame and fortune.

Speed

Here’s where I’ll echo Kevin. A month is not long enough to write a worthwhile book. When good work arises from NaNoWriMo, it’s been planned beforehand, drafted in the crazy race, then honed and tended for many more months afterwards.

And Kevin told me he’s seen too many writers – talented writers – use NaNo as the culmination of the writing process:

As an editor, I’ve seen that, however well-structured a novel’s plan is, when you tell your brain to slap those words down at speed, the grey matter has a horrible trick of blind obedience. And once words are stuck on a page, they become surprisingly difficult to budge. I’m not talking about bad writers here, but talented individuals who have a love of words and should know better—because sections of their work are brilliant. Yet they’ve failed to constructively revise those thousands of words written in haste.

That remark I just made about revising? I’ll repeat it. Your draft is the time you transform your ideas from notes into an experience for the reader. It won’t be perfect first go (unless you’re a genius). It will change as you write it. The first draft is an exploration, not a presentable product. You need a thorough and considered revision period afterwards. And a break, so that you can see what needs changing (I refer you to Kevin again, and my self-editing masterclass snapshots).

But it’s just a game

Fair enough, some people take part in NaNoWriMo just to have a go. There’s nowt wrong with that. We all do hobby projects in the privacy of our own homes, for the kraic, for the experience, for the bucket list, to enrich our lives, to express ourselves.

Where to share

This is the bigger question. What should we do with those have-a-go manuscripts, if the month of writing was quite enough, thank you? (Listen for those agents wailing in the wires of Twitter. That’s a warning.) There are plenty of places where you’ll be among like-minded writers – you can use Wattpad, or blog your book. Other options are no doubt available. You can immortalise it in print – Lulu, Createspace and Ingram Spark will let you do personal, limited distribution.

But please, don’t put it in places where the public deserves properly finished books – Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords, Barnes & Noble et al. Even if it’s extremely unlikely that your NaNo splurge will be found among the millions, there’s a principle here.

No, I haven’t forgotten what it’s like to have just a few months’ experience under my belt and think I knew everything. And a story I was burning to release, and a career I was desperate to start. But we need to discuss where it’s appropriate to share our work. Is that a great unmentionable? C’mon. We’re all grown-ups here.

Encouraging people to read

Kevin mentions the question of encouraging people to read. And he’s right to. We don’t have to try to change the world, or lament that we have so many forms of entertainment that now compete with books. But with every book we publish, we have the chance to prove that reading is still a great experience. So let’s make our books as good as we can, as a matter of pride, and of respect for our readers, and for the joy of doing absolute justice to our potential (yeah, you know what I’m like when I get started).

(Thanks for the speedbump pic Andrew Rivett)

If you’re planning a NaNoWriMo novel, there are plenty of tips in Nail Your Novel. There’s also a discussion about it on this episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, with bookseller Peter Snell. You can get notification of new episodes by signing up to my newsletter.)

So You Want To Be A Writer - Episode 9 by Surrey Hills Community Radio on Mixcloud

Have you done NaNoWriMo? What were your aims, and what became of the manuscript afterwards? Are you doing it this year? Whether you’ve NaNo-ed or not, what would you add, agree with, disagree with, protest about to your last breath? The floor is yours.

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Nanowrimo prep: plan your characters, improvise your plot – guest post at Romance University

romance uYou might have spotted it’s uncharacteristically quiet here today. Wednesday has, from time immemorial, been Undercover Soundtrack day, and yet you find instead a deafening hush. Rest assured, the series will return next week and I have the post in my paws already. In the meantime, I have a guest post today at Romance University.

And is that an unseasonable word in the post title? Nanowrimo: isn’t that in November? Well, one of the keys to Nano success is preparation. To make sure you keep as much of the creative fun as possible, I’ve focused on designing your characters – and then letting them run riot to give you the plot. Do hop over.  (You can also get there by clicking the pic. Last time I ran a guest post, Jonathan Moore pointed out it was idiotic not to link the pic too. Jon, I have at least entered the point-and-click age. Your wish is my command.)

 

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Self-editing masterclass snapshots: key character disappears, how should I handle it?

guardI’m running a series of the smartest questions from my recent Guardian self-editing masterclass for novelists. Previous posts have discussed how much extra material we might write that never makes the final wordcount, how to flesh out a draft that’s too short and a problem of pacing if much of the plot concerns the fallout from one event. Today I’m looking at another interesting problem:

Important character disappears – how should I handle it?

Character departureOne writer had a key character who vanishes from the narrative. Her novel was based on family history and she had a character who was significant for the early chapters and then drifted away.

The character didn’t die, and didn’t have a formal farewell event to create a definite exit from the story world. There was just a period where they ceased to be involved. The writer was worried that this might look like a continuity problem or a mistake.

She was right; it needed to be handled carefully. This character would be important to the reader because she was a key player in early scenes.

The earlier a character is introduced, the more significantly they lodge in the reader’s mind. The original cast members of a book are like the first friends you make in a new and strange place. They are probably noticed far more than those you introduce later.

(This is why prologues can seem irritating, because they might set up people who don’t play a major part, or are never seen again. There’s lots more about handling prologues and character departures in the Nail Your Novel books.)

So if a key character will disappear, you have to be careful. The reader needs their attachment to the character to be acknowledged, and to be comfortable that the disappearance was intended. They mustn’t lose faith in your control of the material.

We explored ways to do this. By far the most obvious solution was to invent a scene that made a feature of the departure, but in this case the writer felt that would be inappropriate or untruthful. And she didn’t want to invent letters or phone calls from the missing character.

With that in mind, we moved on to ways to keep the character in the text, if they couldn’t be in the scenes. I suggested the writer add a friend who was close to the departed character, who could continue the association on behalf of the other characters (and the reader). A relative or colleague would work well too. This character could carry some of the presence of the original and keep them on the reader’s radar – for instance by thinking or remarking ‘Kate would have liked this’, or ‘if Kate were here she’d know what at do’.

(BTW, if you’re using elements of real life in your stories, you might like this recent episode of my radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer, with bookseller Peter Snell. You can get notification of new episodes by signing up to my newsletter.)

So you want to be a writer - 18 07 2015 by Surrey Hills Community Radio on Mixcloud

What would you do? Have you had to withdraw a character quietly from a story and how did you handle it? Have you seen it handled clumsily or well, and what did you learn from it? Let’s discuss!

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‘Music for writing the 12th century’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Mark Richard Beaulieu

for logoMy guest this week has an epic sequence of novels, and an epic musical background for them. They span the life of Eleanor of Aquitaine – but if you were expecting a purely medieval soundtrack, think again. There are, of course, some historically appropriate pieces, but also a host of unusual tracks from Chris Isaak, Jon Hassell, Ennio Morricone and Peter Gabriel. This post is a musical epic all of its own, and listening to the choices brought me many new gems. One of them, CocoRosie’s Smokey Taboo, I liked so much that I found an excuse to shoehorn it into my radio show (here, in case you’re interested, though that episode is currently in production). Anyway, the author is Mark Richard Beaulieu, and he’s on the Red Blog with his Undercover Soundtrack. Bring a packed lunch.

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5 tips for handling amnesia and back story

amnesiaI haven’t forgotten I’m half-way through the self-editing masterclass snapshots, but I got this fantastic question from a writer who’d read a post of mine about back story.

I’ve begun the same novel a couple times and it relies so heavily on back story that I’ve begun to wonder if I should just write it as a separate novel.

But I want to write a novel about AFTER the hero saves the world – and in doing so has forgotten HOW he did it and WHAT happened, which is a huge plot point. I want to avoid the ‘zero to hero’ shtick that is so overdone – and I want the reveals to be important with emotional impact. I’m not sure it will work. Thoughts?

(Here’s the post that started it, and the question in full. Scroll down and look for Mark.)

I like this concept of exploring the save-the-world scenario from an unusual angle. And I don’t see why you can’t make it work – with a few considerations.

First, do you have a convincing reason for the amnesia?

Second, you have a convincing mechanism for paying out the story surprises? Why doesn’t he remember all at once? (I tackled both these problems in Lifeform Three, although it wasn’t a save-the-world.)

As for the emotional impact, focus on how the revelations affect what your hero is doing now, what he wants, and the people who matter to him. Set those up so that the reader cares about them, then deliver your blows from the past. Did he betray someone or renege on a promise? Has ne now got a family who will be threatened by what happened? Make sure we’re involved with characters who will be hurt.

Also, have you got enough story in the ‘aftermath’ chunk? Otherwise the reader’s attention will wander and they’ll just skip to the flashbacks. Make sure the resolution in the ‘present’ is more interesting to you than the resolution of the big hero story. Make sure you have enough in your aftermath story to keep the reader’s attention firmly on that, rather than the questions of how he saved the world. (This is on my mind at the moment too; Ever Rest has a lot of major events in the past, but my biggest interest is the mess in the present.)

Will you tell the back story in chronological order? If so, you’ll need a convincing reason for the discoveries to happen in such a convenient way. If you tell it out of order, that might be more realistic, but it might also be confusing. Non-chronological order isn’t always muddled, but remember that readers are much more adrift in your book than you are. Chronological order is the easiest for them to understand. You, as the writer, can hop around the timeline easily because you know it so well. You might write a romantic scene and then flash back to the hero’s love life before the big heroic act, because they seem thematically linked. But your reader might think ‘did this happen before that?’

On the other hand, you might want this fragmented approach because it’s how memory works. Send the reader on unraveling trails if that will enhance the emotional effect you’re looking for.

So in summary, you need:
A convincing mechanism for the amnesia and revelations
A current scenario that will be threatened by the past revelations
A disciplined approach to the revelations so that the reader doesn’t get confused.

And psst…. the Bourne Trilogy is great study material.

ebookcovernyn3There’s loads more about handling back story in Writing Plots With Drama, Depth & Heart: Nail Your Novel 3.

Have you had to tackle a story where the hero is rediscovering a hidden past? What problems did you encounter? What smart solutions did you come up with? Let’s discuss!

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‘The planes, the explosions, the dust, the calm’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Kerry Drewery

for logoMy guest this week specialises in YA novels set in war zones. With just two novels under her belt, she’s already much-decorated with awards and award nominations. Her music selection is small in number, but it helped her keep the intensity of the environments she was writing about, and connect with the characters’ emotions. Indeed, she has scored a first among Undercover Soundtrackers, because one of her choices was to help her decompress after working with such harrowing material. She is Kerry Drewery and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.

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