Posts Tagged screenplays

Novels aren’t movie scripts: how to write great dialogue in prose

bookshelvesDo you learn your storytelling from movies as much as from prose? Have you cut your writing teeth on the wisdom of the hallowed screenwriting gurus (McKee, Field and Goldman)? Are you a screenwriter who’s making the switch to novels?

If so, you’ll certainly know some great storytelling tricks, but the two disciplines are different. Some movie techniques simply don’t translate to the page.

Indeed, if you’re writing your novel as though it’s a movie in your head, your ideas might not work as powerfully as they should.

I’ve already discussed a few general points in a previous post – scenes with a lot of characters, short, choppy scenes and point of view. There are other crucial differences between screen and page, so over the next few posts I’m going to look at them in detail.

Today: dialogue

Film is a visual medium. If we’re watching a scene in a movie where two characters were talking, the words they say are not as noticeable as the characters’ expressions, their actions and the way they do things – whether it’s picking a lock, walking home late at night, sharpening a sword or getting progressively and endearingly sozzled. And so the actors’ moves, the camera angles and the emphasis of the lighting are telling the story just as much as any words the characters are uttering. Indeed, you could probably watch a well-made dialogue scene with the sound off and still understand the thrust of it. An argument, a reconciliation, etc.

On the page, however, the prose does everything. But what I often find with writers who are tuned to the screen is that they don’t realise how much more work a dialogue scene in prose has to do. They haven’t got actors, or a lighting crew, or a set designer, or a composer who will add the other pieces to take the story forward.

They’re good at getting their characters talking, and sounding natural, but their dialogue scenes lack half the information they need to move the story on. They’re imagining it on a screen, and they’re writing what the characters would say and do, but they miss out the impact of the scene’s actions, realisations, changes in mood and plot revelations. All this is part of the story – and it has to come through the characters’ lines and your narration.

If you’ve learned your writing from movies, add these tips to your arsenal for good prose dialogue scenes:

Banter and quips In a movie, atmospheric natter and irrelevant quips are a great way to create a sense of a mood or character. On the page, this quickly looks aimless. Also in a movie, you can have them breaking into a bank vault while bantering – the story is happening at the same time as the visuals. On the page, we can only see one thing at a time. When using inconsequential chat, social niceties and companionable remarks, keep it concise, or find a way to make it purposeful.

Internal reactions The screenplay-tuned writer often doesn’t use internal dialogue, because an actor would add the expressions. Also, most films show a story from a third-person point of view. But in prose you can show what a character thinks and feels. Either you can do this with a close third-person point of view, or a first-person point of view, or by showing reactions through a physical act like clenching a fist. If a character is keeping their reactions hidden from the other characters in the scene, make sure we see they are seething – or celebrating – under the surface.

Silence, pauses and non-verbals Remember we see dialogue as well as hear it – don’t forget to include the characters’ reactions and non-verbal responses in your scene. Use your narration to create pauses. Make them sigh, look out of the window. Let them change their expression.

Prose is your background music Take charge of the scene’s environment. Create atmosphere through your description of the setting. A dripping tap in a moment of silence might increase a sense of tension. Rain might echo a character’s sadness or make a happy moment seem deliriously unreal.

nyn2 2014 smlThere’s a lot more about writing good dialogue scenes in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel 2. And Nail Your Novel 3 will concentrate on plot – so if that sounds like your cup of tea, sign up for my newsletter to get word as soon as it’s available.
Let’s discuss! do you find it tricky to write good dialogue scenes? Do you have any tips that helped you?

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Revision and self-editing: masterclass snapshots

guardYesterday I was teaching a course for Guardian newspapers on advanced self-editing for fiction writers. My students kept me on my toes and I thought I’d explore their most interesting questions here. There are quite a few of them, and the weather is too darn hot, so instead of giving you a giant reading task I’ll be posting them in short bites over the next 7 days.

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Three/four-act story structure – how strictly must you stick to it?

Briefly, most stories have a beginning, middle and end, and seem to work best when the major turning points are at 25%, 50% and 75%.

It’s a formula followed by Hollywood screenplays, and it’s certainly useful for novelists – but as a guideline, not a hard rule. In novels it probably won’t matter if you begin your climax at 80% instead of 75%. If you begin at 90% the ending might feel abrupt because you might not have time to come down the other side. You might also have too much of a lull beforehand. On the other hand, it might be perfect.

Where the structure rules become really useful is if you spot a problem. If the end seems too sudden, or too drawn out, would repositioning it help?

Tomorrow: ends and epilogues

Thanks for the pic TMAB2003 on Flickr

Let’s discuss! Do you find the three/four-act structure is useful to you, too formulaic? Has it helped you iron out a problem in your manuscript?

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Three story tricks you see in movies that you can’t pull off in prose

 

The story is happening inside your head – thank you dbPhotography

Do you see your novel as a movie in your head? That’s great for vivid storytelling – but you might be making these common mistakes.

 

We often learn storytelling techniques as much from movies as from reading. But novel-writing has its own laws of physics, as every medium does. Here are three techniques that work well in movie storytelling but not in prose.

1 Scenes with a lot of characters at once

In a movie you can put as many people as you like in a scene – because we can see them. But in a novel, that’s hard to manage. You have to keep them alive in the action and so you are constantly reminding the reader that they are there – fidgeting, scratching their nose or fiddling with their cup of tea. It’s cumbersome and interrupts the flow.

Some writers make it policy never to have more than three people in a scene. Others say it should only be two. One of my ghosting projects was an adventure series with five main characters. I split them into pairs as much as possible. It led to more intimate scenes, with better conflicts and development.

Sometimes, an ensemble scene is unavoidable – in which case it’s better to put it late on when the reader is well acquainted with the characters and what matters to them. Probably the most disastrous place to put an ensemble scene is at the opening.

Yes, I know Quentin Tarantino did precisely this in the opening of Reservoir Dogs. I know it only too well. I’ve seen so many novels begin with a large bunch of characters chit-chatting and revealing snippets about themselves and their world through oblique dialogue – and instead creating a confusing mess.

Yes, I confess I came out of Reservoir Dogs wanting to whack more panache into my writing. But its opening doesn’t work in a novel.

2 Short scenes that chop around a lot

Another filmic technique that I see mistakenly applied to novels is short scenes that jump around. In fact, I’m guilty of this myself. Almost the first novel I was commissioned to write featured a terrorist taking a bunch of hostages to a plane, watched on CCTV by their friends. I saw it all in my head and wrote very short scenes that intercut – the hostages, then the friends watching with bated breath, then back to the hostage. It was pacy and tense. But when I revised it I realized it was a nightmare to read – because I’d written a screenplay, not a novel.

In a novel the reader has to load each scene in their head – where it is, who’s there, what they’re doing. All the things that come over at a glance on a movie screen. In a movie you can hop back and forth all you want. In a novel, if you do it too much it becomes irritating. Think of it as like trying to access a web page on old-fashioned dial-up. If you chop around scenes, the reload time is longer.

3 Point of view

In a film, the audience is a passive observer seeing from the outside. The camera acts as a narrator, drawing our attention to things. It can show us things outside the characters’ usual point of view – perhaps warning that the heroine has left her phone on the kitchen table. In a novel, if you haven’t set up a narrator who can do dramatic irony (‘Little did he know…’), then you can’t show it or the reader will feel something is off.

If what you’re doing with your novel is writing a description of the movie on the page –

a – the scenes might not work as you expect, and

b – you’re missing most of what prose can deliver.

Yes, in the novel you have only words, one after the other. This makes movies – with music and visuals – like broadband and the novel like dial-up – you can’t have too many streams of input at one time.

But these limitations don’t make the novel inferior. They don’t mean you can’t have complexity. Quite the opposite.

Novels go deeper than films; they are less literal too. A novel about scientists trying to control the weather, for example, can also make you feel it’s about humanity wrestling with randomness in their lives. Novels set the story going inside you rather than show it to you finished. This makes prose an incredibly powerful medium. Novels can take you right inside what people are feeling in a way that movies can’t.

I prefer that, which is why prose is my favourite storytelling medium.

I assume you prefer prose, or you wouldn’t be here. Let’s discuss some story techniques that work better in prose! And techniques that are better for movies…

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