Posts Tagged screenwriting
I’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.
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.)
Sometimes 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.
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?
My guest this week is a master of many storytelling disciplines – including screenwriting and radio as well as prose fiction. She’s currently writing an action-adventure screenplay set during the Russian Revolution, with a decidedly spooky twist. Her soundtrack includes Holst, the romantic 20th century composer George Butterworth and a haunting, melancholy piano piece she discovered on an album of Chinese composers. Best known for creating the TV series Wolfblood, she is Debbie Moon and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
1. Write first, fix the pace later
‘He stepped back to avoid the fist that came at him like a sledgehammer. Then he grabbed the arm and twisted, but his opponent had already recovered his balance and the teapot was whizzing towards him.’
Writing action is slow. Dead slow. When you’re plodding through every blow, twist, feint and reaction your exciting scene becomes a dire trudge. But you need to get the details down because those are your raw materials.
I remember in one early thriller I wrote there was a cliff-top chase, which culminated in the MC diving into the sea. It was supposed to be spectacular but dear me, it crawled. In desperation, I took out every other sentence (yes, that’s how much I had to cut). Suddenly it had the pace I wanted – the slick, breathless scene I imagined when I put it in the synopsis. Now I could see what speed the choreography should be, I checked the details, swapped some in and out – and it worked.
2 You don’t have to show absolutely everything
You don’t have to show the scene blow by blow. You can give a sense of what the scene feels like without showing every step, every blow, every thrust and counter-thrust. As with every kind of description, telling details that give the emotional feel of the scene are the most important. For instance, this excerpt from Ian Fleming’s Goldfinger:
‘Ten yards away, Oddjob hardly paused in his rush. One hand whipped off his ridiculous, deadly hat, a glance to take aim and the black steel half-moon sang through the air. Its edge caught the girl exactly on the nape of the neck.’
3 Make it more interesting than just a fight or a chase
Prose is an internal medium, and is much better for internal, or emotional, action. A scene that is just a set of physical instructions is never going to be as interesting as one with significant character interaction, or humour, or a development that matters to someone on an emotional level.
Screenwriter Jane Espenson said she always found it hard to write the fight scenes in Buffy The Vampire Slayer. So she would design the scene about something else – an argument or a revelation between the characters. When that was established, she slipped the fight in around that.
Thank you, Simon Wicks on Flickr, for the photo
Do you find action scenes easy to write or hard? Do you have any tips? Share in the comments!
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…