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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

How Screenwritng Taught me to Become a Better Novelist.

The novel and the screenplay are two different types of storytelling. Each has its own set of rules and protocols and its own set of nuances. However, the techniques from the craft of screenwriting can be effectively adapted to the novel and lead to a better overall reading experience for the book reader.

I’ve learned a lot of things in the five years I’ve been studying screenwriting and it’s helped me to become a better novelist. Books have to compete with movies, television and the Internet, I knew I had find a more effective approach to writing stories that keeps the audience compelled and turning pages.

Screenwriting taught me to start a story with bang. No taking four or five pages to introduce everyone, no long paragraphs of exposition about the past. A strong inciting incident grabs the reader and draws them right into the story from page one and keeps them reading until the final page of the book.

Screenwriting taught me to make the audience ask questions instead of answering them. Traditional writing often has an Omniscient third-person narrator in the distance who explains everything to the audience. That’s BORING to me. I like my audiences to think, observe and draw their own conclusions about what’s going on. What I love about screenwriting is that it forces the audience to ask questions about what’s going on. This gets the audience actively involved in the story instead of passively watching.

Screenwriting taught me how to focus on action FIRST. Writing in first-person, I often wrote character-driven stories which was great. However, I tended to focus a lot on flowery prose to establish a character’s “Voice”. This often led to long expositional paragraphs filled with lots of backstory. However, after I started incorporating screenwriting techniques into my writing style, I began to focus more on the actions of the character to get the story moving. Action defines character, and what a character does in a story is far more important than what they say.

Screenwriting taught me how to SHOW and not TELL. Because screenwriters have to use the least amount of words to tell the most amount of story, there’s no room for filler. Showing what a person does through action has an impact on the reader and makes them imagine what’s going on NOW. On the other hand TELLING a story is passive and puts the reader at a DISTANCE from what’s going on.

Screenwriting taught me to focus on the NOW. Good stories have a sense of urgency; that urgency compels a reader to involve themselves in the action going on and invest their emotions in the events of the characters’ lives. When a writer puts a story in a NOW perspective it makes the reader feel that what’s being written is relevant to them. This active style of writing is extremely STRONG and puts the reader right in the middle of the ACTION going on in the middle of the story to the point where they can’t put the book down until the end.

Screenwriting helped me learn how to write leaner paragraphs. In screenwriting a writer is limited to 110 or 120 pages to tell their story so it’s paramount to tell a story with an economy of words. So an author has to cut things down to the bare bones on details and focus only on the most important things in the story. There’s no room for long paragraphs with flowery prose in a screenplay; an author has four to five lines max in a paragraph to describe what’s going on. Lean tight paragraphs create a faster pace and make a book flow like water from first page to the last.

Screenwriting helped me wlearn how to write shorter chapters. When I started writing in the early 90's, my chapters were 20-30 pages with lots of exposition and filler. Now they’re four or five pages on average and ten pages max. Shorter chapters quicken the pace of the story and help the action in the book move much faster for the reader.

Screenwriting showed me how to tighten up dialogue. When I wrote my earlier stories, characters talked, and talked and talked and couldn’t SHUT UP. Sometimes they’d talk for four or five pages. However, after I started studying screenwriting, I learned to get right to the point. Good dialogue moves the plot along, bad dialogue make a story CRAWL.

Screenwriting taught me when ENOUGH IS ENOUGH. In a novel, a writer can go on and on in a chapter for pages with exposition, prose and dialogue. However, in a screenplay a writer is limited to 110-120 pages so every detail has to be crucial towards moving the story ahead. Screenwriting taught me how to end a chapter in a novel when an event was done and start the next chapter towards building towards the next event. I learned to keep details simple and focus only on stuff things kept people reading the next chapter.

Screenwriting taught me to write more visually. Good writing puts pictures in the readers’ head and makes them put “the movie in their mind.” As they go from chapter to chapter they unconsciously imagine scenes from the story described by the words; this makes what’s going on real to them and involves them in the story. Moreover, these visuals people imagine create a richer reading experience for the reader filled with sights sounds, smells and life.

Screenwriting taught me to rethink structure and form. Usually, each chapter of a novel is tightly connected to the others. If one component of the plot doesn’t work, the entire book falls apart. It can be downright frustrating to restructure an entire novel to make events flow smoothly into each other between drafts.

However, the writing process for screenplays is more modular. While the structure of the plot is usually rigid, the events constructed around the framework of the plot are extremely flexible. Scenes and dialogue can be moved around, swapped out or replaced without doing damage to the pace and flow of the overall story.

What I learned from screenwriting made me rethink writing stories with events wrapped too tightly around the plot and focus more on making sure that the structure of the plot (who, what, when, where, and why) was strong enough to withstand modifying the form of events around it. Thanks to this modular approach I’ve swapped out and replaced beginnings middles and endings in stories in Isis, The Cassandra Cookbook, The Temptation of John Haynes and All About Marilyn wi\ut damaging the structure of the plot.

Screenwriting taught me to focus on the reader, not myself. When novelists usually create their
stories they tend to focus what’s important to them. Writing novels is a very personal and intimate process. A screenwriter on the other hand is creating a product to be sold to others, so they tend to focus on what’s important to the reader. Because screenwriters are more about selling they’re much more open about their creative process. With the writing process more open, a writer has to listen to the audience.

What most novelists forget is that books are products, and they need to be presented in a way that makes them accessible to the largest audience possible.

Learning the ins and outs of Screenwriting has made me a bit more sensitive to providing readers with a more satisfying reading experience in my novels. My hope is that the approaches I’ve learned from screenwriting leads to a better quality novel and a better overall reading experience.


  1. Shawn, that is great info in your article! I realy enjoyed reading your blog. I admire your ability to write a screenplay as well as a novel. You're multi- talented!

  2. Shawn - I left a comment on your August 2, 2011 post. I'm interested in interviewing you for a book I'm working on. Thanks. --Scott