So you want to write books. You probably already know you should read books. Lots and lots of books. But did you also know that one of the best things you can do for your novels is to study screenwriting?
But, Jaye, I watch lots of TV and I have a huge Netflix queue.
Hush, now. At some point, if you’re going to get serious as a storyteller than you must study storytelling mediums with a deliberate eye. You must become a student of structure and pacing and character construction and conflict and theme. In order to create your own stories you have to understand how stories work. Yes, you have some inherent understanding since you’ve been exposed to stories since birth. But to truly understand, you have to learn how the sausage is made.
Warning: This will ruin your ability to just relax and enjoy most stories.
My husband hates watching movies with me. “Gawd damn it, haven’t they ever heard of internal conflict?” “Watch this, it’s the midpoint break, so there’s going to be a shocking revelation.” It’s so bad that I’ve trained him to pick apart every book, show and movie he experiences. It’s quite common now for him to slam a book closed and say, “Give me a break, the character development was completely inadequate and don’t get me started on the cliched metaphor usage.”
I’ve created a monster. But now he’s also a great sounding board when I’m writing a book.
Anyway, here’s the thing: Novels are awesome. They’re beautiful and perfect storytelling vehicles. But they’re big and complex and there are so…many…words. I jest, of course. The complexity of the novel is part of its charm. But if you want a down and dirty understanding of plot structure and the internal mechanics of good story telling, screenplays are a great place to start.
Why? Well, first of all a screenwriter working on a feature-length project has maybe 120ish pages. A writer on an hour-long drama has 60ish pages. That’s not a lot of room in which to tell a complete and complex story. You want to learn how to write well? Force yourself to write tighter, like a screenwriter.
Novelists have this wonderful wiggle room. We have time and space to present our story elements. Short stories, screen plays, any shorter form of fiction will help your novels immensely. It forces you to make sure every word counts, that your visuals have ultimate impact (yes, there are visual elements in novels, too), and most of all, they force you to cut the bullshit and get the heart of the story.
Am I overselling? Maybe. But I can tell you that my own studies in the screen trade have helped my novels a ton.
So where do you start?
My three go-to big screen guys for story structure are Robert McKee, Chris Vogler, and Michael Hague. Robert McKee was immortalized as the gruff guru of screenwriting in the brilliant film ADAPTATION (from the warped genius of Charlie Kauffman). Vogler mines the inner world of character arcs using Joseph Campbell’s monomyth as a vehicle. Hague is a consultant on a ton of films because he’s a wizard at story structure. One of my favorite lectures is by both Vogler and Hague together called, “The Two Hero’s Journeys,” which you can purchase here.
Blake Snyder’s SAVE THE CAT is also a great down and dirty guide to structure. I use his tricks in my books all the time, especially “pope in the pool.” Read it and you’ll see what I’m talking about.
Also, supernatural thriller novelist Alexandra Sokoloff has a fantastic book called SCREENWRITING TRICKS FOR AUTHORS.
In addition, I subscribe to a fantastic blog called Go Into The Story, which offers tons of advice on general storytelling, as well as screen-specific advice and seminars. Visit Go Into The Story
Plus, there are tons of sites out there where you can read produced scripts. They’re like reading plays, and it’s really fun to see how writers write the stories, which will later get translated visually by other people.
Lastly, you should watch widely. Network TV, cable TV (some of the best writing anywhere right now), mainstream features, independent productions. Stretch outside your typical genres because you never know when you’re going to see something cool you can use in your own stories.
Look, I’m not trying to convince you to abandon novels. I think it’s healthy for every writer to dabble in other mediums, but scattering your energy too much can also ensure nothing ever gets done. Each medium has it’s own challenges and benefits, but they also each offer their own lessons about how to tell a story that you can either borrow or outright steal for your novels. Read, watch, but most of all, pay attention.
Anyone else have any great screen writing secrets for novelists?