Novel Writing Lessons from Screenplays

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At first glance, screenplays and novels have little in common. They both tell stories, and they’re both created by writers, but a screenplay is just the basis for a film whereas a novel is a finished product. In truth, though, savvy novelists can learn a lot from screenwriters. We all have something to learn from different kinds of storytellers.

Show It – Not Enough Space to Tell

We’ve all heard the old adage: show, don’t tell. While it’s easy to confuse the meaning of this phrase, screenplays help simplify the idea. When directors, cinematographers, and actors read a screenplay, they have to see what’s happening on the page. Screenplays are very, very short, but they convey the tone, theme, and mood in addition to basic dialogue and action.

Since movies depend as much on what is seen as what is heard, screenplay writers have to pack a lot into a relatively small wordcount. They use powerful words, pick things to describe very carefully, and know when to leave something to the reader’s imagination. Novelists may use more words, but they have a similar cooperative arrangement with their readers. No novel can describe absolutely every detail of a world or scene. Showing the audience what’s important rather than telling them absolutely every detail about everyone and everything on screen creates a better reading experience.

Tighten Your Outline

A screenplay is, ultimately, a film’s outline. It has much more detail than most novel outlines – like dialogue – but it has the same flexibility most novelists apply to their own outlines. Things can change. Rewrite happen, sometimes on the day of shooting! However, the important elements hold true, even when lines get scratched out and shifted around.

An outline and a screenplay should both hold the story’s soul. What is this tale about? Who are the characters, and what do they want? How is the story paced, and how does it feel? Filling your outline with a blow-by-blow summary of every fight scene is much less important than solidifying the cause of the fight. The outline helps you hone your craft not just as a wordsmith, but as a storyteller.

Craft a Concise, Powerful Premise

Ultimately, you want to share your story, right? Whether you want to self-publish, hire an agent, or simply hand out copies to friends and family, you want other people to read it. Your premise is what first attracts your readers. People talk about judging a book by its cover, but people judge a book by its premise just as often. No matter how original and engaging your story is, if it sounds like every other YA fantasy novel on the market, it won’t attract as much attention as it deserves.

Practice the screenwriter’s pitch. Boil down your entire story into one or two sentences. You don’t have to tell the ending, get into subplots, or even define your world. Focus on the basics: who is doing what? Spend some quality time with your work, reread your outline, and decide what the heart of your story is. Once you find that, use your language skills to sharpen it into a baited hook to catch agents and readers.

Keep Yourself Busy

Writers always tell each other to keep writing, but screenwriters have the practice of constant creation down to an art. Although they may go back and edit old screenplays they haven’t been able to sell for a few years, successful screenwriters are constantly working on something new. Don’t let yourself get in a rut with a single story. Even if it’s your masterpiece, it will turn into a literary ingrown toenail if you don’t push on and craft something fresh.

Which of these tips can you use to boost your novel? Whether you’re digging into the craft of story-weaving through your outline, or you’re honing your premise, thank a screenwriter. It’s only fair. They’ve thanked plenty of novelists over the years.

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