Novelists can learn a lot from our cousins, the screenwriters. They have a lot more rules and limitations than we do. Sometimes, creative individuals need boundaries in order to thrive. This post aims to explore the rules and regulations of screenwriting. It will then extract specific ways novelists can exploit screenwriters’ gems of knowledge for world-domination–or at least better novels. Whichever comes first.
The big screenwriting limits:
The physical page limits
Let’s start here. The average screenplay is between 110 and 120 pages long. Why? Because one page of screenplay equals one minute of screentime. Therefore, a 120-page script is equivalent to a two-hour movie. The page format itself is quite stark with 1.5-inch left margin, 1-inch top and bottom margin, and (brace yourself) a whopping 3.7-inch left margin for dialogue blocks.
That’s a lot of white space on the physical page. Apparently, it’s easy to spot an amateur screenwriter based on the darkness of their pages. With that in mind, the following two components need to be as trim and sleek as possible.
It needs to both reveal something about the characters (and by proxy, be style-specific to a particular character) and it also needs to move the story along. When you write any dialogue, ask yourself these two questions: Did I reveal something about my character? Did I advance the storyline? Here are a few additional tips screenwriters use:
- Jump into a conversation and get out as fast as you can. Do away with salutations whenever possible.
- Don’t repeat action with dialogue. Characters do not need to re-tell something the reader just read. The character can reference the action, then pick-up where the event left off– if they have to.
- No awkward monologuing. Just, say no.
- Think about movies with voice-overs. I, personally, find voice-overs to be cheesy and view it as a sign of poor writing. Narration is only acceptable when there’s absolutely no other way to show, then you have to tell.
Story structure: Plotters welcome! Pantsers need not apply.
Needless to say, screenwriting is no place for the pantser. Screenwriters need an airtight outline for a successful script. With a strict 120-page restriction, there’s a need to grab the viewer’s attention and chuck them into the who, what, where, and why as soon as possible. They do this with a minimal amount of pages so they can get to the meat of the story faster.
So what can you novelist, take away from that advice? Get your ducks in a row before you start to write.
And finally, one theme to rule them all …
The biggest tip you can swipe from screenwriters is this–have a guiding theme for your novel. When I first started writing, I never thought about this. Then I read an article about having a guiding theme. The article stated that the theme should permeate every scene and every chapter. Even the main character’s motivations, actions, and thoughts should be related to this theme whenever possible.
Take the time to think about your favorite movies and try to derive the theme. Then, rewatch the movie with this lens. Can you see the theme running through the dialogue, the action, the plot?
For more tips on writing with a concrete theme, check out this article. In the meantime, happy writing.