Common Ground: Screenwriting Techniques To Transform Your Novel

As an Executive Producer and Director in the TV industry, I understand the difficulty and challenge of transforming a novel into a visual experience on film. As a novelist, I’ve enjoyed the freedom of writing and storytelling without worrying about the limitations of turning those novels into a screenplay. Many of my readers have said, “Your books would make great movies.” I’m humbled each time I hear those words, but I’m also realistic about surviving in an ocean with sharks. Writing a novel and writing a screenplay are two different animals that don’t always play well together in the same body of water. So, if your dream is to write a novel in hopes you’ll get it optioned for film so a studio can spend millions of dollars producing your story, you might find yourself throwing a penny in a pond hoping to retrieve a pot of gold. Let’s just say, the odds are not in your favor. But there are techniques we can use as novelists to transform our stories that share common ground with screenwriters.

In my novels, The Disillusioned and Waking Lazarus, the chapters are written as scenes in a film as a way to keep readers engaged. Since my writing tends to be more visual, much like a screenwriter, I use this technique to keep the story moving forward at a quicker pace. I don’t want to bog readers down with pages of backstory, inner thoughts, or showcasing my writing prowess that leaves them trudging through a swamp. I’m not a literary genius like Tolstoy. I write commercial fiction, and what that means is I must use some of the same techniques as a screenwriter because we live in a visual age. Isn’t that how we want readers to respond? We want them to envision the world we’ve created, to connect with the characters, and to imagine where the story will lead. Our words on a page create a visual experience for our readers.

One huge advantages for novelists is we can take our time delving deeper into our characters’ thoughts and emotions. We can leave breadcrumbs of hidden clues, backstory, and reveal aspects of our characters’ storylines that maybe only the reader will know, most of which would never be played out on screen. And, you do this within a 380+ page book instead of a 120 page screenplay. But there is a downside, one we can avoid when using other screenwriting techniques.

Have you ever noticed how at around the thirty minute mark in a film there is a twist to the story? It’s that moment that leads us into the second act. A character makes a choice, faces a tragedy, or loses what they value most. In that scene the story goes deeper and keeps viewers on the edge of their seat. If we were to call this the thirty-minute rule for screenwriters, then we could define that technique as the crossroads chapter for novelists. While I won’t give away which chapter that might be in my novels, I will say that this chapter marker is a roadmap that leads me to the second act of my story. Why do this? For my writing style, it helps me know that the story is moving forward. I’m not simply writing chapters that bring nothing more to the story. The chapters leading up to the chapter that will remain unnamed, are centered on introducing readers into this world, revealing unique characters, and setting readers up for the plot twist.

In this scenario, the big difference between novels and screenplays is that in a screenplay you should only write what you see or hear on screen. Internal thoughts won’t work. Narration is tricky because it can slow the story down. Novelists can dive deeper into inner thoughts, longer dialogue, and more descriptive settings, but in either scenario, character and setting are still king. By the time you reach the thirty minutes, or the crossroads chapter, your characters and story should be in full affect. If the characters are flat, or the story isn’t progressing quick enough, then you know it’s time to go back and rework your first act.

One note to remember: as novelists we aren’t restricted by production budgets, so if we need to enhance our characters’ setting, or build a bigger more interesting world, then we can simply write that on the page rather than begging a studio to give us a bigger budget. That’s one of the challenges screenwriters have that novelists don’t. Screenwriters have to create a world and characters that fit within the overall production budget of a studio.

In this day and age another technique novelists can learn from screenwriters is to keep our stories concise. Reminders to move the story forward should be planted on our walls, computer screens, notebooks, and tattooed on our arms if necessary. If the story isn’t progressing then we’ll lose our readers. Too much backstory and we’ve lost them. Give too much information away in the beginning and our characters become less interesting. Writing chapters filled with inner thoughts, dream sequences, flashbacks, or sharing pieces of the story that won’t matter in the end forces readers to close the book, unless they are written in a concise way that adds momentum to our story. It’s why screenwriters are constantly cutting, scrutinizing every word of a script, because they only have so many pages to fit the story. Every scene. Every piece of dialogue. Ever word is weighed to make the screenplay as tight as possible. In the end, cutting in a screenplay makes for a better story. For novelists, we can learn a great deal from this technique. While some view editing as the process that is done to finalize the last draft of a novel so we can publish, the truth is that editing is an exercise where we’re constantly fine-tuning each chapter. Much like a screenplay, ruthless cutting/editing makes the novel shine.

While this is by no means all of the screenwriting techniques we can apply as novelists, they are common ground exercises that can enable us to transform our writing to become more effective storytellers.

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