Friday, December 29, 2006

Writing Cinematically

A few years ago, before I sold my first book, I had grown wearing of banging my head against the same publishing brick walls over and over again, and decided to take a break from novel writing. But I couldn't just stop writing cold turkey, so I took a stab at screenwriting. I thought it would be a cool change---it's all dialogue and action, right? I can do dialogue and action!

My friend Jenn and I joined a scriptwriter's group and started working on one-hour TV drama spec scripts so we'd have something in our portfolio. And we managed to win a couple of contests and catch the eye of an agent and a literary manager, but when it became clear that to do what we wanted to do, we'd have to move to Los Angeles, we both decided that we just didn't love it enough to make that big a change in our lives. She had a good paying job in New Jersey; I had a good job here in Alabama and all sorts of family ties. So I bid screenwriting goodbye and returned to my first love--novels.

However, my foray into screenwriting wasn't a waste, because I learned some valuable lessons about writing that have helped me tone and shape my prose fiction. I thought I'd share a few of those lessons with you.

1) Show, don't tell. We've all heard this one. But in screenwriting, this rule is taken to the extreme. In fact, I've heard some screenwriting teachers stress that you should be able to tell your story almost entirely through action, without any dialogue at all. I've never gone to that extreme, myself, but writing scripts does force you to put all the action on screen. Everything has to happen visually. You can't get away with long passages of description and narrative in a script.

2) Subtext, subtext, subtext. In novels, writers have the advantage of delving inside the minds of their characters, but in scripts, the character's thoughts and emotions have to be expressed visually and through what's not said as much as what's said. That same spare use of internalization can be used in novels as well. Let the context of dialogue speak for you.

Here's an example from my current WIP:

"Oh. You again."

Maddox looked up to find Charles Kipler standing in front of him. "Chuck! fetching lunch for the missus?"

A glint of humor lightened Kipler's eyes, catching Maddox by surprise. "Yeah. You, too?"

Maddox looked down at the take-out ticket in his hand. "She said she wasn't hungry. But she needs to eat."

Kipler sat next to Maddox, flipping his own take-out ticket between his fingers. "Did Ms. Browning tell you what she and Celia spoke about?"

"You don't know?"


Maddox shook his head. "Me, either."

Maddox is my hero. Charles Kipler is the personal assistant to Celia, a celebrity psychic. Maddox has been giving Kipler a hard time about being Celia's lackey--her "cabana boy," as Maddox puts it. But in this scene, the conversation with Kipler forces him to see that his relationship with Iris Browning, the woman he's falling in love with, is also plagued by walls separating them and putting him on the outside just as surely as Kipler is doomed to live on the periphery of Celia's life. I don't come out and say that in this exchange of dialogue. But by parallelling their situations--they're both standing in line to buy food to offer the women they're trying to please--we see that Maddox is dissatisfied with his outsider position in Iris's life.

3) Start a scene as late as possible and end it as early as possible. In screenwriting, time is money, and the shorter you can make a scene the better. It keeps the story flowing quickly, keeps up the pace, and it doesn't bore viewers with unnecessary details. When you're writing a scene, read it over and see if you can start the action any later and end it any earlier. For instance, if your scene ends on a phone call telling the hero that there's been an accident, you don't have to show that conversation. Let the hero answer the phone, someone on the other end says, "There's been an accident," and then do a time shift to the next scene, which is the hero dealing with the aftermath of the accident. The who, what, when, where, why and how can be dealt with during the action of that next scene, and it keeps the story moving forward without bogging it down.

4) Use the three act (or four act) structure of screenplays to help structure your novel. Most people are aware that plays and screenplays are usually based on the three act structure. Let's say your screenplay is 120 pages long (1 page = 1 minute of screentime). Your three act structure would divide your story into Act 1 - the introduction/setup (approx. 30 pages), Act 2 - the complication (approx. 60 pages) and Act 3 - the climax/resolution (approx. 30 pages). Your novel can be similarly divided. If you have, say, 12 chapters, the first 3 chapters will be setting up the characters and the story goal, ending on a twist that pushes you into Act 2, which will be the middle six chapters, in which you introduce a complication that forces your hero/heroine to change their plans and try new ways to reach their goals. Act 2 escalates in conflict and tension to the black moment, which happens at the Act 2 turn. It's the point at which you see no way for the hero and heroine to possibly meet their goals. Then, in Act 3--the last three chapters--you provide that solution, give the characters an exciting and rewarding climax, and you resolve the conflicts and end the story.

Now, this is flexible. It won't always be neatly divided into those page or chapter counts. But the basic structure is sound, and it follows the story pattern we've all learned about over the years.

A great movie to watch to study how the three act structure works is, believe it or not, LETHAL WEAPON. The scene in the desert, when the bad guys have Murtaugh's daughter, have disarmed and disabled Murtaugh, and then catch Riggs, who's hiding to back up Murtaugh, is the quintessential Act Two turn. It's the blackest of black moments, when all the good guys' plans have been shot to pieces and you don't know how they'll possibly get out of the mess they're in. Every time I'm trying to come up with a black moment for my book, I think about that scene and try to evoke that same sense of hopelessness I got when I saw that moment the first time around.

Screenwriting isn't as easy as it might look. It requires very visual thinking and a good feel for dialogue and action. But even if scriptwriting isn't for you, you can take lessons away from the genre and apply them to your novel writing to write a stronger, more exciting story.


Carla Swafford said...

Some great advice, Paula. Thanks.

JoAnn said...

Wow, Paula -- this is fabulous! I especially got an "ah ha" moment about starting and ending scenes. Excellent advice. Thank you. (Off to rent Lethal Weapon). :-)

jennifer echols said...

Great post, Paula!