There was a time when I wrote film scripts, but got stuck in purgatory for a while, before switching my style to prose. I naively assumed the transition would be easy. After all, didn’t we all have to write stories as kids? Wasn’t it just like riding a bike, you never forget? Turned out I had one heck of a time. It was painful.
The first thing I learned when writing for film was to strip away all the habits and descriptive techniques I was taught in school and in creative writing classes. I no longer needed to go into great detail about what my hero looked like, what she was wearing, how she reacts, or her thoughts and physical sensations. I needed to be compact and brief, like this:
AMY KNOX, 12-year-old star-struck Five Stars fan, races toward the SECURITY GUARD, 30’s, intimidating and stoic.
If this were prose, I’d have to think about what she’s wearing. Is it all Five Star merchandise? What would that look like? If it’s a five-piece boy band, what do they look like? What kind of music do they sing? What about her racing toward the security guard? What’s she thinking? Is she so excited and overcome with the idea she could meet the band that she’s completely oblivious to his intimidation? Or is she hoping that her enthusiasm will win him over? What’s she physically feeling? Euphoria? Terror? You get the idea. This is what made the switch tough. Scriptwriting taught me that brevity is king. Only describe exact items to a “T” if it’s crucial to the story (like a red balloon, in the French film, The Red Balloon). Tight and essential word choice is a must. No flowery language is wanted or appreciated by the director or producer. They want to bring their own impressions to the story and consult with visual experts like wardrobe, set designers, etc.
Screenwriting took me beyond that blackboard mountain-drawing teachers used to make (or still make) in creative writing classes that went something like: intro, build-up, climax and conclusion with a bunch of Act I, II, and III’s thrown in for good measure. Writing for film, I learned about plot points, pinch points, and turning points as I became well versed in Syd Field lingo (he was the go to expert at the time and still very relevant). It also gave me a firm grasp of Anton Checkov’s gun principle:
“One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn’t going to go off. It’s wrong to make promises you don’t mean to keep.”
A good script wastes nothing. There simply isn’t time or money to wander off the beaten and path, even for a page.
When I made the switch back to prose, I decided to start with one of my scripts about two kids lost in the wilderness. It came to roughly 40,000 words when completed. Not bad for a first draft YA novel, right? I thought I had it made. After all, the story was already worked out in script form. A friend read it and told me, “Great dialogue, but I don’t know what anyone looks like or where I am.”
Art director, costume department, hair and make-up, stunts, sound and lighting are all my jobs now. Sure, you’re thinking, how obvious, but I’d spent years not doing this and it was hard to make it automatic again.
So why does the title of this piece say that learning film will help a new writer if all I’ve done is told you how frustrating it was? Well, I found that the screenwriting outline process (on 4×5 cards—see photo of my living room) translates well to new novels. Also, the way a script is structured with its turning points, pinch points, etc. makes each one of these elements fit nicely into a chapter, (mine for MG/YA books comes out to roughly 8-11 pages) and produces between 12-15 chapters (it varies of course). Plus, dialogue came easy because I had so many years of practice.
So what advice can I offer?
Take some time to study screenwriting. Of course, skip the part where you strip away your languid, descriptive prose; definitely keep that! Focus on how screenwriters outline their stories (plot points, pinch points, turning points, or whatever the latest jargon is depending upon the author). There are tons of screenwriting books to choose from. Two I’d recommend are Syd Field’s Screenwriting and Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat. I’m certainly not saying you have to write a script to be a better novelist, but seeing how another craftsperson applies their trade might give you ideas you can experiment or play with when it comes to your own work.
The other book I’d recommend is The Writers’ Journey by Christopher Vogler. It’s basically a retelling of Joseph Campbell’s, A Hero With A Thousand Faces. (Joseph Campbell was a mythologist who studied stories from all over the world and noticed that heroes in stories adhered to a similar pattern: ordinary world, crossing the threshold, mentors, etc.) Vogler really brings Campbell’s work to life, citing examples from film.
If you read these works you’ll begin to analyse storytelling on a whole new level. You’ll notice the tools writers choose to work with in their stories. I imagine it’s a lot like studying painting (all the various media, brushes, colour theory, and how to use it in a unique way to present their ideas on canvas). I recently read You by Charles Benoit and if you ask me for my thoughts on the book, giving you a plot summary wouldn’t be my first go-to; it’s not how I think about stories. I’d talk about his impressive ability to write his YA novel entirely in second person.
After reading a few screenwriting books, rewatch your favourite films, but this time view them with the close captions on. Don’t watch the images, rather read the words. Observe the breivity. I often critique manuscripts where people talk in huge paragraph blocks, which is completely unnatural and stalls the story (particularly action-adventure), bringing it to a grinding halt. Watching films will also help you think about ways to explain plot visually rather than info dumping. One film I used to study was Almost Famous. I must have watched it at least a hundred times. In one sitting I’d note Campbell’s work (ordinary world, call to adventure, etc.) Another viewing had me focusing on Syd’s work, noting the turning points. Yet another viewing had me studying the dialogue.
I’m constantly reading books on the craft or reading writing-related blogs like Savy Authors to discover new ways, techniques, impressions or methods.
I hope in telling my journey, it inspires further reading. —Nicole
Nicole Winters has a B.A. in English from the University of Toronto and loves books, bikes, horror films and globe hopping. Her debut romance novel, THE JOCK AND THE FAT CHICK hits the e-book stands October 13th. Nicole is currently at work on her third book involving magic called THE CONJURER.
Cool dudes and motorcycles: TT FULL THROTTLE
Hot guys and romance: THE JOCK AND THE FAT CHICK.
Kevin seems to have it all: he’s popular, good looking, and on his way to scoring a college hockey scholarship. However, he’s keeping two big secrets. The first is that he failed an assignment and is now forced to take the most embarrassing course ever–domestic tech. The second is that he is falling for his domestic tech classmate, Claire.
As far as Kevin is concerned, Claire does have it all: she’s funny, smart, beautiful, and confident. But she’s off-limits. Because Kevin knows what happens when someone in his group dares to date a girl who isn’t a cheerleader, and there’s no way he is going to put himself—or Claire—through that.
But steering clear of the girl of his dreams is a lot harder than Kevin thought…especially when a cooking project they are paired together for provides the perfect opportunity for things to heat up between them outside the classroom….