Whether you’re telling a story for the page or the screen, there are tools and methods that all writers can learn from and use for their own storytelling. Just because a screenplay will be turned into a film – and sometimes by somebody else entirely – doesn’t mean that the same blood, sweat and tears doesn’t go into creating the finished work. Here are some great ways that novel writers can use screenwriting techniques to help develop their own works.
Create an Outline or Treatment for Your Story
Screenwriters often create an outline or a treatment before they knuckle down to create their screenplays. This is essentially a road map or guideline that will keep the writer on track and keep them from going off in tangents that are likely to be cut or edited out when they go back to create the second and subsequent drafts. Having an outline or treatment also helps you to work out any plot holes, character issues or story problems before you hit the ground running. Ironing out the kinks before you start writing is essential, as there is nothing worse than a stop-start writing process. You could find yourself spending a lot of time in the pub with a half-finished novel gathering dust in a bottom drawer if you don’t keep that momentum going. An outline will definitely keep you from distraction and prevent you from hitting any road blocks. Except the self-imposed ones, of course.
Screenwriting Keeps Your Writing Tight
One of the key rules of storytelling for the screen is to cut out any unnecessary exposition and description and to keep the writing tight. This is a great method to put into your own novel writing, as the majority of readers would rather pick up a novel with one or two hands than have to hire a crane to pick it up because of all the unnecessary prose that could have been lost in the edit.
There is nothing wrong with having a long, spiralling novel. Some of the greatest novels ever written are chunky tomes. But there is a difference between a great story that is well written and strong, therefore justifying the length, and having a rambling mess of a story that heads off in too many directions and spends two pages describing something that could have been told effectively in a couple of lines. Learning to edit your work and cut out the writing that isn’t essential for the story is a crucial skill to have as a writer, and in the film world, a screenwriter has to learn to keep their exposition as tight as possible in order to have their work accepted by agents and executives.
For a great example of taut, concise writing for the screen, check out Christopher Nolan’s screenplays for Inception or The Dark Knight Trilogy. For films that all cost more than the entire budget of a third world country, the screenplays for these action packed blockbusters and very concise in their description. Writers of all forms can learn from the less-is-more approach of screenwriting.
Setting a Scene
Whilst being interviewed by Empire magazine, writer/director Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Hot Fuzz) was asked for some advice for screenwriters. His advice was to “start late and get out early, and don’t have a lot of people walking through doors”. Although the last part of that advice was a half-joke, the point that Wright was making was that to keep the pace and momentum of your story moving along nicely, all pointless exposition should be cut out in order to cut to the chase.
For example, if the chapter of your novel started out like this:
Tom walks through the door of his bosses’ office and sits down in the chair opposite the desk. His Boss stares back at him, and Tom tries to avoid eye contact at all costs.
The same scene in the screenplay version would read something like this.
Tom sits opposite his Boss, who is staring at him. Tom avoids eye contact at all costs.
You are only cutting out a line of description, but it sets the scene in exactly the same way. All that has been lost is Tom’s entrance into the office, which is completely unnecessary. On screen, that’s 5-10 seconds of screen time cut. On the page, taking the same approach could save you pages and pages of unnecessary exposition. Unless there is a character moment or story point happening, Tom entering the office is completely unnecessary. Cut it out!
Character and Dialogue
It is a vital part of any story – screenwriting, novel or otherwise – that the characters are rounded individuals who act and talk in a realistic manner. Get this wrong and every aspect of your story falls apart. The relationships your characters have won’t ring true and your readers will be thrown out of the story. Dialogue can often be the toughest part of storytelling for some writers, and screenwriting techniques can really help you work on getting speech patterns and dialogue exchanges right. You don’t have to worry about the ‘he said’ ‘she replied’ stuff either, just start playing around with exchanges and get your characters talking to each other. You will find it incredibly freeing and it could spark some great dialogue exchanges that help shape your characters for the better.
Storyboarding as a Way into a Scene
Screenwriters and filmmakers use storyboarding as a way of communicating their words to their collaborators, and this is also something that writers of prose can use to better form their stories. For example, if there is an action scene in your novel and you are having difficulty describing it in your prose, creating the scene in storyboard form first might unlock the way for you to describe the action in an interesting way.
Screenwriters don’t have to write much detail when it comes to action because the director and stunt teams will take care of most of it, but novel writers have to put across the totality of the story on the page, so adding a visual component can really help writers find a way into the scene. Some of the storyboarding could become illustrations in the book, if they would sit well alongside the story you are telling.
Daley is a writer and filmmaker who wants to help his fellow writers to get out there fully confident and armed with a great novel. He can be found struggling with his own career at www.daleyjfrancis.com