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S.K. Quinn, Independent Author of Science Fiction

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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Screenwriting for Novelists

Using screenwriting to improve your novels.

I've used screenwriting structure for my novel writing for a long time - books like Save the Cat (Snyder), Story (McKee), and Emotional Structure (Dunne) were formative in my story-writing development. But I jumped at the chance to take a nine-month screenwriting class (with MG novelist and screenwriting professor Kat Falls) to see where the form of screenwriting, not just the story principles behind it, could improve my novel writing. (And, mostly, I'm a huge fan of Kat's writing. Check out her MG SF Dark Life!)

How cool is this room? The whole Story Studio was an amazing place - renovated, downtown Chicago loft oozing with creative power.

Having just finished my first screenplay (two drafts, even!), I'm still very much a novice screenwriter. But I can already see how the form of scriptwriting (by which I mean the techniques screenwriters use to evoke story on the page, not the formatting itself) will help my novel writing.

(It was also interesting that, while I was writing my first screenplay from scratch, Immersive Entertainment was converting my serial Debt Collector into Virtual Reality scripts - which I got to read and give notes on! It's been a very script-intensive past nine months.) 

Power Words
Description in a script is more akin poetry. Choppy sentences, to-the-point descriptions, metaphors that evoke whole truckloads of meaning in a few words. While the truncated-grammar may not (always) be conducive to novel writing, the power words and images required in a script will definitely make their way onto the page when I turn my script into a novel. Vice-versa, I noticed the Immersive Entertainment scriptwriter pulled many of the power words out of my Debt Collector story and used them to even better effect in the script.

The train light spider-webs across cracked windows. - The Fugitive screenplay

High pressure water jets and a blast of hot air when you step out... a drive through car wash for people. - Aliens screenplay

How it Helps Your Novel: great, memorable words evoke a great story.

Character-Defining Action
Characters in novels, of course, have character-defining action: those things they do that are uniquely them. What's different about screenplays, is that you only have action (and dialogue, which is a form of action) to get across the depth of your character. Where you can use internal thoughts in a novel, there's no room for that in a script. Even small actions can be powerful tells for your character, especially if supported (or contrasted) later in the script. Bringing out the deepest meaning of any particular scene through a meaningful character action can really amplify the intensity of your story.

How it Helps Your Novel: character-defining actions are powerful in novels, too. Make sure you use them with abandon, rather than relying solely on internal thoughts.

Flabby dialogue really jumps out when you have a roomful of screenwriters each taking a part of your screenplay and acting it out. (Just sayin'.) It's also readily apparent on the page when dialogue is broken by a lot of action or vice-versa, you have nothing but three pages of talking heads. A mixture of great, sharp, quippy lines, an occasional oscar-winning epic speech, and healthy doses of actors actually doing stuff (preferrably character-defining stuff), and you can start to see a good story taking shape on the page - or at least a well-constructed script.

How it Helps Your Novel: read, or possibly write, your scene with just the dialogue (or skim the action bits and definitely the internal thoughts). The flabbiness will leap out more.

This flummoxed me at first - the use of cuts to tell story, how to show passage of time, when and how to leap from one scene to the next. Very different than novel writing, and I think this is where the two forms diverge the most. There are some things you simply can't do in the transition between chapters that you can in the transition between film scenes - mostly because you know the viewer will stick around in the movie, but the reader may put down the book. Still... it made me think more consciously about the flow of time in a story and how to manipulate it.

How it Helps Your Novel: be very conscious of scene endings and beginnings and the flow of time. Make sure you have something to get the reader to turn to the next chapter.

If setting is a character in a novel, it's an entire ensemble cast in a movie. The five or so set pieces (the settings of scenes with high emotional impact) in a script have to be epic. These are the scenes you remember most in a movie, and they will make or break it. But even the smaller scenes need to have a setting worthy of the actors in it. A set designer will trick it out, but the screenwriter has to evoke (in just a few words!) the idea to begin with. And then your characters need to interact with that setting, so it needs to have something interesting in it. These are all things that apply in a novel, but are amplified in a script - and a better novel will have them amped up too.

How it Helps Your Novel: Your setting can almost always be more epic. Design it for emotional and thematic impact and then have your actor/character work it. Avoid kitchens, living rooms, car rides, anything that is banal... unless you've transformed it into something magical. I have a scene Day Zero where my characters are in the living room - only it's really a temple, because there is a small shrine lit with candles and the scene takes place almost entirely within that glow. Work it.

Thematic Image Systems
This is something I've played around with from the beginning - creating image systems that reflect the theme of the book and weaving that into the setting. Scripts take that one level higher and allow you to lavish thematic image system words into description as well. I think you can get away with this a little easier in script writing, simply because there are fewer words, and each one has to carry more intensity. But this goes back to the Power Words at the beginning - and almost always, there can be more of those (either power words themselves or the images they evoke) in a novel.

How it Helps Your Novel: using thematic vocabulary and images and set pieces will bring great emotional depth to your work. Readers will love you for it.

My screenplay (Day Zero) is the prequel to my Singularity series (coming in 2015). The script will eventually be turned into a novel, but I can already tell it will be a different sort of story, having been born for the screen.


  1. Thanks for the amazingly helpful article, Susan. I've been asked to write screenplays for my own novels, and found it so difficult. What a great opportunity to take the class from Kat Falls, and obviously it was excellent. Thank you for sharing all these tips. I'll be re-reading this a lot, I'm sure, and sharing it with my followers, too.

  2. I wrote a SF short story just using dialogue a while back. It's wonderful how using different storytelling modes can clear away the cobwebs.