How scripts help you write novels and vice-versa

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23 March 2018
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Tron screenwriter and now new Sherlock author Bonnie MacBird shares her writing advice
How scripts help you write novels and vice-versa Images

 

Tron screenwriter and now new Sherlock author Bonnie MacBird shares her writing advice

Writers who write in more than one format have an advantage. Novels written by screenwriters are typically pacey and visual, with dialogue that sounds real. Screenplays by novelists can resonate deeply and leave you with more than just a fun ride.  Here are a few thoughts on what pros in each form can learn from the other.

What novelists can learn from screenwriters

1. Great dialogue is key! Sharp dialogue will make your novel more immediate, your characters come alive, and your reader feel like s/he’s in the room with them.  Differentiate the voices; a conversation on the page is more vivid than a summary.
2. Follow good dramatic structure. Most screenwriters consciously follow a choice of structural models (Three Acts, The Hero’s Journey, etc.). Cleaving to such a model serves novelists well (especially the Three Act). It lessens “meandering” and delivers an ending that is a real ending. It is NOT less literary, it need not be trite.  But it’s powerful. Humans are wired to respond to a structured story.  
3. Be conscious of narrative drive. If the studio reader isn’t compelled to turn the page, your script won’t be considered. Screenwriters know one of the secrets is something called the “button out”, an old TV term for a bit of leading action or information at the end of each scene. The narrative function of this is to set up a mystery, a surprising bit of new information, a threat to a character, etc. The same device used to bring viewers back after commercials in vintage TV will keep your reader glued to your story.
4. Turns and juicy bits. Actors who break down a script for performance look for the “turn” in every scene. This is the moment when whatever the character started out wanting in the scene changes to something else. It can be motivated by an action (she slaps him, the roof caves in, they are interrupted), or new information (he finds her letters, she learns he’s married, the maid contradicts the alibi). This gives the actor something “juicy” to play, and your novel scene drags without it.
5. Brevity is the soul of good screenwriting. Ensure each scene, chapter, and incident conveys NEW information about the characters, the plot, the mood, the setting. Don’t shine the light on unimportant things. If you detail the messy papers on the desk, those papers must figure into the story.  More story, fewer words.

What screenwriters can learn from novelists

1. Point of view is important. Beginning screenwriters assume all scripts are omniscient. He goes there.  She does this.  He says that.  But how you choreograph the shots, how you indicate reactions, actually expresses a point of view and each screenplay scene belongs to one of the characters.  It is seen through his or her eyes.  You must consciously place your viewer “with” one of the characters just as novelists do with their careful choice of narrative voice.
2. Don’t shy away from theme.  Even though movies are “entertainment”, and Hollywood is famous for: “Messages are for Western Union”, if you actually write about something you care about (yes, even in a thriller) your work will have more dimension and will linger. Dare to have a theme. Dare to make a statement. Have nothing to say? Why are you writing?
3. Your location is almost another character, use it not only for mood, but for a very real contribution to the action, the theme, or influence on a character. In other words, don’t waste the words spent on description.
4. Know the interior monologue of your character. Novelists can put this on the page; screenwriters can’t. Mess up here, and your actor will deliver a variant on the laughable “What’s my motivation?” Or they’ll make up something you didn’t intend at all.  
5. Tone must resonate throughout. Novels reveal their genre instantly – comedy, noir, thriller, or whatever they intend. Screenwriters need to commit to tone and carry it through in both action and dialogue, and even scene description. Doing this with the brevity required for scripts is a real challenge, but vital to convey your vision.

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Bonnie MacBird is an award-winning screenwriter and producer, and author of new Sherlock Holmes adventures. Her long Hollywood career includes feature film development exec at Universal, the original screenplay for the movie Tron, three Emmy Awards for documentary writing and producing, and theatre credits as a playwright, actor and director. Bonnie teaches a popular screenwriting class at UCLA Extension. Her first Holmes novel Art in the Blood (2015, HarperCollins) has been translated into fourteen languages. The second, Unquiet Spirits (2017) will have its paperback release on April 5.

 

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