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Novel vs Screenplay, Round One

Many writers just starting out, default to what’s called a “Filmic” writing style. We’re products of our surroundings to a great extent, and we’ve all been exposed to film and television to the point that for many of us growing up with movies and television, A/V media has had an influence on our writing.

Understanding what you’ve been previously taught is useful in learning how to unlearn bad habits, and bad habits in this case means seeing your story as a screenplay that’s going on in your head. While one task of any writer is to bring a world to life, to an even greater extent, writing a good novel means setting aside the visuals and focusing on what’s going on inside the characters.

Visual writing conventions are easy to spot. Find the places where your writing is a visual explanation of action, and shorten or retell those moments in a better way.

When you explain what’s going on in a scene, you’re telling the reader things. Here’s a slightly exaggerated paragraph to illustrate what a “Tell” (as in Chekhov’s apocryphal “Show, don’t tell” statement) or “Filmic” style is all about:

Charles bends over and reaches his arm down, extending his hand out to a piece of paper lying on the ground. He takes the piece of paper in his hand, holding it between his fingers, then straightens up again.

These thirty nine words tell the reader exactly how Charles goes about picking up the note. Guess what? Boring! The reader has zero interest in how Charles moves to pick up the note. That’s just a stage direction. Worse yet, all the description waters down the writing to the point where the reader isn’t interested in the note, which is damaging to the story. Cut to the chase on physical actions:

Charles picks up the note.

From thirty nine words, to five. Clearing away the excess information is step one to good writing. Step two can be leaving it as is, which is fine, as far as that goes. If it doesn’t move the story forward in some way, dump it. But as I’ve mentioned to my writers, you can think of a story as a backpack filled with items. Once you dump out the stuff you don’t need (you packed an orange squeezer? Really?) then you can look at what you’ve deleted as space that’s now open for some useful, conscious writing.

Charles notices something lying crumpled-up on the floor. Oh my god. The note. Charles picks it up, a cold sweat starting up his back as he unfolds the bloody scrap of paper.

This sentence is down to thirty two words — still less than the original — and we’re already engaging the reader in Charles’ fear, we’ve given some unpleasant details about the note’s condition and so we’re adding tension about what the note might say, or where it came from. Move the story forward! Write better!

Want to learn more? Then off you go to read Novel vs. Screenplay, Round Two!

Looking for more tips? Here’s what’s up so far. More to come!

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