Happy Monday, RU Crew! Please welcome RU Contributor Kris Bock!
‘Tis the season – for holiday romances on Lifetime and the Hallmark Channel. Take a break from your binge-watching and let’s look at what we as novelists can learn from the movies.
Script writers, who are limited to what can be seen on screen, understand the value of a good scene. In movies, scenes are obvious. Each one starts when the camera switches to a new location or jumps ahead in time. The camera angle may change in one scene, perhaps focusing on different characters, so long as a single action sequence continues.
In books, scenes aren’t always so obvious. Still, imagine a sequence of action or dialogue from your novel playing out on film. If it could happen in one continuous episode, you have a scene.
What if you have sections of writing where nothing visual is happening – nothing happening right now that could be shown on film? Then you may have slipped out of your scene into an information dump where you’re summarizing background information. Even interior monologues should have something filmable. What’s your character doing while she thinks? (Ideally, the answer is something interesting.)
Weaving your backstory into your scenes through action and dialogue will pick up the pace, make the writing flow better, and create a more cinematic story. But simply having scenes isn’t enough to make a novel dramatic. A good scene moves the story forward. It reveals something interesting about the characters. And of course, it entertains the audience. Easy, right?
Script writers must show characters through action and dialog. What we see and hear suggests what the character is thinking, and the audience fills in the blanks.
Novelists have more options. Dialogue may be replaced by a character’s thoughts. Description must be written, since readers can’t see the images for themselves. Novelists can and should take advantage of all the tools in their toolbox. However, there are disadvantage to an overfull toolbox. It’s tempting to dawdle on loving description, to explain decades of history, or to let the character ponder the world through long interior monologues. All that can slow the story and bore the reader. By focusing primarily on the action and dialogue in a scene, and using the other tools sparingly, the novelist picks up the pace.
The action and dialogue should support each other, though not necessarily copy each other. Screenwriter Karen Stillman says, “I loved the show House because it used dialogue in such a clever way. The characters would often be having just one conversation but bouncing back and forth between two topics – the medical case and a personal issue. And they’d often be having this conversation while treating a patient, so there was action as well.”
Can you weave your dialogue with action? Can you have multiple things happening in one scene?
Came Late, Left Early
Part of making a screenplay simple and compelling involves starting and ending the scene in the right place. The next time you’re watching a movie, notice how it cuts from scene to scene. It can jump to a new time and place, trusting the audience to understand. Novelists may want clearer transitions, but often a short phrase will do: In the morning…. Weeks passed before…. The next time she saw him….
“Most screenwriting books say to start late and end early, and I totally agree,” says Stillman, whose credits include the TV movies Smoke Screen; They Shoot Divas, Don’t They; and Hit and Run. “Have faith that if you start late, your audience will be able to figure out what’s been said until that point. And, whenever possible, leave them wanting.”
“If I can find a clever or interesting way to transition out of one scene and into the next, I will,” Stillman adds. “But sometimes a hard cut is the only thing that makes sense.”
Keep It Moving, Keep Them Reading
Good scriptwriters also know that every scene has a goal. Comedy and drama come from a character trying to overcome obstacles to reach a goal. The goal does not have to be achieved by the scene’s end, but the ending should hurl the characters and viewers into the next scene. That is true for novels as well.
Focusing on story goals is also helpful when considering which scenes to keep or cut. “If in doubt, throw it out,” Stillman says. “Executives receive so many submissions; the one thing I never want to do is bore them. Sometimes when I’m writing, I’ll give a draft of my project to a few colleagues and say, ‘Mark the pages where you stopped to make a phone call, to go to the fridge, to check your email.’ If two or more people stop at the same spot, I know I have a problem there.”
Studying movies or screenplays – or other novels – is a great way to learn. Stillman was writing a pilot for Lifetime at the time of this interview. She said, “I need to introduce – and distinguish – six characters relatively quickly. So I’ve been reading pilots and movies that do so effectively. I think it helps to study writing in the same way one would study math or science. On what page does the writer reveal character traits? Relationships? Various plot points? What’s said? What’s not said?”
You Ought to Be in Pictures
Novelists who can learn to think cinematically can write more dramatic books, and isn’t that what we all want? As a bonus, such novels have a greater chance of catching a movie studio’s attention.
“I’m reading a novel called Bond Girl,” Stillman said, “and I just finished a scene where a woman in very high heels rushes around Manhattan in a cab, trying to transport a huge wheel of cheese. The minute I read it, I thought, I bet this book has been optioned. And it had. Granted, the theme of the novel is fresh and interesting, and there are several scenes that have memorable visuals. But that wheel of cheese was just so, well, cinematic.”
Try imagining your novel as a movie. How would it translate to the screen? It doesn’t have to be packed with death-defying action, of course, depending on the subgenre. Still, if you have scenes that would be merely two talking heads, reconsider. Could you make those scenes more dramatic by adding some kind of action? Maybe you have a mother and daughter arguing. Something as simple having that argument while making Christmas cookies could add opportunities for tension, comedy, and subtext.
As a novelist, we can embrace the special opportunities of the printed page. But we may also want to think like scriptwriters sometimes. By doing so, we can make our stories more cinematic. That translates into more drama and excitement for modern readers raised on film.
What’s your favorite holiday movie? What does it do that you might want to do in your writing?
Let’s Schmooze: Script writer Douglas Eboch’s blog with articles on story structure and script writing techniques. Many of these can be adapted for novels. (Full disclosure: he’s my brother!)
Wordplay: A site on writing scripts with essays and a discussion forum.
Scriptnotes podcasts, available on iTunes, covers screenwriting and industry topics.
Advanced Plotting, by Chris Eboch
The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master, by Martha Alderson
Elements of Fiction Writing – Scene & Structure, by Jack M. Bickham
Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time, by Jordan Rosenfeld
Plot & Structure, by James Scott Bell
Kris Bock writes novels of suspense and romance with outdoor adventures and Southwestern landscapes. Fans of Mary Stewart and Barbara Michaels will want to check out Kris Bock’s romantic adventures. “Counterfeits is the kind of romantic suspense novel I have enjoyed since I first read Mary Stewart’s Moonspinners.” 5 Stars – Roberta at Sensuous Reviews blog
Read excerpts at www.krisbock.com or visit her Amazon page. Sign up for the Kris Bock newsletter for announcements of new books, sales, and more.
Kris writes for children under the name Chris Eboch. Her book Advanced Plotting helps writers fine-tune their plots, while You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers offers great insight to beginning and intermediate writers. Learn more at https://chriseboch.com/ or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog.