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Arts & Crafts: Screenwriting Techniques Adapted For the Novel

As I sit down to write this, I can hear my old high school teacher (old as in I had several after her, not in that she herself was old) saying “always start with a broad general statement and then move on to your thesis sentence.” But since I am incapable of coming up with a clever BGS, I’m just going to use the previous sentence and inelegantly barrel right into my thesis sentence: There are numerous skills and techniques from the field of screenwriting that can be applied to writing a novel.

But before we delve into them in this series of forthcoming articles, we should probably define the differences between screenplays and novels. Screenplays, if you’re not aware, are the 100-120 page outlines that the producers and director use to film the movie they’re working on. 99.9% of all screenplays adhere to the same format and most follow the same story template when telling their stories (we’ll get to that in another installment).

Also, screenplays are NEVER meant to be read directly by their audience. I like to think of them as the composer’s sheet music to a symphony: No one but the members of the orchestra are meant to ever see them, and the audience experiences what the composer wrote indirectly via the finished product of the performance of the symphony.

Novels are an entirely different beast in that they are meant to be consumed directly by the audience with no metaphoric middlemen. This means the author is speaking directly to the reader without a director, producer, actor, costume designer, sound department, etc. interpreting his/ her words. This makes it a much more intimate experience than screenwriting, which is never meant to be read.

It was this filtered interaction with my audience which initially drew me to screenwriting. Mainly because my prose has always been my greatest weakness as a writer, but by writing in the screenplay medium the audience would never firsthand witness my prosaic weakness. As such, I took a 15 year hiatus from writing prose out of fear.

This may sound rather silly in retrospect, but I think this has a lot to do with that direct and personal interaction with the reader. It also has a lot to do with the fact that the novel can fall into the category of “art” while screenwriting is more of a craft.

Although I’m aware there are as many different forms of the novel as there are writers, I generally break it down into either genre fare (horror, fantasy, sci-fi, chic-lit, etc.) or literature. And it was from the latter category of literature that my fear of exposing my prose came from. That’s because literature seems intent on defining itself as “high art,” which is striving to be the best of culture by elevating said culture. There’s a pretention that comes with high art, which I think focuses more on the form and beauty of the prose. But, to distill it down to intention, I believe the artist of literature is intent on creating something that will change the culture as a whole, while the craftsman (or woman, obviously) wants to create something useful; in this case entertaining to the audience.

Because screenwriting is more based on entertainment, and therefore more story-focused than execution-of-the-prose-focused, it has many more agreed upon techniques and skills for the craftsman to use. In screenwriting these techniques includes structure, treatments, character arcs, pacing, and knowing your genre; just to name a few.

Not all of these skills will be applicable to everyone, but they’re all probably good to know for writers of all mediums. I’m also a big fan of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), and a guiding tenant of that form of combat came from its godfather, Bruce Lee: “Absorb what is useful. Discard what is not. Add what is uniquely your own.”

So that’s pretty much the goal of this series of articles, to highlight some specific screenwriting skills and demonstrate how I used them. To belabor my MMA metaphor a moment more, these individual skills are the 1-2 combination punches, the single-leg takedown, and omoplatas I employed in my fight with my novels. Please take the ones that work for you and incorporate them. Ignore the ones that don’t fit with your practice.

And if you’ve found a technique you think I’ve overlooked, please let me know. I’m always looking to improve.

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MD Presley is a screenwriter, blogger and occasional novelist… which basically means he’s a layabout.  He has written two books on fantasy worldbuilding, and teaches worldbuilding techniques, tricks, and tips at Forging Fantasy Realms once a week on YouTube. 

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