Screenwriting Tricks for Authors
(Or... Watching movies for fun and profit!)
I first started writing these Screenwriting Tricks articles over on Murderati. Anyone here who blogs regularly will be able to understand this: after a year and a half of blogging I had completely run out of things to say about myself (without getting so personal that they would have thrown me off the blog).
But I had been teaching these screenwriting structure for authors workshops at various conferences, and I realized I actually had something to say about using film techniques to write better novels - something that people actually were interested in learning.
When I wrote my first novel in 2005, it was the first piece of fiction I’d ever written. The Harrowing got me a literary agent within a week and sold to St. Martin’s Press in a two-book deal two weeks after that, then went on to be nominated for a Bram Stoker Award (horror) and Anthony Award (mystery) for Best First Novel. Since The Harrowing was published in late 2006, I've had four more supernatural thrillers traditionally published (The Price, The Unseen, Book of Shadows and The Shifters), I’ve picked up four more book contracts and numerous foreign sales, and I've published my first indie thriller, The Space Between, and the workbook based on this blog, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors.
While every book sale and subsequent career has a lot to do with luck and timing, I also know that my own quick representation and sale had a lot to do with the fact that even though I was a first-time novelist, I had already written dozens of screenplays, some of which were original scripts that sold to various studios, some of which were novel adaptations I’d done on assignment. In other words, even though I was brand new to publishing, I’d been getting paid to tell stories for years. And I know my screenwriting background had a lot to do with my fast and painless entry into publishing - because my agent and editor said so.
The truth is, book agents and editors and the whole publishing business in general has been corrupted – I mean, influenced – by Hollywood. The blockbuster mentality is rampant. Even though the bottom line is always a great book, publishing houses increasingly want big ideas; fast, visceral, visual plots; and a big, high concept hook for marketing. And if you're indie publishing, it's even more important that your book stand out from the crowd.
So authors can give themselves an edge by using some of these film techniques to make their stories more immediately appealing and easily marketable – and by the way – to create better, more engaging books. I’ve found that screenwriting techniques are invaluable in my own novel writing, and I think any novelist, from aspiring to multiply-published, can benefit from these screenwriting tricks of the trade.
But when I started teaching writing workshops (a happy and unexpected perk of being an author), I realized very quickly that the storytelling techniques that we Hollywood types take for granted are a huge revelation to people outside the glass dome of the film business. Granted, I’d had a lot of exposure to this stuff – not only as a working screenwriter, but also before that as a story analyst for various production companies, and along the way as a member of the Board of Directors of the WGA West, the screenwriters’ union, and as the founder of WriterAction.com, a private message board of over 2000 WGA screenwriters.
But I also think that this stuff is just in the air out here. Without even half trying, just by virtue of living in Los Angeles and working in the business, I was automatically exposed to the techniques that successful filmmakers have used since the beginning of the form, and that have been painstakingly detailed by story and scriptwriting gurus such as Robert McKee, John Truby, Christopher Vogler, Linda Seger, Viki King, Michael Hauge, Blake Snyder, and the wonderful, late Frank Daniel, who taught screenwriting in the USC Film School.
So my workshops and this blog, and the Screenwriting Tricks For Authors workbook are my way of making these screenwriting techniques and tricks available to novelists and aspiring novelists who may not live anywhere near Hollywood, but who could get the same benefit I and other author friends have reaped from applying screenwriting techniques to our novel writing. And aspiring screenwriters seem to get a lot out of it, too.
Some novelists who randomly come across this blog have been wondering why I spend the bulk of my time analyzing films when I’m talking mostly to authors. Good question.
The thing is, film is such a compressed and concise medium that it’s like seeing an X ray of a story. In film you have two hours, really a little less, to tell the story. It’s a very stripped-down form that even so, often has enormous emotional power. Plus we’ve usually seen more of these movies than we’ve read specific books, so they’re a more universal form of reference for discussion.
So it’s often easier to see the mechanics of structure in a film than in a novel.
And realistically, film has had an enormous influence on contemporary novels, and on publishing. Editors love books with the high concept premises, pacing, and visual and emotional impact of movies, so being aware of classic and blockbuster films and the film techniques that got them that status can help you write novels that will actually sell in today’s market.
And even beyond that – studying movies is fun, and fun is something writers just don’t let themselves have enough of. If you train yourself to watch for some of these structural elements, then every time you go to the movies or watch something on television, you’re actually honing your craft, (even on a date or while spending quality time with your loved ones!) and after a while you won’t even notice you’re doing it.
When the work is play, you’ve got the best of all possible worlds.
The two pillars to the techniques I work with on this blog are:
1. Basic film story structure: the Three-Act, Eight Sequence structure.
USC Film School teaches it, the screenwriting story structure gurus teach it, all film execs and producers are aware of it even if it’s only in a vague way, and even screenwriters who claim not to follow this structure pattern (and I could name names!) do it to some extent or another. Now you can learn it – for free instead of for hundreds or thousands of dollars. It's easy - people in my workshops get it within an hour.
2. Your own personalized story structure notebook.
Along with watching and analyzing movies to learn the Three-Act, Eight-Sequence structure, I am urging you to create your own, personalized story structure and genre manual, using books and films that are specific to the story and genre you’re working on, and more importantly, that have had the maximum emotional and intellectual effect on you.
It’s very simple – in order to write stories like the ones that move you, you need to look at the specific stories that affect you and figure out what those authors and filmmakers are doing to get the effect they do. So what I keep prodding you to do in these articles is - make a lot of lists: lists of your favorite movies, lists of your favorite hero/ines, lists of your favorite endings, lists of the most suspenseful stories you have ever seen or read.
Every genre has its own structural patterns and its own tricks – screenwriter Ryan Rowe says it perfectly: “Every genre has its own game that it’s playing with the audience.”
For example – with a mystery, the game is “Whodunit?” You are going to toy with a reader or audience’s expectations and lead them down all kinds of false paths with red herrings so that they are constantly in the shoes of the hero/ine, trying to figure the puzzle out.
But with a romantic comedy or classic romance, there’s no mystery involved. 99.99% of the time the hero and heroine are going to end up together. The game in that genre is often to show, through the hero and heroine, how we are almost always our own worst enemies in love, and how we throw up all kinds of obstacles to keep ourselves from getting what we want.
So - if you’re writing a story like It’s A Wonderful Life, it’s not going to help you much to study Apocalypse Now. A story that ends with a fallen hero/ine is not going to have the same story shape as one that ends with a transcended hero/ine (although if both kinds of films end up on your list of favorite stories, you might find one is the other in reverse. That’s why you need to make your own lists!)
Once you start looking at the games that genres play, you will also start to understand the games that you most love, and that you want to play with your readers and audience.
My personal favorite game is – “Is it supernatural or is it psychological?” I love to walk the line between the real and unreal, so I am constantly creating story situations in which there are multiple plausible explanations for the weird stuff that’s going on, including mental illness, drug-induced hallucinations, and outright fraud. That’s why my master list for any book or script I write will almost always include The Haunting of Hill House and The Shining, both classic books (and films) that walk the line between the supernatural and the psychological.
But what works for me structurally is not necessarily going to do it for you.
If you take the time to study and analyze the books and films that have had the greatest impact on you, personally, or that are structurally similar to the story you’re writing, or both, that’s when you really start to master your craft. Making the lists and analyzing those stories will help you brainstorm your own, unique versions of scenes and mega-structures that work in the stories on your master list; it will help you figure out how your particular story will work. And doing this analysis will imbed story structure in your head so that constructing a story becomes a fun and natural process for you.
Another great benefit of making the master list is that it helps you “brand” yourself as an author. Agents, editors, publishing houses, publicists, sales reps, bookstores, reviewers, media interviewers, librarians, and most importantly, your readers – all of these people want to be able to categorize you and your books. You need to be able to tell all of these people exactly what it is you write, and why it’s unique. That’s part of your job as a professional author.
So the first order of business is to make your master list.
And I encourage you to splurge on a nice big beautiful notebook to work in. We poor writers live so much in our heads it’s important to give ourselves toys and rewards to make the work feel less like work, and also to cut down on the drinking.
1. Go to an office or stationery store or shop on line and find yourself a wonderful notebook to work in.
2. List ten books and films that are similar to your own story in structure and/or genre. (at least five books and three movies if you’re writing a book, at least five movies if you’re writing a script.)
Or – if you’re trying to decide on the right project for you to work on, then make a list of ten books and films that you wish you had written.
Here's the link to the Table of Contents of the key posts in a relative order. But if you don't feel like hunting and clicking, and would like all of this information and more in an actual start-to-finish workbook, I have two available, just $2.99 in any e format:
Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.
- Smashwords (includes pdf and online viewing)
- Barnes & Noble/Nook
- Amazon UK
- Amaxon DE (Eur. 2.40)
- Smashwords (includes online viewing and pdf file)
- Barnes & Noble/Nook
- Amazon UK
- Amazon DE
And I’m always up for suggestions about how to make the site more navigable for people. As with most everything I do in life, I’ve just been making it up as I go along.