5 Things I Learned from Screenwriting

My fans know I’ve been writing a screenplay for my latest novel, Unproven, because various networks have expressed interest in purchasing it for either an animated movie or a 54 episode animated series.  What fans don’t know is how awesome and educational the process has been.  I’d never considered doing such a thing and I had no idea how much growth would come from converting a novel into a screenplay.  So, I want to share some thoughts about the process and how it’s helped me – and how it could help fellow authors who follow my blog.

It’s More Helpful than Writing Short Stories

Once upon a time, it was standard fare for authors to work their way into the novel publishing world by writing short stories. Brandon Sanderson mentions this fairly frequently on Writing Excuses.  Many writing coaches encourage novelists to write several short stories just for the experience – it forces you to get at the heart of a story and flush it out in just a few thousand words. I did that a few years ago and ultimately published a compilation of some of those stories with four other novelists.  While I learned from the experience and I’m very glad that I rode that sidebar train for a season, it wasn’t nearly as influential on my writing as my experience drafting a screenplay.  I could argue that writing short stories helped me to write flashback or dream sequences or (perhaps) character origin stories but it did little or nothing to help me with story structure, vivid descriptions, or character development – three indispensable features of a great novel.  Undoubtedly, it helped me to write more succinctly and I’m grateful for whatever intangible growth I can’t currently identify but that experience doesn’t begin to compare with what I learned from screenplay writing. That world forcibly demands succinct writing in every scene, both in prose and in visual depictions. Arguably, each scene is a short story so I suppose one could make an argument that they are very similar that way but with screenwriting, each scene has to be a meaningful (but incredibly) short story that contributes to the effectiveness of the overall story.

If it Doesn’t Move the Plot Forward, Cut it out.

You’ve heard that before. I’ve heard that before. The parallel mantras “If it doesn’t drive character growth or engender strong thematic emotion, cut it out” in connection with novels but it’s sometimes very difficult to make that assessment.  You have at least a strong 400 pages to explore your characters, push your labyrinth of a plot along, and create the emotional punch you’re looking for.  That allows a lot of exploration to make your message carry the strong emotional punch you want your reader to experience.

With Unproven, I had a cast of perhaps fifty characters, the vast majority of which required significant time and energy to ensure that they were integral to the plot before introducing them into the story.  With the screenplay, I had to whittle that number down to eight main characters with the rest functioning only as very minor, supporting characters.  That required merging and adding characters – a common occurrence to be sure. But it also required me to reevaluate the significance of many details.  When writing the screenplay, I developed a technique where I read a paragraph and then deleted everything that didn’t convert well into the screenplay.  Sometimes these details are what make novels better than movies: you can delve into the head of your characters more, tease the reader with red herrings, foreshadow events, etc. in greater detail than a movie depiction would ever allow.  However, in this process, I learned something else.  When I write action scenes or dialogue, I try to include several details to make the scene come alive in the reader’s mind. I receive a lot of laudatory comments from readers about this so I feel fairly confident that I succeed in that endeavor. Of course, that doesn’t mean there is no room for improvement … and that is precisely what screenwriting showed me.

When translating these passages to the screenplay, I had to ask: “How can I show this in a visual cue instead of getting into my POV’s mind?” or “How can I translate these long, vivid descriptions into a few sentences for the animators?” and “How do I precisely describe the tone of voice for the actor in such a way as to ensure the viewer gets X message instead of Y message?”  Sometimes, when I finished going through that process, I had to ask myself: “Now that I’ve cut this down to the bare bones, does it retain any relevance to the story?” and sometimes, the answer to that question was “no.”  Why?  Well, one easy answer is because when you modify the cast (see next point), certain details lose relevance because it advances a subplot you had to eliminate from the screenplay.  The more painful answer, however, is that occasionally, we authors enjoy certain scenes or ideas for their creative value but they really don’t belong in the current book we’re working on and we need to admit that it would be better in another novel.  That, of course, isn’t a black and white issue – it’s an artistic choice with many nuances. A scene may not advance the plot or grow our protagonist but it may grow a mentor enough to make his/her advice more impactful and that may justify an otherwise unnecessary scene’s inclusion. When writing a screenplay, you’re forced to analyze this issue more carefully and that, I believe, made me a better storyteller.  I’ll let you be that judge when Sea Dragon Apocalypse is finished.

Modifying the Cast Creates Unexpected Results

I had to merge a thoughtful, benevolent king with a ruthless, war mongering king.  I had to merge a grunt soldier with his superior officer and thus eliminate a significant storyline from the screenplay. I had to delete several characters.  None of those changes really surprised me.  When I first started converting the novel to a screenplay, I foresaw all of these implications. It was adding a character that really shocked me.  He changed the tone of every single scene where he shows up and he required me to ask a new question for every one of those scenes: “How is he reacting?” or “What is he doing?” That is a fun process when writing a novel but I was shocked at how fun it was to create a new character after the novel was finished and then insert him into the novel to see how that changed everything.  Before I explain that, let me explain why he was necessary.

Unproven focuses a lot on the main character’s character growth. Like me, Shadow is perhaps overly complicated in some ways and that sort of complication comes along with a lot of introspection and self-analysis.  And that doesn’t translate to the silver screen without those cheesy voiceovers that have been relegated to bad comedies and silly scenes. What is an author to do?  Somehow, you have to “show” what he’s thinking or find someone to share those very personal, self introspecting thoughts with. How do you show self doubt, feelings of inadequacy, embarrassment, etc.? Well, there are tools but often those tools take a lot more energy than a few bits of simple dialog and those tools are also less impactful in some situations. In Shadow’s case, the answer was: “Give him R2D2” – well, almost. I needed a sidekick who was a great listener and while he didn’t have a lot to offer to the overall plot, he could reveal Shadow’s thoughts and … he provided comic relief.

Writing a young adult novel requires a certain level of comedy but not tons. There is a place for teen novels that are simply strong narratives that push the reader to evaluate life’s challenges.  Cartoons, however, are not so straightforward.  They need comic relief or they’re never going to perform well.  My new sidekick allowed me the opportunity to insert comic relief when there wasn’t anything funny going on. Before long, I found him doing funny stuff in even my most dramatic, scary scenes and that is precisely what I needed. While that end result was precisely what I needed to make the screenplay successful, it was also quite surprising.

“Show, Don’t Tell” Reaches a New Level

Every serious author has heard the mantra “Show, Don’t Tell” so many times that it initiates visceral responses.  I try to remain humble so my visceral response doesn’t become spontaneous-ear-covering but, to be honest, it puts me in speed reading mode when I’m reading articles about writing.

One page of screenplay roughly translates into one minute of movie/animation so every scene needs truncated to the absolute bare minimum information that gets all of your points across while still carrying a strong emotional punch.  Often, that is done by using the strength of the medium: visual cues.  As a result, when writing for a screenplay, you focus almost all of your energy in converting scene descriptions, POV observations/thoughts, and insights into visual cues.  You have to translate your passage explaining how your protagonist was very puzzled over several details he’d observed into a brief visual story where the viewer can connect those same hints to make the same conclusion. I’ve seen it done in movies before but I had no idea how hard it was to create those winning combinations. I’ll forever rest in newfound appreciation for those nuances when I see that done well.

In short, “Show, Don’t Tell” is the summum bonum of screenwriting. If you want to enhance your chops with this skill, screenwriting is your best medium to do so.  I’ve been shocked a couple of times when I chopped four or five pages from my novel into a half page (in screenplay format where there are huge margins, large spaces between paragraphs, etc.).  While I still find the novel version more meaningful because of several details that had to be cut, it opened my eyes to the fact that I could be more succinct in my storytelling in some passages if I thought through visual cues more carefully. That’s “Show, Don’t Tell” on an entirely new level.

Story Analysis is a Very Useful Tool

I could write a whole book on this topic – as have many others. I’ve taken courses from James Patterson, David Farland, Brandon Sanderson, and a host of YouTubers worthy of mention in another post. I’ve read On Writing, Characters and Viewpoint, Save the Cat, and other books on the topic and I highly recommend all of them.  I decided when I wrote Unproven that they all probably knew a lot more than I did about storytelling.  After all, they’re all highly successful authors and I’m … budding, right?  So, I deliberately followed their advice on multiple levels.  Three acts? Check.  Seven acts? Check. Hero’s Journey? Check. Three plot lines (external, internal, romance)? Check.  An “all is lost” moment?  Check.  Etc.  The beautiful thing about all of that was that when I began translating the novel to screenplay format, I was able to identify the key structure of my story AFTER removing dozens of characters and intricate character arcs.  THAT was invaluable.  It helped me retell the same story with a boatload less information while still allowing for a powerful ending without effectively rewriting my novel.

In sum, writing a screenplay was a great experience for me.  Well, to be more accurate, writing a screenplay has been a great experience (I have a few scenes left and I have to shorten some scenes still).  I haven’t been paid for it yet.  I haven’t inked any deals yet.  But the lessons I learned have been extremely valuable and have honed my skills in ways that I never would have expected.  Because of that, I used Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat screenwriting formula to outline Sea Dragon Apocalypse. I haven’t inked every scene yet but I’ve got the structure locked down and I have several scenes ready to nail in their proper places. But more importantly, I believe I can write a much visually stronger story, deliver stronger emotional punches, and simplify my future efforts to write that screenplay for the silver screen.

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