General Writing Thoughts: Screenwriting

Whether or not you work in Hollywood, I submit that screenwriting should be a part of every novelist’s routine. At the very least, it can provide a welcome change from writing standard prose, and it provides a host of different challenges for a writer. Let me explain:

My body of work in screenwriting includes a few shorts, some script-polishing, and two full-length scripts, one of which I approached with the same intensity that I do my novels. I planned it out and wrote several drafts – six or seven by my last count. I also had the pleasure to do these rewrites under the guidance of Karl Mueller, a good friend of mine and an honest-to-goodness Hollywood screenwriter. (Keep your eyes peeled this year for the post-apocalyptic thriller The Divide. Karl wrote it. No big deal.)

I look back on this experience with great fondness, as Karl essentially gave me a master-class in screenwriting. At a glance, screenwriting may seem like roughly the same task as novel-writing, but in my experience, it calls upon a writer to flex an entirely different set of creative muscles.

Karl once memorably described screenwriting as a kind of haiku. Because so many scripts (ideally) must be the same 90-120 page length, there’s an economy of space built directly into the format. (To be sure, there are longer scripts out there, but they usually come from the likes of Aaron Sorkin or Stephen Zaillian – established writers who can write as long as they want.)

While working on my script, a rowdy action-adventure with zombies, the need to conserve space forced me to describe actions and set up scenes in the most spare – yet evocative – language possible.

I also learned a great many maxims about screenwriting that I think any novelist can benefit from.

• Start your scenes as far into the scene as possible.

• End your scenes as soon as possible.

• Keep the action moving logically forward.

• Put your heroes in escalating states of danger or distress.

Of course, not all of these maxims is 100 percent applicable all the time, but for a writer like me – who enjoys writing action-packed yarns – they’re good to keep in mind.

I also find screenwriting to be invaluable practice for writing dialogue. Despite the effort I put into writing vivid and concise stage directions, let’s face it – stage directions don’t make it onscreen. Dialogue does. Even though novel-writing is a solitary activity, it’s replete with performance. Every character in a novel is a unique performance – for me, at least – and when I craft a character, I try to call on my training as an actor to help give that character a specific voice, personality and physical existence. Screenwriting bolsters this skill set by demanding that authors write lively, crackling, playable dialogue – and when I’m writing dialogue in a novel, I still perform parts of it out loud to make sure it’s playable.

As a writer, I also find the need to cleanse my creative palette in between large projects (meaning, novels), and I’ve found that screenwriting is a great way to keep myself writing while flexing the aforementioned different set of creative muscles.

So even if you’re not a Hollywood screenwriter, I respectfully submit that screenwriting is a great way to activate new parts of your creative mind. It does for me.

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