Thursday, March 10, 2011

Screenwriting tips for novelists

I used to ignore anything to do with screen-writing. I wasn't exactly a snob - but well, yeah, maybe I was. Scripts just seem so bare-boned! They only come alive when actors start to work their magic!

Turns out, just because you don't plan to write in that format doesn't mean you can't learn a whole lot from it.

Laura Pauling has an excellent post on Should writers follow screen-writing tips, with good reasons why you might, and might not. Using Save the Cat, a screen-writing book by Blake Snyder, she does a bang-up analysis of How to Train a Dragon (movie) and Princess for Hire (book). I learned a ton, and I'm waiting for my bookstore get in my order of Save the Cat.

In the meantime, I had fun looking up some screen-writing stuff on the web.

10 screen-writing tips you can learn from Raiders of the Lost Ark: at least five of these tips apply to novels as well as movies. Here's one that really jumped at me: the Power of an Active Protagonist. This refers to:
the hero who makes his own way, who drives the story forward instead of letting the story drive him. In the very first scene, it’s Indiana Jones who’s going after that gold idol. It’s him driving the pursuit of the Ark. It’s him who decides to seek out Marion. It’s him who digs in the alternate location in Cairo. Indiana Jones' CHOICES are what push this story forward.
(Important to note: these are tips, not rules. Some of my favorite characters are ones that have to deal with situations that are dropped on them. But even with reactive characters, it's good that they react actively. Ahem. React actively? Anyone got a less tongue-twisterish way to say that?)

Another screen-writing post: the 11 laws of great storytelling. The first few of these 11 "laws" are specific to movies, but when you get down to #8 - #11 there are some things that novelists might prick up their ears and pay attention too as well, such as
Be aware of theme, and keep it consistent throughout the script. Theme is a tough nut to crack. When I ask my students the theme of Die Hard, they often restate the film’s core concept (or, in Hollywood terms, the “logline”), saying something like, “It’s about a cop thwarting a group of international terrorists while saving his wife and a bunch of innocent people.” While this is true, it doesn’t quite touch on theme... Die Hard is really about a man trying to reconnect with his wife.
I think this applies to novelists because I've recently read several posts about what agents want out of a pitch. They want to hear your book's title, genre, wordcount, logline and THEME.

Here's a website,, that provides structure analysis of many movies including Inception, Toy Story 2, Thelma and Louise, Juno, A Beautiful Mind, The Incredibles, Jaws... the list goes on. An incrediable story-teller's resource. Alot of the analysis is based on the Hero's Journey, an analysis of the universal (maybe) structure that underlies all (maybe) stories. Just to prove how powerful this Hero's Journy thingie is, at first glance you may not see much in common between James Cameron's Avatar and Disney's Pocahantas. Then again:

One last amazing resource: a series of posts called the "Hero Project" at the Cockeyed Caravan, a screen-writing blog. Look for the Hero Project in the side bar of this blog to see a list of all the posts, but it basically culminates in this amazing post, Putting It Altogether, where you get a great analysis of Luke Skywalker and Han Solo and- (be careful) - maybe an analysis of your own life, too.

Okay my writerly friends: on a scale of 1-10, how helpful do you think screen-writing tips are for novelists?

Right now I'm at 7, but like all things with me, that's subject to whims and moods (grin). On a totally unrelated note, an update on my writing progress. Stalled. Severly stalled (not blocked... just... need to push past this awkward transition scene I'm in right now).

The past week I've been having fun with this little saying:

The early bird gets the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.

I'm soooooo not a morning person. This saying provides hope for late-risers and maybe a little also for stalled writers.


  1. Save The Cat is amazing. You should see my copy... it is all beat up, because I go back to it so often.

  2. Interesting you mentioned this. I've just got my invite/reminder for NaNo Screenwriting month for April. :)

  3. I'll have to look into Save the Cat.

    And I love the "second mouse."

    Hope you get through the transition soon.

  4. I think we can learn a lot from screenplays. Hey - I always use my theater background right? Now, writing one? IDK, I don't think it's my cup of tea.

  5. Gosh screen-play writing - paring a scene down to dialogue and setting and plot - always handy for novel writing! It's a course I'd love to do some time this year or maybe next year! I hope so!!!

    Take care

  6. I don't know enough about screen writing to put it's helpfulness on a scale of 1-10, but it makes sense that all authors can benefit from it in many ways. When I read EVERYTHING IS FINE by Ann Dee Ellis, I felt like I was reading a script, but I liked it.

  7. I've heard so much about Save the Cat. Maybe I'll have to get it, too. I definitely think we can learn a lot from screenwriting.

    Thanks for all those links and tips!

  8. Reacting actively - that's perfect!!

    Good writing comes in many forms. One of these days I wouldn't mind giving script writing a shot! :)

  9. Thanks. I didn't go to all your links, but would like to when I have more time. This post was helpful to me right now because I'm sorting through my plot for the heart of my novel in order to write my logline and prepare a pitch. Christy

  10. I think screenwriting tips are verra helpful. The bare bones without setting and descriptions leave the description of the plot exposed so you can see where it bogs down.

  11. You have so many golden links and tips in one entry I don't know what to do with myself.

    Except say, "Actually, I was thinking about Pocahontas/Ferngully the whole time I was watching Avatar. Even the scene with the big yellow truck destroying the mother/hexus tree? Yeah. Ferngully."

    Now off to Save the Cat...

  12. I'd give it a high score (8-9) for those who struggle with story structure and plot.
    It's the part of story writing that can definitely be taught.

    Have a lovely weekend,

  13. This is such an interesting post! I totally noticed the similarities between Avatar and Pocahontas, to the point where the unoriginal plot (big picture, not the other species thing--that was pretty original) bothered me. The visuals were amazing, but the storyline? Felt a little borrowed :) Loved the active protagonist example from Indiana Jones!

  14. I've read Laura's posts on HTTYD as well as Alexandra Sokoloff's on story structure with examples from movies, and most recently Lydia Sharp's posts on Save the Cat. From the latter I ended up writing an outline and starting a new WIP. I've reserved Save the Cat from my library and intend to devour it and fill in the rest of my outline. So I'm like a 10 right now, full of love for the screenwriting tips.
    - Sophia.

  15. One of my crit group members told the rest of us about Save the Cat last year and now all five of us have read it. For me it made so much sense (especially establishing that opening shot). I highly recommend it for novelists!

  16. Great post, Margo! I love correlations between movies and writing. There's so much we can learn from film.

    The real reason I stopped by was to say thank you for your thoughtful comment on my 'Author Vs Author' post. I really only write those types of posts to hear what readers (like you) think. I learn so much, and I truly feel that the comments make the blog.

    Hope to continue to see you around my blog,


  17. I haven't read Save the Cat, but I do have another screenwriting book I learned from (also did breakdowns and comparisons of movies - this author really loved Napoleon Dynamite references!). Hmm, might need to go skim it again as I tackle another round of edits!

  18. I think the crux of it all is that a good screenplay and a good novel tell a story well. It is all about the storytelling. I think there are things a novel should do different from a screenplay, and vice-versa.

    For me, a novel is much more personal. I mean, usually I am reading it all by myself, right? Where as a movie is something social. You share the movie experience with others in the theatre, seeing things at the same time and all that. So there is maybe a difference of pace.

    But again, the most important part of each is storytelling.


  19. I miss the days when movies had plot. Raiders was soo good. Nowadays movies are made from so many young adult books that have no plot. It's like there's a ton of young adult authors out there that are just writing ABOUT a character instead of what the character does. I don't understand how or why this is even interesting but in the end, I guess it really isn't because a lot of what is made into film makes money but critics agree with me and bomb the heck out of this trash with rotten tomatoes critiques.

  20. Great post, Margo! My cousin is on a screenwriting course and we share tips galore and find each other's guidelines so helpful.

    Off now to grab a copy of Save the Cat....

  21. Great post! I'll have to look for Save the Cat, and those websites sound good too. Are you participating in Script Frenzy in April? Not sure I am, since I am knee deep in a revision when I should be at least shoulder deep.

  22. This is such a fantastic post! Excellent links, tips and I especially love the Pocahontas/Avatar photo!

    Thank you for visiting my blog :-)

  23. Hehe, I love every part of this post!! The Pocahontas/Avatar thing is crazy, isn't it? I thought there were some similarities when I saw Avatar but this sums it up very well. Also, I LOVE your quote about early rising. Glad we are both night owls :) Do you do your writing at night as well??

  24. Excellent post. i think screenwriting tips are just as helpful for novels as they are for movies. The end result is different but in terms of getting to the heart of what's going on in the plot and between characters i think it's equally valid.

  25. I can totally see how screen writing and novel writing are similar. These are great tips. I need to pick up a copy of SAVE THE CAT!

  26. I think that it's interesting what we can learn from other genres and kinds of writing. Always something to learn, isn't there? :)

  27. LOL I think you know how I feel on this topic. I'm now reading SAVE THE CAT. Wow, that's two screenwriting books in a row. And two individuals recommended another one on my blog yesterday that I have on hold at the library. :D

  28. @Stina
    What was the one recommended to you?

  29. I'm at a 9, but that's after already learning a LOT about writing from novelists. I think we can learn a lot from all the arts, but screenwriting is particularly apt -more and more as time goes on, too.

  30. Hi there, I am a new follower and found you on 'show me the voice' contest. Mine is up early beings I am heading to a conference - so if you want to swing over for a warm up critique -I believe red ink is love and you won't offend me in any way.

    I have never thought about screen and book writing as having such cross-over help. Thanks for th AH_HA moment.
    I have also been doing some thinking about theme and symbolism - I have a post about how Hunger games uses the same symbols as Farhenheit 451. I also have a post on how we can stop writers block - called 'I write in the shower' that you might like - or at least get a good laugh at.
    I very much liked reading your post and will check back again soon --- Howlynn

  31. Also (if this hasn't already been mentioned), read 'Story' by Robert McKee. It's about screenwriting, but a good story is a good story (at least with respect to commercial success). Sometimes prose writers tend to overestimate not only their stylistic talents, but also the value of style/the way the book is written itself. In reality, it is important but even a brilliantly written novel is not going to keep the vast majority of readers turning pages (aside from a few avante guard and/or college students forced to read certain novels) when the story itself is not very good. The opposite (or inverse, or whatever) is not true, however. Take a crappily written novel that has a great, compelling story, and with the right marketing it can be very successful (I can think of some hugely successful examples here).

    The point is that as novelists, we can all learn a great deal from screenwriters (who, on average, are probably much more successful in selling their work than most of us). They are not so concerned with style or technique (after all, the public for the most part will never read their work) but must instead have kick-ass stories. Imagine a well-written novel that also has a truly great story--that is what will get you published.

    Please excuse any typos as I wrote this on a mobile device.



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