Let’s explore some book writing and screenwriting parallels because at the end of the day – storytelling is storytelling.
“Trust your own instinct. Your mistakes might as well be your own, instead of someone else’s.” – Billy Wilder
I like to joke that the Writers Guild of America in Los Angeles must have an entire wing in my name from all the drafts of screenplays I registered with them over the years. When I first started writing scripts, I had an obsessive need to make sure every brilliant word I penned, usually during lunch hours at my 9-5 day job, was registered with a higher authority than my Brother Word Processor. Looking back, I really had little to worry about unless there was some rogue screenwriting bandit in search of bad to mediocre beginner screenplays.
But somewhere amidst all those dozens of drafts – I learned how to write movies. Later, I translated what I’d learned, to spicing up the memoirs and other nonfiction books I wrote as a book ghostwriter.
Here are 3 big book writing and screenwriting parallels I’ve discovered:
In Screenwriting: The Logline. A one sentence, clear and compelling description of the story in the screenplay. The “WIIFM” (What’s in it for me?) for the movie’s audience – the answer to the question: What’s interesting about this movie and why should I care about it?
For example, recognize this one? “A thief who steals corporate secrets through the use of dream-sharing technology is given the inverse task of planting an idea into the mind of a CEO.”
Check out these examples of famous loglines! How many can you match up with their movies?
In Books: The Reader Promise Statement. The WIIFM for your readers – what they’ll ultimately walk away with if they read your book – knowledge, inspiration, an entertainment experience, new ideas, etc. How can you draw from the clarity, brevity, and preciseness of some of those famous movie loglines, when describing YOUR book to readers?
Try This: In ____________ (your book title), readers will __________ (verb like – learn, be inspired by, be transported to, etc.) ____________ (noun or nouns) & as a result they will _________ (gain, walk away with, achieve) _________ (BIGGEST takeaway and/or transformation of book).
Use the template above simply to get the juices flowing and so you as the author are clear on your reader promise. THEN you can go back and add some flair!
II. A String of Snapshots
In Screenwriting: I’ve always likened screenwriting to taking a giant stack of Polaroids (yes, dating myself), scribbling captions on them, and then stringing them together in a specific order that tells the best story.
Note that the picture is the star of the show, and the caption is merely telling us what we’re looking at, specifically – what’s happening here? It might be describing the setting in the photo, the action, and if there are people, what they’re saying.
Moment by moment, shot by shot, scene by scene, a complete story eventually comes together.
The point is – in screenwriting you have VERY limited real estate to work with, word count wise. To give you an idea, the average script length is around 15,000 words, a business book is closer to 50,000 and novels generally begin at 75,000 words.
The function of a screenplay is purely to dictate the what, when, where and how of the action, and the words the characters should say to move that action forward. Literary tools like exposition, character inner lives, or other “deep thoughts” are used sparingly to not at all. Sounds pretty dull right? Nope!
Screenwriting for me, is a master class in the art of brevity. Similar to the prior lesson about loglines, screenwriting forces you to write only the words that move the action forward. No explaining, stalling, lagging, trailing off, rabbit holes, falling off the rails…. You get the idea.
In Books: A writing rule that I frequently quote to my coaching clients comes from the late author Kurt Vonnegut: Every line should either reveal something about a character or move the plot forward in some way.
Screenwriting gives you no other option but to do this.
With only 15,000 words to play with, you are forced to give every word a job.
Try This: Study time! One of my favorite websites ever in the history of the entire internet (yep) is Drew’s Script-o-Rama – a collection of screenplays from actual films (SO many!). One of my favorite writing exercises is to watch a movie and follow along with the script* to see for myself how the words on the page became the living story on the screen.
I especially like seeing how the actors bring the dialogue to life – adding inflection, rhythm, rises and falls, and emotions. It’s no coincidence that my favorite part of book writing, is dialogue.
Try this exercise for yourself and report back in my Ink Authors group on Facebook!
*(While reviewing the scripts, try not to be too distracted by all the abbreviations that tell the Director of Photography what to do with the camera.)
III. Dramatic Moments
In Screenwriting: Filmmakers love opening and closing scenes “in the middle” – whether opening the scene at the peak of the action or closing it on a cliffhanger, everything (again – in those very brief 15,000 words) is about getting and holding the audience’s attention.
Screenwriters, along with ad copywriters, probably understand better than all other writers that attention is one of the most valuable assets that exists.
In Books: As authors, sometimes we take attention for granted. We assume that once a reader buys our book, begins reading it and gets past the introduction, they’ll naturally finish it. This is a dangerous assumption that can lead to literary laziness.
Don’t let it happen to you. Respect the art of attention and respect the attention that your readers gift you with. I’m not suggesting that you need to turn your book into a Marvel Comics action packed superhero adventure.
I’m simply asking you to add to your ongoing study of books (through reading them), the study of screenplays/movies. What techniques can you spot that you could carry over to your book writing?
Try This: Take a normal moment from your recent life, and write it dramatically. The goal here is to train your writer’s brain to find the suspense, tension and release points in the seemingly mundane. Master the rhythm of storytelling by studying it from all angles.
Creative writing is creative writing, whether your words inspire moving pictures on the screen or moving pictures in the reader’s mind. As authors, we get to create something from nothing. Where can you draw inspiration from to do this? Movies, books, art, classic literature, play, music, nature? The possibilities are endless! Just because we write books, doesn’t mean that has to be the sole source of our inspiration.