Screenwriting Skills Translated to Book-writing

Storytelling through prose and through screenplay can be very different things, and I don’t think I entirely appreciated how different until I started taking classes in screenwriting and trying my hand at scriptwriting myself. Of course, books and movies/TV are very different media, and as such, have to be approached in different ways. To me, the biggest difference (and we’re just talking about the purely writing side here, so disregarding production and all the extra complications of that!) between prose and screenwriting is the difference between the “internal” POV of a reader and the “external” POV of a movie or television viewer.

Basically, when you read a book (unless we’re in a highly limited 3rd person narrative), you’re privy to the internal thoughts and feelings of, at the very least, your main character. When you watch a movie, you don’t get to know anything that isn’t 1) spoken by someone 2) shown on the screen.

Saying that writing a book and writing a screenplay require different skills doesn’t mean that learning one can’t help you improve your technique with the other! At least, I found this true with screenwriting. So, without further ado, here are 3 things screenwriting helped me improve with my prose:

1. Dialogue.

Dialogue is, of course, very important in a screenplay, since these are more or less the only words that the audience will ever “see” (well, “hear,” but you get the idea). In my screenwriting class, we read each other’s scripts aloud, with each of us getting assigned the part of a character. There’s nothing that makes you realize you need to improve your dialogue like hearing someone else read it aloud. If you really want to see if a scene works in terms of dialogue, I suggest getting a friend or two or three and having them read the dialogue parts aloud. You can fill in as narrator if you like, or just let them go at it sans description-bits. Does it sound natural coming out of their mouths?

2. Concision.

Okay, so this does play a bit into the production side of screenwriting, but basically, I’ve found that screenplays tend to be more concise than books. Rarely does a book, when made into a movie, expand. Movies are more streamlined for a variety of reasons, but I’ve started thinking about it like so: Whenever I write a scene, I ask myself if the scene is absolutely necessary. If I had to actually film it as part of a movie, would I care enough to keep it in? Am I getting to the point of the scene fast enough? Or would this be one of the scenes cut in the book-to-movie process?

Of course, one of the lovely parts of books IS that they get to be a little more expansive and long-winded than movies! So don’t cut everything, of course. But I think it’s a nice thing to keep in the back of your head, especially if you have problems with pacing.

3. Creative info-dumping

Okay, so “info-dumping” is a bad way of describing this, because what we’re trying to do is get information across WITHOUT info-dumping. But sometimes, you really need the reader to know things! This is slightly easier in books, because while readers probably don’t want to read 10 pages about the history of your world in the first chapter, most are amiable to a paragraph or two sprinkled in there. However, unless you go the Star-Wars-Scrolling-Text route, you don’t even get those paragraphs when you’re writing a script! Everything has to come through through your characters’ actions and dialogue. This includes their emotions, as well as any backstory.

I tend to be a very visual writer, anyway, meaning I “see” my scenes play out in my head either before or as I’m writing them. Scriptwriting has helped me “show not tell” by forcing me to rely only on the visual and not the internal. Of course, as a prose-writer, you don’t have to limit yourself so much, but it’s still a nice exercise to picture a scene in your head before you go to write it. Is your character furious, yet hesitant to show her anger? What does her body language look like? How is she holding herself?

Likewise, with backstory and other pertinent information, think about ways this could come through your characters’ actions and speech. Does a minor character have a crush on the protagonist’s best friend? Of course, you could just come out and have your protagonist say so (and in, say, a close 1st or 3rd person narrative, it would make perfect sense for them to do so!), but making sure the character’s body language and dialogue reflects those same feelings adds layer to their interactions.

Okay, well, this post is getting long enough as it is. Hope that was helpful! 🙂 I’m definitely finding exploring scriptwriting to be a lot of fun, and a great way to stretch some different writing muscles.

Of course, I’m talking in general terms in this post. There are books with highly unreliable narrators, whose thoughts we can never be sure about, or short stories like “Hills Like White Elephants” (one of my favorite short stories!) where we aren’t treated to any internal monologue at all. Likewise, there are movies that feature a heavy voice-over of internal thoughts, or even have characters who break the fourth wall to talk straight to the audience!

14 Responses to Screenwriting Skills Translated to Book-writing

  1. Marc Vun Kannon Apr 24 2013 at 6:56 am #

    I found the same sort of lessons in writing fanfictions. I have the motif of a TV show in my head, so the stories I wrote were all modelled on that format. heavy on the dialog and action, minimal exposition on the author’s part. They’re good practice for writing in alternative styles.

    • Kat Zhang Apr 24 2013 at 10:51 pm #

      I do feel like fan fiction-writing can have its own special style 🙂

  2. Eden Apr 24 2013 at 10:01 am #

    This is very helpful right now! My Writer’s Group is working on a short film project and we are getting ready to write the script this week! These tips give me some good guidelines and suggestions for writing a film script with people who are used to writing fiction.

    • Kat Zhang Apr 24 2013 at 10:51 pm #

      I’m glad you found this helpful, Eden! 😀

  3. Gretchen Apr 24 2013 at 10:47 am #

    Yes to all of those, but especially being concise. I’m currently getting my MFA in the Producing for Film/TV and we do a lot of writing and reading. The biggest problem is being too wordy with the action bits. My general rule of thumb is no more than four lines of action before either starting a new paragraph or having someone talk, because it makes it easier on the reader. It makes you really think about how you say things.

    I feel these rules are more distinct in film/TV because of the transitive quality of scripts. Books are final products, scripts are only half of the process–if that. A script doesn’t become it’s final thing until the film is shot and edited. Even then my teachers say the film is written three times, once as a script, then again when it’s filmed, and finally when it’s cut.

    • Kat Zhang Apr 24 2013 at 10:52 pm #

      Oh, very cool! A MFA in Producing for Film/TV sounds awesome. And yes, as a prose-writer, I definitely had to learn to cut down on my description when scriptwriting! I’ve heard that “a film is written 3 times” quote, too. It’s very true!

  4. Alexa Y. Apr 24 2013 at 11:29 am #

    These tips are so spot on, whether writing for screen or writing a novel! I think they can come in handy, so thanks for sharing. My favorite one has got to be dialogue. It’s my weak point when I’m writing, so this might be an ideal way for me to remember to work on it!

    • Kat Zhang Apr 24 2013 at 10:53 pm #

      Thanks for reading, Alexa! 🙂

  5. Annie Apr 24 2013 at 4:31 pm #

    These tips are amazing! I love screenwriting and the couple times I’ve done them for school have been so much fun! Though I see myself more as a writer, I think I’m much better at the former. Either way, these tips helped me tons! Thank you so much for this wonderful post! 🙂

    • Kat Zhang Apr 24 2013 at 10:53 pm #

      I’m so glad you liked the post, Annie! I think you can definitely be both a screenwriter and a prose-writer 🙂

  6. Kim Apr 29 2013 at 5:33 pm #

    That’s very interesting. I’ve never tried to do screenplay writing or anything like that, but I could see how it could help in some ways. I think a while back Julie mentioned how screenplays could really help writers learn how to use dialogue better. I’m going to have to read a few now.

    Great post 🙂

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