What I Learned by… Screenwriting

file000205431503Over the past few weeks, I’ve been evaluating the effects of various kinds of writing on my fiction. I consider myself primarily to be a fiction writer, but I’ve also done a lot of many other kinds of writing, like poetry and article writing. Today I’m going to be looking at my experiences writing scripts and looking into the effects that has had on my fiction writing.

I wrote my first script in college. It was a short 1-act play called “Unintended” that started out as the idea for a story, but seemed more natural somehow as a play. Since that time I’ve been a lot more involved in writing scripts, involving several (unperformed and largely unread) movie and TV scripts and graphic novel scripts. I’ve studied scripts from writers like Neil Gaiman and Russel T. Davies, and even copied some selections by hand to see just how good screenwriting is supposed to go. Here’s what I learned as it relates to fiction:

1. Show, don’t tell. That’s one of the core rules for writing fiction, but in a medium where words are the only thing you’re using, it’s hard to know just how to interpret that. But in a script, you can’t just say “Archie is worried.” You have to tell people what to do to communicate to the audience that Archie is worried. You have to mention that he paces around or fidgets nervously, or else it won’t be communicated at all. You have to think in pantomimes to get your point across, and then put the pantomimes into words.

2. Action is key. Your writing can never be fast-paced enough. It’s true. If you’ve ever done any acting, even in a school play when you were ten years old, you can probably remember how important it is to over-do everything. You don’t shrug–you throw your hands into the air. You don’t speak up–you raise the volume of your voice to the point where you’re basically shouting. It’s always less dramatic for your audience than it is for you, and it’s the same way with writing. You can’t give people a rest without putting them to sleep. You need to keep things moving, keep wowing people over and over. Don’t give them a chance to put it down.

DSC020593. Keep yourself removed. When writing a script, other people will interpret it for the audience to enjoy. You need to let those people do their work. Let actors act; let illustrators show off their own creativity. Your readers have imaginations as well. Let them use it. Don’t feel like you have to tell them everything. Tell them what they need to infer the rest. Let your details be sparse but vivid so that your reader can take an active part in enjoying your novel.

 

Writing scripts has taught me just how to pace my writing and keep from being too distant or too detailed for my readers. It is a unique exercise in learning how to connect with your story in a different way, and so helpful that once in a while I’ll even re-write a scene from my fiction in the form of a screenplay to look at it from a different angle. Come back next week for another look at things that can influence your fiction.

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2 thoughts on “What I Learned by… Screenwriting

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