What does a novel and a screenplay have in common? They are both forms of expression to tell a tale. While the Novel is a larger body of work compared to the screenplay, in essence, they are the same. Both the novel and the screenplay build a character or characters up, put the characters through the ringer to change them. That is the basic reality of any story whether it is 1 page or 1,000.
While the novel does this in 300 pages or more, the screenplay is cut condensed into roughly 120 pages- if that. Many screenplays these days run around 104. That means that there is three times the amount of information that is piled into a screenplay to make the story work. No wonder screenplays can pay significant money. It’s hard work and takes time, just like a novel. But did you know that you can use the lessons and structure found in a screenplay to better your novel, just as you can use a novel to strengthen your screenplay? Let’s start with the “hook” or “logline.”
Every screenwriter knows that they need a great logline to capture their audience. For novels this is called a “Hook,” and the film industry it is one or two lines describing what the story is about. Take the movie Die Hard for example. The log line is “40 Flights of Adventure.” Pretty much sums it up doesn’t it? Now you add the poster, and you see that it is a movie set in a skyscraper and some macho man going to save the day. For many screenwriters, they need the one/two punch to hook their audience. They need an amazing title and a stunning logline.
So how does a logline help novelists?
The next time you go to Barnes and Noble or even an online store like Amazon.com and search for a book, you read the description of the book. Usually, this is about a paragraph long describing in detail what the book is about. When you add the element of urgency of a logline into your blurb for your book, you create something stunning and noteworthy. The logline is a fast in your face way of capturing the audience’s attention and can be used for hooking your next reader into buying the novel. This is the novelists “one/two punch” so to speak that captivates the reader and makes them want to read more. Now that you have your audience’s attention with a killer title and logline or hook, you don’t want to let them down by introducing them to poorly written characters.
According to an earlier post “Screenplay Writing Infographic,” one of the graphs shows quite clearly how character development can sink your script faster than the Titanic. In the infographic, the statistics show that 46 scripts out of the 300 submitted have the female parts underwritten. 51 scripts show the villain to cartoonish, and 39 scripts have the standard issue protagonist hero. Those are some pretty sad numbers if you look at the fact that they came from out of 300. Executives receive thousands of scripts a month- think about that and take into account these facts of character development.
When you plot out your story first, the way a novelist would do, you will be forced to color in your character. You will have to give your characters flaws and idiosyncrasies as well as quarks and in the film industry, they are called “ticks.” Blake Synder suggests adding seven flaws to every character. When you are writing a novel, it is very easy to show these flaws and the journey the main character makes to overcome them. When writing a script, you need to be precise and to the point. That is why it is so important to write out your story first before even attempting to put it into a script.
When you write out everything from setting, feelings, thoughts, expressions and the like, you have dug inside your character and this new world and flesh them out. During this stage, there is room for all genres that you want to touch on. Maybe there will be a scene where you want your character to encounter a ghost and freak out about it and in the next chapter, you want a love scene. Many screenwriters battle with flopping genres constantly. They begin with a comedy and by act three their comedy has turned serious. If you write it all out and get it on paper, every idea and scene you want to throw your characters into, you can. Then, when you are ready to move onto writing the script, you will be able to see what works, what doesn’t and what flows according to the mini-novel you just wrote.
A novelist can learn a lot from screenwriters when it comes to dialog. Your characters have to speak, and the only reason for dialog is to move the story forward and reveals information about the character or problems at hand. Some novels lack the basic structure for dialog and have their characters talking just to fill up the page and adds no importance or value to the story.
No matter what area you write for, screenplay or novel you must make your characters active. Your characters cannot be forced into scenes or situations. Your characters cannot just stand by and let things happen to them. They have to be active. Is it no coincidence that the word “act” is the center of the word “Character."
By now every screenwriter has a plethora of books they turn to to get structure and timing down. Thanks to Blake Snyder’s “Save the Cat” books, there is now a formula that will help an aspiring writer. Blake’s formula shouldn’t be a go-to formula or status quo when writing a script. The 15 beats he nails out should be a reminder of what a true story needs to be. It shows the growth of the character and shouldn’t be taken so literally page by page.
The beats though work well for finding your voice as a writer and help to narrow down what the story is, and what is important. When you take the beat sheet as a whole, all it does is give ques as what needs to happen next to move the story along. The beat sheet has become the go-to for many screenwriters, but in fact, it is more set up for novelists to help keep them on track.
When you write out your story and all the finer details of what the world entails, this beat sheet can work wonders. But far too many writers make this list their go-to for what needs to happen and where without thinking if they should put that tidbit of information there or not. That is why there are so many bad movies these days.
Too often people aren’t confident enough with their own work that they hold onto the crutch of structure like this beat sheet. Don’t use the cheat sheet when making a script. Use it to define your story ideas first. Add each element to the novel to make it sparkle and then after everything is written and put down on paper, and you can pick through to find all these elements that make up a great story.
So, you see writing a script and a novel require the creative side to play. When you bog down that freedom, you end up with poorly written works that won’t go anywhere. Write everything out in novel form. Even if you aren’t going to sell it as a book, get it all out on the table so that you can pick and choose what will work in the 100 pages you are restricted to when writing your next script.