Hollywood is famously dismissive of writers. Jim Harrison, author of “Legends of The Fall,” taped a note above his desk that read, “You’re just a writer,” to remember the putdown delivered by one studio executive.
I am a writer, but for a number of years I was one of those “suits”. My job was to pull apart screenplays, determine what worked and what didn’t, and most importantly, how to fix them. I honed my skills at intensives taught by screenwriter guru Robert McKee and talked script development with A-list directors and award-winning screenwriters. I’d always been an avid reader of novels, both classic and popular fiction, but then I immersed myself in thousands of scripts.
What I discovered is that a well-crafted story transcends the medium. What works in film can often work equally well in a novel. And when I began writing novels in earnest, I used that knowledge to craft what I hope are tightly written, well-structured books.
Here are a few takeaways from my movie days:
James Bond is famous for it, action films depend on it, and you can use it, too. It doesn’t necessarily mean an express train barreling off the tracks, but your protagonist should be in movement. Action and dialogue are married to quickly establish your MC, and what’s at stake.
As I write, Sarah J. Mass’ “Court of Mist and Fury” is atop the Amazon bestseller list. Here are the opening lines:
Maybe I’d always been broken and dark inside.
Maybe someone who’d been born whole and good would have put down the ash dagger and embraced death rather than what lay before me.
There was blood everywhere.
We’ve immediately established the narrator may be morally compromised (creepy fun!) and will risk becoming more so as he/she wields that dagger (stakes). The landscape of blood just upped the ante even more. This writer has me putting her books on my TBR list with just three sentences, and we haven’t even gotten to the dialogue yet!
We’ve all wrestled with how to make the obligatory talking head scene more compelling without allowing pacing to slow to a crawl. Take a page from the film editor’s playbook and intercut your dialogue to keep the energy crackling and the viewer engaged. Toss the dialogue ball back and forth between your characters (watch an Aaron Sorkin film for pointers here). Cut the overly descriptive detail, and what detail you do include should be organic to the scene. Dialogue tags should be minimal. Less is more here.
What reader doesn’t love that aha moment, when a clue dangled early in a story develops into a significant plot twist? If you’re writing a tightly plotted novel, such as a mystery or thriller, you might want to plant a variety of such set-ups and pay offs. Analyzing how they’re effectively used in film can help a writer determine where and when they should be dropped into a story.
The rule of thumb in film is the smaller the button (the pay off) the closer it should be to the set up (and sometimes even in the same scene, especially if it’s a joke). You don’t want to build up your audiences’ expectations only to disappoint them down the line, or worse, have them forget the set-up. The opposite is also true: the bigger the button (the hero’s secret identity, the twist ending) the more time can and should elapse between set up and pay off.
An example of a button that falls somewhere in the middle can be found in every James Bond film; isn’t it canny that Q always knows exactly which gadgets the spy will need to defeat the bad guys?
This neat little trick can tighten a story’s through line by linking scenes. Used correctly, this builds cumulative energy to sustain reader interest. An over-simplified example:
Scene 1: Amy and Zoe get invited to a party by Nick.
Scene 2: Amy and Zoe fight; Amy likes Nick, but Zoe thinks he’s a jerk.
Scene 3: Amy tells her mom about the fight; Mom encourages Amy to go to party.
Scene 4: Cut to party.
By carrying over something from a previous scene into each successive one, it creates a natural and organic order to your storytelling.
IF THEY CARE, THEY SCARE
If you’ve seen an episode of Law & Order, you know each one begins with a cold opening of people stumbling across a dead body. Interesting, but you’re not emotionally invested in how the unidentified corpse got to be that way.
But what if we had met the murder victim three minutes before her death? What if we knew this young woman was rushing to get her sick cat Mimi to the vet before they closed? That she was a pre-school teacher willing to eat Ramon for a week to pay for Mimi’s emergency treatment? Suddenly we care about this woman’s fate, so when a man comes up behind her with a knife, our heart races in fear.
All this is a long way of saying if you want your readers to care about the fate of any character in your book, even a very minor one, you need to hook them emotionally before they meet their end.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the ways story telling in novels and filmed entertainment intersect, but I hope you will find it useful.