How The Rules Of Screenwriting Can Improve Your Prose Fiction
image © Victor Gregory
I mentioned in a previous column that, while I'm consumed with prose fiction at the moment, my background is in screenwriting, which I studied extensively in college. Since that time I've tried to read as many craft essays and "rules of writing" manuals as I could, so as to help me along my path to becoming a better prose writer. But I haven't forgotten about my screenwriting roots, and I haven't abandoned the simple lessons and best practices the medium has to offer. I incorporate these rules into my prose every time I sit down to write/edit a new short story.
This concept isn't unique to me. Art Edwards wrote a review of Robert McKee's Story—aka, the screenwriter's Bible—for The Nervous Breakdown back in April; in it, Edwards talks about his less-than-satisfactory experience adapting his own novel for the screen, and how McKee's book blew his mind:
Story is the best book on the mechanics of narrative writing–not screenwriting, but any kind of narrative writing–I’ve ever read. It breaks the art of storytelling down into its most basic components–conflict, character, plot, climax, etc.; all of the things you’ll hear about in any writing workshop–but McKee explains them with unusual clarity and depth…All of which makes me wonder: Why aren’t M.F.A. writing students required to study screenwriting as a prerequisite to longer forms like novel or memoir?
Excellent question. Edwards details some of the snobbery surrounding screenwriting, and he's right: film in general carries a negative stigma among certain hoity-toity crowds, who view it as a lower art form (an idea Chuck Wendig calls "a microwaved platter of gopher diarrhea"). I'm sure you've encountered these people, but you're lucky if you haven't, because they can be insufferable.
For now, however, let's just assume these people don't exist, and focus solely on the benefits of a screenwriting education. Here are four screenwriting rules that apply significantly to prose, taken either from McKee, the aforementioned Wendig, or my own experiences in screenwriting 101. Hopefully this column will get you thinking about media other than books and how they can influence your writing.
In general, one of the key aspects to a well-written screenplay is brevity. Writing succinctly serves the overall goal of page economy. Let's turn again to Chuck Wendig and his excellent article "What Novelists Can Learn From Screenwriters" to get a basic understanding of this concept:
A screenplay has very little real estate with which to work. You’ve got your ~110 pages, and the formatting on those pages is precise. Can’t cram a lot in there. The best scripts out there have an almost poetic grace (and some of the worst offer pages that look like brick shithouses, just blocks and blocks of text). Mastering the screenplay is in part mastering the format, which is to say, understanding the economy of the page.
In other words, you want to leave a lot of white space on each page, as much as you can muster. It's a less-is-more situation, and it especially applies to your character descriptions. You don't want to go on and on about a protagonist's appearance—height, weight, eye color, hair color, hair style—because A.) that will quickly fill up your white space with huge blocks of text, and B.) will be a waste of time, since your producer or director will cast whoever they want anyway. Furthermore, describing minute gestures, facial expressions, vocal intonations, etc. does a disservice to the actor. According to McKee:
An actor's reaction to a script saturated with that kind of detail is to toss it in the trash, thinking, 'They don't want an actor, they want a puppet.' Or if the actor accepts the role, he'll take a red pencil and scratch all that nonsense off the page.
Be brief. Here's an example from Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler's adaptation of Double Indemnity:
Phyllis Dietrichson stands looking down. She is in her early thirties. She holds a large bath-towel around her very appetizing torso, down to about two inches above her knees. She wears no stockings, no nothing. On her feet a pair of high-heeled bedroom slippers with pom-poms. On her left ankle a gold anklet.
As you can see, Wilder and Chandler give us only scant physical details about Phyllis—no hair color, eye color, or details about her face—but the details given help to sketch out general ideas about this woman. She's wealthy, perhaps materialistic, and serves as an object of sexual desire for the film's protagonist, Walter Neff, appearing before him in casual, quasi-risqué attire, as though she already knows him intimately. We glean a significant amount of information in only a few lines.
Of course in prose fiction, there's no producer, no director and no actors. It's up to you, the lone author, to create a kind of movie that will play inside your reader's head. Actually, scratch that—it's up to you and your reader to create the images, the look of the characters, and in general the world of your book. I'm personally annoyed when an author tries to micro manage my experience of his/her book, filling page after page of descriptions, painting in every last detail. Let me join in the fun, let me put some of myself and my own imagination in there. So again, the same rule of brevity applies when writing prose, you just have to modify it a bit. Let's look at how the original author, James M. Cain, describes Phyllis upon her introduction to the novella:
A woman was standing there. I had never seen her before. She was maybe thirty-one or -two, with a sweet face, light blue eyes, and dusty blonde hair. She was small, and had on a suit of blue house pajamas. She had a washed-out look.
Now, there are more subtle ways of introducing a character's features that can also move the action along and reveal more about the person (if she constantly twirls her dusty blonde hair, we know she has a nervous tic, for instance), but I think the above passage demonstrates my point: whereas Wilder and Chandler only gave material details that visually encapsulate Phyllis, Cain provides a brief sketch that includes not only her clothing (the pajamas, which achieve the same sense of casual comfort expressed through Wilder and Chandler's towel), but also her physical attributes. It's up to the reader to really see Phyllis, but Cain guides us in the right direction with less words than his screenwriting counterparts. He doesn't need to describe anything else about her.
Scene or action descriptions in screenplays should adhere to the same rule of brevity. Set the proper mood quickly and concisely, then let the dialogue carry the scene/plot along; or, if you're creating a mostly dialogue-less scene, write terse descriptions of what's happening, with no speculation as to what your character is thinking or feeling. You can describe visual and audible elements, but refrain from including elements of smell and touch (if there's a rotten smell in the scene, the characters should sniff and say, "Ew, what's that smell?").
The brevity rule has the same function here as with character descriptions: it speeds the reading process and allows the director and various designers to fill in the gaps. Remember, in screenwriting, you're sketching, not painting. Check out this bit of action from John Carpenter and Debra Hill's Halloween. (Full disclosure: this came from the website DailyScript.com, so it's accuracy in relation to the actual shooting script should be taken with a grain of salt.)
Suddenly the POV lunges forward. The sister continues to stare incredulously. There is a rapid blur as the POV drives the butcher knife into the sister's chest and out again almost before we've seen it.
The sister looks down at the blood forming at her hands, then
back up at the POV with an astonished disbelief.
Then in a wild paroxysm the butcher knife blurs continuously in and out of frame, slashing the sister mercilessly. She begins to SCREAM, trying to fend off the blows with her hands, then suddenly falls out of frame to the floor.
The POV moves back away from the sister's lifeless body, spins around and careens out of the bedroom.
I love Halloween, but I will admit the above example isn't exactly the best prose in the world (it's a screenplay, so it doesn't necessarily have to be). However, if we examine the passage not for its literary merit, but for its ability to quickly move the action along without an ounce of fat, then Carpenter and Hill's writing is quite good. Note all that lovely white space, with blocks of text cutting off at four line spaces—a solid "rule of thumb" number that challenges the screenwriter to say what they need to say in only so much space.
Some think prose fiction is an arena to break the brevity rule and go on and on and on about every little detail—that prose writer's shouldn't sketch, but paint! Full-on painting is definitely a no-no, because just as with character descriptions, you have to leave a little room for the reader's imagination. Granted, if you're describing, say, a haunted house, it's better to give your reader more than, "A dusty, cobwebbed room. Moody, spooky lighting," but not so much that you're describing every cobweb, every dust mote. Let's look at an example from Neil Gaiman, who expertly guides Coraline (and the reader) through a spooky cellar, lit only by "a naked bulb hanging from a wire from the low ceiling":
Coraline's slippers crunched across the cement floor. The bad smell was worse, now. She was ready to turn and leave, when she saw the foot sticking out from beneath the pile of curtains.
She took a deep breath (the smells of sour wine and moldy bread filled her head) and she pulled away the damp cloth, to reveal something more or less the size and shape of a person.
In that dim light, it took her several seconds to recognize it for what it was: the thing was pale and swollen like a grub, with thin, sticklike arms and feet. It had almost no features on its face, which had puffed and swollen like risen bread dough.
The thing had two large black buttons where its eyes should have been.
Notice any similarities between Gaiman's prose and Carpenter/Hill's screenplay? Like those short bursts of text, for instance? Or a tendency toward succinctness? Notice the inclusion of smells and Coraline's inner responses to the sensory elements around her. Yes, this is technically a kid's book, so Gaiman is pulling some of his punches here, but overall I think this is a good demonstration of his style: lean, and yet evocative, with attention to all five senses (very important in prose)—not too much, not too little, allowing the reader to imagine the rest.
Above, I wrote this: "Set the proper mood quickly and concisely, then let the dialogue carry the scene/plot along; or, if you're creating a mostly dialogue-less scene, write terse descriptions of what's happening…"
All true. But I would recommend writing the latter type of scene, one that is mostly free of dialogue. Because here's the thing: many writers think a screenplay's plot should be carried by conversations and exchanges between characters. And many quality screenplays are: Wilder and Chandler's Double Indemnity relies heavily on dialogue, and Quentin Tarantinto made a career out of writing snappy back-and-forth interactions between two or more characters. But I think dialogue shouldn't be viewed as the be-all-end-all, but rather just one of many tools the writer can employ.
Take it from McKee:
The best advice for writing dialogue is don't. Never write a line of dialogue when you can create a visual expression. The first attack on every scene should be: How could I write this in a purely visual way and not have to resort to a single line of dialogue? Obey the Law of Diminishing Returns: The more dialogue you write, the less effect dialogue has. If you write speech after speech, walking characters into rooms, sitting them in chairs and talking, talking, talking, moments of quality dialogue are buried under this avalanche of words. But if you write for the eye, when the dialogue comes, as it must, it sparks interest because the audience is hungry for it. Lean dialogue, in relief against what's primarily visual, has salience and power.
Example? How about this scene from Pulp Fiction, written (obviously) by dialogue-obsessed Tarantino and Roger Avery:
Butch glances to his right, his eyes fall on something.
What he sees is a small compact Czech M61 submachine gun with a huge silencer on it, lying [sic] on his kitchen counter.
He picks up the intimidating peace of weaponry and examines it.
Then… a toilet FLUSHES.
Butch looks up to the bathroom door, which is parallel to the kitchen. There is someone behind it.
Like a rabbit caught in a radish patch, Butch freezes, not knowing what to do.
The bathroom door opens and Vincent Vega steps out of the bathroom, tightening his belt. In his hand is the book "MODESTY BLAISE" by Peter O'Donnell.
Vincent and Butch lock eyes.
Butch doesn't move, except to point the M61 in Vincent's direction.
Neither man opens his mouth.
Then… the toaster LOUDLY kicks up the Pop Tarts.
That's all the situation needed.
Look at how much happens in that scene with only one line of dialogue—a line that doesn't have anything to do with the interaction between Butch and Vincent. There is most definitely a conversation between these men, but it's a conversation of body language and facial expressions. As McKee argues, the scene would suffer if either character said anything. Imagine if Butch said, "What are you doing here?" He would look stupid, for one thing, because he knows why Vincent is waiting in his house with a submachine gun. What if he said, "Gotcha!"? Again, the essence of that sentiment is expressed in Butch's holding the gun—Vincent's gun—and aiming it at its former owner. What if Vincent pleaded or tried to bargain with Butch to put the gun down? Vividly imagine these possibilities in your head, and ask yourself, would that work? I think you'll see the answer is, No.
This same question must be applied to your prose, particularly since you're much less reliant on dialogue in this medium. This isn't to say you should get into every character's head and analyze what they're thinking at every possible moment. And this also isn't to say you should go out of your way to avoid dialogue. No, what this means is, examine every inch of dialogue you write and determine whether or not it's necessary. Look at this scene from the first chapter of Chuck Palahniuk's Fight Club:
Up on top of the Parker-Morris Building with Tyler's gun in my mouth. While desks and filing cabinets and computers meteor down on the crowd around the building and smoke funnels up from the broken windows and three blocks down the street the demolition team watches the clock, I know all of this: the gun, the anarchy, the explosion is really about Marla Singer.
Palahniuk doesn't offer a long conversation between the narrator, "Jack." and Tyler, in which Jack deduces Tyler's true motives. There's no, "Why are you doing this?" followed by a long monologue of explanation and exposition. Jack's already figured all of this out. He knows Tyler, so he doesn't need to question him. The reader doesn't have the facts yet, hence Jack's desire to act as an apostle and write Tyler's gospels (i.e., tell us the story of how he ended up on top of the Parker-Morris Building with Tyler's gun in his mouth).
By employing this method, Palahniuk is not only sparing us a lot of dialogue we don't actually need, he's also baiting us with a pretty solid (and threadbare) hook. The first chapter isn't this drawn out affair, it's "Here we are on top of this building, shit's hitting the fan, and I know exactly why. Now I'm going to tell you." That's great writing.
One last time, let's visit McKee's Story to define the "beat" (in case you don't already know):
Inside the scene is the smallest element of structure, the Beat. (Not to be confused with [beat], an indication within a column of dialogue meaning "short pause".)
A BEAT is an exchange of behavior in action/reaction. Beat by Beat these changing behaviors shape the turning of a scene. (author's emphasis)
Beats, for me, relate to the concept of "peeling back the onion," which I discussed in a previous column about books that expertly subvert narrative expectation. If you view your story from its onset as an onion, the act of storytelling is one of peeling that onion, layer by layer, until you reach the story's core (or, the denouement). In this way, your beats act as the paring knife—they slice away at the surface of your onion (narrative) to reveal new layers of information.
But beats don't have to be ground-shaking revelations at every turn (better if they aren't). All examples I've cited thus far contain beats. Phyllis Dietrochson's appearance on the staircase in Double Indemnity—that's a beat, as her very character changes the course of the narrative. Young Michael "Suddenly!" stabbing his sister with the knife—beat. Butch discovering the submachine gun on his kitchen counter, the toilet flushing and the appearance of Vincent, the toaster LOUDLY kicking up the Pop Tarts—beat, beat, beat.
Need I go on?
Back in college, we learned that two and a half to three beats per page was ideal. Note that Tarantino and Avery follow this rule (the above excerpt covered roughly a page of script). And yes, you can have half-beats. In the Pulp Fiction scene, the toilet flushing and the reveal of Vincent as the flusher are one beat, but you could argue that it's a beat and a half. The more significant reveal of information in the scene is, There's someone in the house, and since we already know Vincent is on Butch's trail, the signifiers of submachine gun and someone's in the house inform us exactly who will walk out of that bathroom door. Hence, one beat, or a beat and a half, for the toilet flushing and the appearance of Vincent.
So let's recap the scene: Butch thinks he's alone. He's retrieved his father's watch, and he's feeling pretty good about himself. He decides to bask in this revelry and make some delicious Pop Tarts—but, there's a gun on his kitchen counter. The calm, status quo scene just took an almost surreal turn (What's this gun doing on my counter?). The scene just turned. Then, a toilet flushes (Oh, I get it—one of Marcellus Wallace's hit men is in my house, and he stupidly left his weapon on the counter.). New layer of information, new element to elicit reaction from Butch. And he does react—he picks up the gun, aims; Vincent emerges from the bathroom, freezes—a half beat for us, since as an audience we kinda like Vincent. Nobody moves. Tensions mount. What will happen? Then a loud, jarring noise, and…
In three solid beats, the entire narrative has changed. That's good writing.
I know it's trickier to ensure your three beats per prose page will translate as such after publication, particularly in this age of eBooks, where formatting is subject to change based on the whims of the reader. But doing this kind of page by page analysis will assure your story "turns," and thus will keep your reader's interest. Let's look at the first scene in Haruki Murakami's Hard-Boiled Wonderland And The End Of The World, a novel I included in the aforementioned "peeling" column. In this passage, our main character waits in an absurdly spacious elevator ("Put in a desk, add a cabinet and a locker, throw in a kitchenette, and you'd still have room to spare."), unsure if the thing is moving upward, moving downward, or moving at all:
I strained to hear something, anything, but no sound reached my ears. I pressed my ear against the stainless-steel wall. Sure enough, not a sound. All I managed was to leave an outline of my ear on the cold metal. The elevator was made, apparently, of a miracle alloy that absorbed all noise. I tried whistling Danny Boy, but it came out like a dog wheezing with asthma.
There was little left to do but lean up against a wall and count the change in my pockets. For someone in my profession, knowing how to kill time is as important a method of training as gripping rubber balls is for a boxer. Although, in any strict sense, it's not killing time at all. For only through assiduous repetition is it possible to redistribute skewed tendencies.
Aside from the beat-laden reveals that this guy is A.) in an absurdly spacious elevator, and B.) doesn't even know if said elevator is moving, Murakami is further hooking us into this narrative by introducing the concept of noise cancelation (which figures pretty heavily in the book later on), and telling us this guy keeps loose change in his pocket for the express purpose of counting it (not a waste of time, but an exercise). It's not only that this story is getting weirder by the paragraph, it's also getting more interesting (or intriguing). We can't help but ask, "Who is this guy? What does he do?" and "What sort of world is this anyway?" as Murkami reveals more and more about his protagonist and his situation—or, ad wholistically peels more layers of his onion.
In the end, I tend to view writing advice wholistically—that is, in general, what works for one fiction medium will work for another. Many of the rules I've discussed here aren't native to the art of screenwriting, per se. Stephen King's diatribe against adverbs in On Writing (reprinted at Brain Pickings) is, ultimately, an argument against excess prose in favor of conciseness and clarity—the very fabric of screenwriting's economic tenets. But it is this tendency toward economy, toward building a skeleton in need of flesh, that makes the screenwriting format such an important tool in the prose writer's toolbox. I don't think I can put it quite so eloquently as Chuck Wendig, so let's hear it from him:
Scripts are written with structure in mind. Even if you’re not a fan of the three-act structure (and I’m amazed at how often I read screenwriters trotting out the same tired “fuck you” to the three-act structure), screenplays are still hammered out according to structural beats: beats into scenes, scenes into sequences, sequences into acts. You have very clear breakdowns of when one scene ends and another begins. You simply cannot avoid it.
In novels, you can avoid structure all day long, ceding to structure only when it’s complete and recognizing that some skeleton has crawled his way into the skin of the thing to help it stand up.
Except, don’t. Go the other way. Embrace it, if only for a time. Think in the same structural sense that you would with a script: imagine the beats, build beats into scenes, and add scenes into sequences. Consider act breaks and turning points. Think about catalysts for action, about inciting incidents and dramatic shifts. Don’t resist them. Open yourself to them.
Well said, sir. Well said.
And now, I turn the discussion over to you, dear readers. Any other rules of screenwriting, intrinsic or otherwise, you feel prose writers should adopt? How about rules from other mediums, like plays or poetry? How about mediums outside the writing sphere (painting, photography)? Let loose in the comments section below.
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