Jill here. Today I'm super excited to welcome Caitlin Eha to the blog. She was one of our top ten semi-finalists in the Go Teen Writers #WeWriteBooks Contest. I remember her contest entry. It was a fabulous contemporary fantasy with a Peter Pan twist, and I couldn't put it down. She has been studying screenwriting lately, and when she pitched this article idea to me, I knew it would be something different and fun for you all. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Please welcome Caitlin.
Caitlin Eha fell in love with books at a young age and never recovered. Today she is pursuing her dream of being a published novelist and screenwriter, in between the multitudinous demands of adult life. She is also a staff writer for the website Geekdom House (geekdomhouse.com). When she has a free moment, she enjoys reading, fencing, archery, cosplay, and time with her Lord. Caitlin can be found on her blog, caitlineha.wordpress.com, and on Wattpad @authorcaitlineha.
I’ve been writing fiction for most of my life, but screenwriting is a recent passion of mine. Although the format of a screenplay is quite different from a novel, the basic principles of storytelling do not change from one to the other. Below are some of the most important lessons screenwriting has taught me for writing my novels.
1. FADE IN: Writing Distinctive Characters
Novelists and screenwriters alike strive to create distinctive characters, but strange though it may sound, physical description is not the most important element to consider when designing characters. For proof, all you have to do is compare Gandalf to Dumbledore—although they have similar physical descriptions, their personalities and abilities clearly distinguish one from the other.
Screenwriters are encouraged to keep the physical descriptions of their characters to a minimum. Details like the actor’s hair color and the style of his jacket are usually decided by the casting director and costume designer, not the screenwriter. Instead, the screenwriter’s job is to convey the character’s personality, or essence, and this is an important skill for novelists as well. Think: what visible elements of your character’s behavior and bearing reveal who the character is?
Consider these screenplay character introductions from the opening scene of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl:
Gibbs’ introduction is one of my favorites. There are only two phrases of description for him, but they’re enough to encapsulate his whole character. The phrase “who was born old” immediately implies a weather-beaten appearance and a severe outlook on life without the writer having to include any additional description.
Here’s a similar, but longer, description from a following scene of Pirates. Notice how the physical specifications for Will’s character serve the purpose of highlighting his personality and social station:
Capturing the essence of a character is a difficult task. Some writers try to do so by piling descriptor on top of descriptor—usually of a physical nature—but this creates ambiguity and bogs down the reader. As the Pirates script illustrates, short and effective descriptions without excessive emphasis on physical details are the best way to go.
2. ANGLE ON: Including the Right Details
Choosing the right details to include in each scene of your story all comes down to context. What does your reader need to know in the given situation, and what is just extra information?
Here’s an example from J.K. Rowling’s script for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This is the beginning of the scene where Newt attempts to recapture his niffler inside the bank:
Notice that the description of the bank is pretty skeletal, even though this location is a bustling business. Rowling didn’t bother to give extensive detail about the bank because, in this scene, the focus is on Newt finding his niffler. The interior of the bank, beyond some general specifications, is not relevant.
However, here’s another description, taken from the scene where Newt and Jacob go inside Newt’s Tardis-like suitcase. In this scene, the focus is very much on the place and what it reveals about Newt, so the description is deeper:
It’s important not to overload your readers with descriptions, particularly of place, when a shorter explanation will do the trick. Too much description risks distracting your reader from the storyline and characters. However, as these examples show, longer description can be warranted and even needed when understanding the place is essential to understanding the storyline.
3. ZOOM: Focusing on Your Plot
Once you’ve reduced your description to only the right details, you’re no longer as apt to find yourself writing “bunny trails” of irrelevant information. One of the things I love about the screenplay format is that it challenges me to be concise, forcing my focus away from detailed descriptions and onto the progress of my plot.
Below is an example of screenplay format, showing the three main formatting elements: the scene heading, the action paragraph, and the dialogue block.
As you can see, screenplays are a streamlined format that focus on telling a story through sight and sound. Notice that there is no room for internal monologues or lengthy exposition—the screenwriter is limited to story elements that can be shown or heard. This really tightens the action of a story and keeps the plot moving. When I learned to write screenplays, I discovered that I could write a good story much more concisely than I imagined.
Novels have different demands than scripts, of course, and require more substance. However, making a screenplay-like draft is a terrific way to outline your novel’s plot and stay focused. You don’t have to use rigid screenplay format, but try jotting down a sequence of scenes and their locations in general terms. Then make notes on the essential action and lines of dialogue you need to include in that scene. When writing this outline, be as spartan as possible with your details—only include what is necessary to carry the story. If a detail isn’t needed to keep the reader tracking with your plot, leave it out for now. However, don’t be afraid to take some extra time with this outline and make your writing as good as possible. You might end up with some lines of description and dialogue you want to keep in the final draft.
Once you’re ready to write the first full draft of these scenes, stick to your outline as much as possible without adding too much extra detail. Then, when you’re finished, examine the result. You’ll find that you can tell a story with far less “extra” than you thought. It’s okay to add in more details in later edits, but starting with a scene framework should help you keep your focus where it belongs: on telling the story itself.
4. MONTAGE: Visualizing the Sequence of Events
When you’re writing your novel, it’s easy not to notice a plot flaw or to accidentally make your characters behave irrationally. But these errors are easy to notice in a movie. When you can see the characters moving and talking in front of you, it becomes obvious when their actions do not coincide with their personality or situation.
Whether I’m writing a screenplay or a novel, it helps me to pause in my writing every so often and visualize what I want my characters to do next. If I don’t, I find myself in the middle of writing a scene and wondering, “Why are my characters here?” Then I have to backtrack and redo the scene, changing it to something that coincides with the plot.
It’s important to periodically take a step back and orient yourself in any story you’re writing. You can do this in your head or on paper, but try taking several minutes to imagine the story situation you’re having trouble with. Come up with some ways it could play out, based on the characters you’ve placed in that scene. Then compare your results and pick the one that makes the most sense for your story.
Don’t pressure yourself to write out minute details during this exercise. The goal is to visualize how the story plays out as a whole. If you’re getting caught on the details, just remember this humorous example from The Fellowship of the Ring script, in which the lengthy scene on the staircase above the Bridge of Khazad Dûm is reduced to a few sentences:
5. EXT. or INT.: Using Your Setting
Setting is a somewhat forgotten gem of storytelling. Because scripts are meant to be interpreted into a visual medium, the best ones use setting to create a mood and even say something about the characters. Check out this example from The Fellowship of the Ring:
Notice how these descriptions of Lothlórien serve to create a certain impression. The second paragraph of this section (starting with WIDE ON) describes the forest and its capitol city, giving the reader a sense of wonder and nobility. But the following paragraph impresses the reader with a sense of foreboding by comparing Lothlórien’s brightness to the darkness of the rest of the world.
When you draw your reader into a setting, you have control of his “mind’s eye.” By directing the reader’s attention to certain aspects of the setting instead of others, you can manipulate his feelings about the place. The reader’s impression of a setting also affect his feelings about the scene that is occurring in that setting. Point the reader’s attention where you want it to go to create the impression of place that you need.
Remember, no matter what you do, the perfect novel is not going to happen on the first draft. It’s important to have these tips in mind as you write to save yourself lots of trouble later, but mistakes can always be corrected during the editing phase. Don’t be afraid to cut material if you realize it’s hindering your story more than helping it (just make sure to save multiple drafts, in case you need that edited material later on).
Most of all, relax, have fun, and keep plugging away. Lights, camera…write! Start by leaving a comment about which screenwriting tips you’d like to try!