Writing in a Screenplay Style

Many current seminars and courses on how to write a book which will get published instruct authors to write their books in a screenplay style. What does this mean, and why is it important?

I have heard this advice not only in courses and books on writing, but also from friends who have gone through years of serious training in order to become better writers.

One friend, Tom, has published a series of well selling murder-mystery books. When I asked him how he determines his destination page length, he said, "I shoot for 4,000 words per chapter in 24 chapters. Thereís a variation among chapter lengths. [I asked what if he ends up with 22 chapters instead] Always 24. Set it up like a screenplay. 1-8 first act and introduction. 9 to 16 second act. 17 to 24 act three and denouement. Itís based on the idea that the real money in books is in screenplays. So I set them up in three act plays with the chapters and scenes pretty much as photogenic as I can get. Hopefully one of these will catch the eye of a movie person."

From Lynn - "One word: Storyboarding. I've been familiar with this for about 7 years now. Every day it seems more people are jumping on board to 'teach' storyboarding - You'll see tons out there about 'storyboarding your novel', etc. But you don't have to give up the lush details if you don't want to. In other words: You can have your cake and eat it, too."

From MarJohn - "Recently, people in the publishing industry want novels to read like movie scripts. This was not always the case. In many older works, prior to the 'make the best selling book into a movie or TV series' trend, the descriptions are lush, plots are convoluted, the characters are complex and the language is beautiful. There is a poetic quality to many older works that is missing in much of modern fiction.

"Internal monologue, which has fallen out of vogue in recent years, because one cannot depict it in film, was once a valuable window into a character's soul. Letters in fiction serve a similar purpose, to explore thoughts and emotions in a dyad relationship and they too have fallen out of favor because reading long involved letters on film is boring."


This push in training to write for screenplay is intriguing for many reasons.

Why Publishers Want Screenplays
First, the tradition of performing stories is far older than the tradition of writing stories for readers. For much of mankind's history, most people were illiterate. So the only way they drew in stories was to watch them acted out. We have many Greek and Roman plays which can still be performed. Shakespeare, of course, is world famous, and dates to the early 1600s. In comparison, between most people not being able to read and books being incredibly expensive, the first "best sellers" did not come until many centuries later. One of the first "best selling books" was Charles Dickens "A Tale of Two Cities" in 1859.

Motion pictures were launched in the late 1800s, so it was only the blink of an eye between these best selling novels and their portrayal on film. All Quiet on the Western Front, an AFI top movie, was released in 1930 and was based on the best-selling book by Erich Maria Remarque. Frankenstein in 1931 was based on the Mary Shelley novel. Wuthering Heights with Merle Oberon and Laurence Olivier dates from 1939 and was based on the classic novel by Emily Bronte. Of course Gone With the Wind in 1939 was also based on a huge best-seller by Margaret Mitchell.

A side note about Frankenstein - this was first published by Mary Shelley in 1818. It was made into a hugely popular stage play, and then re-released in 1822 after that. So books were being turned into plays before movies existed :).

The tradition of turning books into movies and plays has been around since books began. What is different now, to be a bit cynical, is that many publishers are trying to steer ALL their authors into writing movie-aimed books. They in essence do not want to "lose the opportunity of that cash flow". So if their choice is an intellectually-lyrical altered-states-of-mind story which would be a challenge to make into a movie, or a simple plot-goes-from-A-to-B story with a bit of excitement and romance, they will go with B because it gives them the most long term potential. It's not like publishers are wasting away waiting for books. They are DELUGED with thousands of books a week to look through. So they want to go with the one that gives them the best possible chance for a return on investment.

Have Books Changed?
It's important to note that, just because many publishers are going with this focus, it does not mean that the quality level of books is changing. We have always had vast amounts of "simple plot movie style" books. One only has to look at the pulp book market in the 20s and 30s to see that. Back in the Jane Austen / Emily Bronte days there were SCORES of pulp style romance novels by many other authors. However, we don't remember all of them because they didn't survive the ages. What we know about now are the best of the best. We only know about a scant few books from that era, and not the tens of thousands of others that people read.

In the same way, in modern times we have absolutely brilliant books full of rich detail and complex characters. And certainly, we have a lot of drek too! I did a project where I read all of the Top Selling Books of All Time. People read stuff like "Jaws" and "Peyton Place" and "The Thorn Birds" and "Valley of the Dolls" and "God's Little Acre". It's what the average person wants to read. Sex, sex, more sex, incest, and lust. And violence. But that's not to say that we haven't had some amazing, spectacular books published in the past few years. The beauty of our modern publishing system is that we have access to ALL options and it is completely up to us what we choose to read. We can read book after book like Jaws if we want - or we can read works of pure beauty and lyricism.

What This Has To Do With Your Writing
So with this all being said, should you change your writing style in order to have it play out like a screenplay?

My first gut-reaction answer is NO. Your voice is unique. Your message is unique. There are billions of people in the world, each with his or her own unique message. What we want to hear from you is YOUR message. Yes, it will be different than everyone else's message and that is good! Certainly you should use good grammar and sentence structure, and a clear writing style, so we can UNDERSTAND your message. If your message is confusing and impossible to understand, that does nobody any good. We want to know what your message is. But it should be your message, with your images and thoughts. If it's important to know what the character is thinking, then give us that information.

My second note is that I understand some people need to eat :). If for you writing is the difference between paying the rent or being evicted, then certainly give consideration to what publishers will accept. If you could pay the rent if you gave Penguin a book that wasn't half done within the character's head, and you need that money, then certainly see if you can find another way to present the information. Monologues work fine! Hamlet's soliloquy is world famous. Atlas Shrugged features a famous speech. So does To Kill a Mockingbird. So does A Few Good Men. Forrest Gump lets us hear his thoughts. It works beautifully.

Also, while screenplays are necessarily different than the book they are based on, in most cases the book's details beautifully inform the costume design, set design, and actor portrayals, even if they aren't in a screenplay. I doubt the Harry Potter screenplay laid out the specific details of the great hall at Hogwarth's, but when we see it on screen it mirrors the lush detail of the book. The same for the Lord of the Rings movies. The set designers literally had the book open before them while working on costumes and room details. The actors read and re-read the book to get the nuances of their character in their scenes. In the PBS version of Persuasion, Anne (Sally Hawkins) has just re-met the love of her life, Captain Frederick Wentworth (Rupert Penry-Jones) and has retreated to play the piano. He comes into the room's doorway to look at her. There are no words at all - just her fingers on the keys, and his eyes. But the powerful emotions, changing and growing, are spectacular to see. The screenplay didn't have pages of instruction here - but the book did. The book laid out their thoughts and hopes and fears. The actors read the book, internalized those messages, and gave the portrayal of a lifetime. We could *feel* viscerally what their emotions were without having to resort to a stream of black and white words.

And perhaps that is the best judge of all of whether a book is reaching its audience and is able to be made into a screenplay. A superbly written book will play out live in the reader's head. The reader can visualize the characters, see their eyes, watch their subtle movements, and be there in the scene with them. And then, when it comes to easing that story into an actual film presence, the process becomes one of polishing and fine tuning, to get the book to fit into movie length properly, rather than a rewriting or reimagining.

So my final message, then, is to write the very best book you can. Write it so it comes alive in the reader's mind. Make it as crystal clear as possible for the reader to understand, visualize, and fall in love with. That then defines the very essence of a good screenplay.

And as a final note of encouragement, anyone who has read "A Scanner Darkly" by Philip K. Dick would know how amazingly convoluted the book is, with hallucinations, long stream-of-consciousness thoughts, changing realities, and more. And yet it was made into a fascinating movie. So if you write it well, it CAN WORK.

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