Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, March 19, 2015

4 ways to avoid screenplayizing your novel

One of my favorite jokes on The Office is when Dwight Schrute boasts, "I know everything about film. I've seen over 240 of them."

It's funny because it sounds reasonable at first, but then you realize that's seriously nothing -- when you think about how many movies you've actually seen, it's surely thousands, not to mention thousands of hours of scripted TV shows (that's also when you realize just how much time you actually have on your hands).

When we tell stories, it's almost impossible to get movies and TV shows out of our heads. So when you sit down to write a scene, it's exceedingly natural to think of it like a scene in the movies. But it's also extremely problematic. Books are wholly different beasts than movies.

Here's how to avoid screenplayizing your novel:

1) Don't construct a scene around dialogue

Two people simply talking is not at all interesting on the page, no matter how scintillating the dialogue.

In movies, watching two people just talk can be fascinating because we are actually watching the actors and we're absorbing way more than just the words they're speaking. We're seeing their facial expressions, their gestures, we're hearing their vocal inflection, we're absorbing the setting, and there are sound effects and music and countless other small sources of input. Reduce all of that to simply words, and you have yourself a hollow experience.

Instead, it's up to writers to set the scene, to give the nonverbal cues, to articulate the physical action, and create a full picture of what's happening. Elmore Leonard probably came as close as you can to successfully constructing novels wholly around dialogue, but his approach was more about economy of nonverbal cues than it was about removing them entirely.

2) Don't rely on the reader to imagine a scene

Novel writers are not screenwriters. They're also directors, actors, sound engineers, cinematographers, key grips, best boys... you get the idea.

When you're writing a screenplay, all you have to do is say that the scene takes place in Rick's Café Américain and it's up to the director and movie crew to figure out what that looks like.

When you're writing a novel, you have to describe the interior and provide all five senses for the reader. They simply won't know what things look like unless you tell them.

Many writers feel like they're being boring when they take some time to set the scene, but it's so crucial for the reader to be able to physically place themselves within a scene and have enough context to picture what is happening. You don't have to overdo it describing everyday items -- a hammer is just a hammer unless you specify otherwise -- but it's not the reader's job to fill in all the missing details.

3) Remember that books are about your characters' inner lives 

Movies are about the exterior. They show characters moving physically through a world. Even when they're intensely personal and even when there is voiceover narration, we don't generally see a character's inner thoughts. Instead, we deduce motivation by what we see in a character's actions and expressions.

Novels are about the interior. They're more personal and more connected to a character's thoughts and emotions.  Even action-packed genre novels, which have much in common with movies, have more emotional context than their cinematic counterparts.

Don't neglect the interior by keeping everything in dialogue-driven scenes. Make sure your reader is in touch with your characters' emotions and motivations.

4) If you're going to draw upon movies, think cinematically and not screenplay-y.

None of this is to say that movies can't be an inspiration for the way you write. But if you're going to incorporate some movie tropes, set aside dialogue and instead think about physical actions.

One of my favorite series of scenes from the past few years was in Rainbow Rowell's Eleanor & Park. In the opening stages of the novel, the two eponymous protagonists oh so gradually escalate their relationship over the course of several morning bus rides largely without talking to each other at all. Instead, they're simply sharing comics back and forth, then sharing music.

What's important about these scenes are the gestures, those little physically acted moments. Park holding open his comics so Eleanor can see them, Eleanor showing interest and moving a little closer, escalating to sharing music.

Don't think about what characters are saying, think much more about what they're doing.

Have you noticed novels that read like screenplays? How do you avoid movies getting in your head?


Brenda Peick said...

This is very eye-opening to me. When I read a book, it plays like a movie in my head. When I write, I also see a movie, but your points will help me delve into it more... Always learning!

Chris Bailey said...

Love this advice! I like to read screenplays to remind myself how little dialogue is required to complete a scene--and what a load a few carefully chosen spoken words can carry. But you're right--the novelist has to provide a full range of clues to help the reader experience the word-bound story.

Ellen T. McKnight said...

Excellent post! And the fun of it is that in a sense we novelists get to be the actors, directors, choreographers and even composers for our scenes, as well as the writers.

charlief33 said...

This was great! I got a chance to see Rainbow Rowell in person at YallFest a few months back and she went into detail about that very scene. Her editor and agent Sarah Burnes were there as well discussing the back back and forth of the revisions.

Are there any exercises you could recommend to help with this?

Anonymous said...

The best films depend on visual.

The best novels depend on narrative.

Good dialogue simply adds to both.

But I also think dialogue can be used as a show, to tell, and to tie things up in a tricky way readers don't normally notice.

I'd love to see you do a follow up post on "said bookisms," Nathan. You did one once that was excellent, and yet I still see so many painful dialogue tags and people who truly do not know the difference. It's embarrassing for them sometimes, because they don't know the difference and they seem so confident. It's like watching someone who thinks he can dance.

abc said...

That Eleanor & Park bit is a really good example. That was some lovely relationship building going on there. And I appreciate you making me think about this. Screenplays can be kind of boring to write because you can't pull all the cool stuff in.

Janiss Garza said...

I was an assistant movie editor in the early 1980s, just out of film school, so I am ALWAYS worried my writing is too screenplay-ish! When writing narratively, I try to think like a cinematographer and and editor, and not so much like a screenwriter. That helps a lot.

Valentina Hepburn said...

Thanks for this, Nathan. Sometimes when I'm writing I have to remind myself that the only person who can see into my head is me (probably just as well!) and when I'm visualising a scene it's the small, unique to character gestures and emotions that should be on the page and experienced by the reader.

Ree Callahan said...

"If you're going to draw upon movies, think cinematically and not screenplay-y."

Love this! I try to actively involve myself in local writer's groups and some online critique groups and I feel like I see this a lot. However, I've always had trouble wording the issue concisely. Thanks!

CyBi said...

Thank you for this - great comments! What does have me a little lost is that a common critique of my writing has been 'show, don't tell' - always said in a vague term without giving me specific examples from my work so I know which parts are 'too much tell' and need to be made into more show. When I asked someone to help me identify the parts in my writing that have too much tell, I was directed to a discussion which stated that anything that can be seen through a movie lens is 'show' and anything that couldn't be seen through a movie lens is 'tell.' Which is basically the exact opposite of what you're saying here, because in order to 'show, don't tell' I would have to write it as if it's a movie! Any help on distinguishing the difference? Thank you!!!

Doug said...

Screenplays must rely on only two senses: sight and sound. Novelists have the advantage of being able to use all senses.

Pimion said...

Thank you for this post. "When you're writing a novel, you have to describe the interior and provide all five senses for the reader" - so true. And I often fall to the temptation of focusing on dialogue and not providing enough details to set the scene.

Ellen Seltz said...

I completely agree with you about the finished product. But everybody has to find their own way through the first draft. For an auditory processor like me, starting with visuals/action is white-screen-hell because I literally can't see anything until I've *heard* what's happening. Dialogue can be a useful way to sketch. Then you chop it out and replace with action when you can see it.
To my way of thinking, if you're dialogue-heavy, it's not that you did it wrong, it's that you aren't finished yet.

Marvel said...

ah... Thank you! It was so interesting to read this -- because I feel like I over-rely on dialogue..

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