5 Fiction Lessons From The Screen Trade

I know, I know. What the fuck has screenwriting got to do with fiction?

Any asshole who has a poor taste in cinema and a napkin to scribble on can be a screenwriter, right?

Not exactly. 

Sure, it’s probably true that every bartender within a hundred miles of Hollywood has a script in his back pocket.

And no, you’re right, you can’t get a seat a coffee shop in California due to the number of ‘screenwriters’ with $2000 Macbooks and serious misjudgement of their abilities hogging tables.

But don’t let a few bad eggs spoil the picnic; screenwriting is an artform, and yes there are people who fucking suck at it - but when done well it’s poetry. 

In the remarkable rant, “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script”, published on the Village Voice website earlier this week, screenwriter Josh Olson (A History Of Violence) made some great points about the perception of screenwriting.

(Aspiring screenwriters) think that screenwriting doesn’t actually require the ability to write, just the ability to come up with a cool story that would make a cool movie.

Screenwriting is widely regarded as the easiest way to break into the movie business, because it doesn’t require any kind of training, skill or equipment.

Everybody can write, right?

You may remember me saying similar things about fiction writing. For their sins, screenwriters are perhaps more maligned than their fiction-bothering brethren. And unfairly so.

If you’re working on a story of any kind, you’d do well to study up on screenwriting, because those crafty, malnourished bottom-feeders have some tips and tricks that, simply put; will make your manuscript better.

1) Show Don’t Tell

In screenwriting this is both lesson number one, and crime number one. People have a tendency to write page after page of exposition-heavy dialogue rather that wrting one sentence of direction.

In fiction, there is no excuse for this. I read books that have shocking amounts of poor, exposition-leaden dialogue. Say more by having your characters say less. Much less.

Instead, use your silky prose skills to find ways of revealing information that is lyrical, original and compelling.

2) Structure

While it might be the most analytical approach to writing I’ve ever seen - discuss structure with a screenwriter and you’ll get a thoroughly mathematical breakdown of the three act story in a 90-page frame, including the precise page number that plot points should happen on - screenwriting is hard to beat for learning how to plot a compelling narrative.

Sure, this meticulous approach leads to asshole hacks selling their 'proven formula’ in books and at seminars for hundreds of dollars a pop, but these pasty-skinned basement dwellers make some good points.

Good screenwriters are masters of advanced planning and plot mechanics - the basic motivation of which is that there is a limited time with which to tell the story, leaving no time for waffle.

In fiction, all too often writers chew on the fucking potatoes way too long before getting to the meat. Decide how long your story needs to be, plan a plot structure within that word count, and stick to it. No-one needs to read 20 pages on grass. Fuck the grass.

3) Enter late, leave early

Which moves neatly into the next lesson; your characters should always be doing something. Motion, motion, motion.

Seen the West Wing? Famous for the walk and talk. You know why? Because your characters should always be doing something. Two people standing in a room talking is a fucking stage play. Nothing wrong with plays, but we’re writing novels.

In a good screenplay, if the main characters have to go somewhere for some reason, you don’t see them stand around and talk about it. They don’t chit chat about what they had for dinner or what they’re doing later. They go and fucking do it.

To enter late is to arrive in the scene as late as possible for it still to be compelling. i.e. instead of showing two detectives receive a dispatch call, then drive to respond only to find a body, you start with them finding the body.

Same way, have them leave the scene early to follow a lead rather than hang around talking.

In your novel, if you’ve got a chapter where a character thinks about doing something for a few pages, then spends a few more pages on their way to do something, and then finally does that thing, cut the first two and start with her doing that thing.

Everything else is static.

Exception to the rule; Tarantino. It is highly unlikely you are Quentin Tarantino, and if you’re that good, then fuck you.

4) Keep It Simple, Stupid

You are not David Foster Wallace. If it doesn’t work without footnotes; simplify.

5) Whammy!

Joel Silver is the venomous asshole responsible for producing some of the finest action films of the past 30 years. Die Hard? Joel Silver. Predator? Joel Silver. Lethal Weapon. Beverly Hills Cop. The Matrix. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. The list goes on.

Sure sure he’s a fucking vulture, but he understands what audiences respond to. And the key ingredient? Whammy.

A whammy is something exciting. Explosions, death, sex, a kiss, a car chase, a scare, a revelation. It doesn’t have to be big, it just has to be exciting.

'Fuck art, give me whammy.’ - Joel Silver.

Silver’s basic rule is you need a whammy every 10-12 pages to keep the pace up, to keep your audience on side.

I’m not telling you to go out and write a commercial thriller, but you need whammy. And you need it regularly.

Write a thinker. Write a cerebral book about a guy dying of motor neurone disease. Write a novel from the point of view of a fucking chair but in the name of all that is holy give it some whammy. Your readers will thank you.

Literature doesn’t have to be slow. Don’t make your readers work for you, make your story work for them.


So there, off you go. Pick up a copy of Story by Robert McKee, or Screenplay by Syd Field, or Save The Cat by Blake Snyder, or take a seminar. Go to a coffee shop and meet some screenwriters and learn from them.

Just, whatever you do, don’t fucking become one. You’re a fiction writer. You’re too drunk to be a good bartender.

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