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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Cut The Bullshit & Promote Yourself

Let’s be honest. Chances are you’re never going to make it.

And by ‘make it’, I mean, 'hit that level of literary fame where your name alone will shift 100,000 copies of whatever guff you vomited up this month’.

Some writers are middle of the road enough to reach this level in their lifetimes, but this probably won’t be you. Chin up.

The only guarantee in this poorly-timed punchline of a profession is that if you want anything out of it you’ll have to work hard.

And you’ll have to keep working hard.

There are no passes, no exceptions. Finished writing your book? Woopy-doo. Got a book deal? Fuck you.

You have to keep working hard. 

It isn’t enough to be a writer alone. Everyone is a writer, and most of them are better than you. And at least as misguided. 

It’s not enough because this is a vague new world, with more content, more noise, more static than ever before.

You need to make yourself visible, you need to cut through. Relying on a publisher or an agent or the barely legible prose of your latest abomination to do the work for you is setting yourself up to be wholly ignored. 

You have to cut the bullshit and promote yourself.

You’re a publisher. You’re a PR. You’re a marketing department. You’re customer services. You are the street team, the evangelist and the fangirl. 

Whether you’re self-published or you have a team of reasonably trained, mostly alcoholic professionals in your corner, this still applies. Why? Because you are not a beautiful and unique snowflake.

You’re just a name on a mediocre manuscript in a slushpile full of mediocre manuscripts. If you do get published, chances are the’re not going to make any money off you, so you’ve got to show them that you’re a good investment.

You’ve got to add value to your brand. Yes, you’re a brand. No, that doesn’t mean you get to talk about yourself in the third person.

Actually, while we’re here - you should log into Twitter, Goodreads, and especially fucking LinkedIn and re-write that bio in the first person. Right now. Third person is not for talking about yourself. Ever. Stop that shit, you look ridiculous.

Back to my point - the assholes don’t care about you. They buy whatever the supermarkets buy in bulk and discount at a loss. The way to make people care is to build an audience on your own.

Talk to your readers. Talk about your process, share tips, ask for advice. Start the conversation. Get yourself on Facebook and Twitter. And in the name of all that is sensible get yourself a Tumblr. 

Build your audience, and suddenly you have value beyond your words alone. You know you’re a good writer, you’ve put your words on paper - this is half the battle. The other half is making yourself a viable publishing option.

Of course, there are no guarantees. But keep working hard and promoting yourself and you’re only going to help your cause.

Even if you do get published, even if you write a bestseller and you sell the film rights and someone throws a meaningless award at you, you still need to talk to your readers, to manage your brand, to build your audience.

Look at writers like Neil Gaiman and Warren Ellis. Acclaimed, bestselling authors both, and still both leverage social media to help promote themselves and engage with their readers.

They don’t have to, but they understand the importance of not resting on their laurels and continuing to work hard. And both are enjoying far wider recognition as a result.

As a writer, you wouldn’t trust anyone to write your words for you. In the same way, you should be the one promoting your words. The words you worked for so long to craft. The words you bled for.

There are no valid arguments. Just cut the bullshit and promote yourself.

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Writing Wrongs & Righting Writes

By now it’s been well established, mostly by me, that writing fucking sucks. It’s a horrible, wonderful, horrible way to spend your time.

But editing, holy fucking shit. Editing is the worst.

Trying to decide what words to cut out is harder than trying to hold down a job.

The other day on Twitter a friend asked me how to cut their word count, "the copy is too good to let go,“ they said.

Now I hadn’t read this copy, so I can’t judge, but in my experience this is the first mistake most writers make when editing; believing your words are any good.

"You’re rarely as witty as you think you are,” I @replied. “And at least half as brilliant.”

I was half joking when I said it, but also at least 60% serious. It may sound harsh but objectivity is the key.

That’s why I recommend leaving your manuscript in a drawer for so long you forget you wrote it. Or giving it to a lawyer and having it delivered to you at midnight, 12 years from now, by the side of the road in a small town you’ve never been to before.

Farfetched maybe, but the point is that you should be able to look at it with fresh eyes and say to yourself, without any doubt, “what a piece of fucking shit.”

Then you start cutting words.

“Shoot them all,” I told me friend, “play a game of ‘how many words can I take away and still be saying the same thing?’”

Why use five words when you can use one. Why have five punchlines when brevity is the essence of wit.

That is the point of editing; focus.

Like burning ants, you need to get that magnifying glass in just the right place to set those fuckers alight.

Say less. Say as little as possible. As long as your point survives, you win.

As for being funny. Don’t. You’re not. Anyone who tries to be funny is setting themselves up for failure (this blog, for example).

Funny is overrated. The real trick is to be honest.

Hemingway said 'all you need to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence you know.’

Read your manuscript again and highlight the truth in each passage. Cut out everything else until all you’ve got is honesty. And not just because Hemingway said so.

Truth is funnier than any joke you can tell. Injecting a healthy dose of honesty will make your manuscript more hilarious, more heart-breaking, and more poignant than by trying to force it in.

And if you’ve simply got to keep a darling in there, if you need to save your favourites, then - like a literary Sophie’s Choice - save one.

Now all you’ve got to do is make sure that your plot structure works, all your character arcs are fully developed, all the scenes take place where they need to, the dialogue doesn’t all sound the same and there are no continuity errors.


How do you approach editing? Leave me a comment!

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