How Screenwriting Can Help You Write Stronger Fiction
Crystal Smith Paul Offers Craft Advice that Spans the Spectum of Genre
If we can all agree with the principle that avid reading has the potential to make one a better writer, then I would like to also assert the theory that writing in different genres and styles can make one a better writer too. Each type and genre of writing is its own beast with different rules and best practices. Sometimes, the rules are so different, that writing in a new style can feel like a learning a new language.
My writing experience is broad and has challenged me to write (and read) in a few different styles. I’ve learned the best copywriting is short and sweet. I think legal writing is closest to an academic paper (but it’s not) with its need for sources and citing. Op-eds differ from essays, while journalism relies on truth above all.
But fiction is, by far, my favorite type of writing. I appreciate the creative license it allows; I love following the maze as the story reveals itself, and the building of a world. This is not to say that other forms of writing have not been useful in my fiction. It’s quite the opposite.
In looking back on the writing process of my debut novel, Did You Hear About Kitty Karr?, I realize that I naturally pulled from my education in screenwriting, in undergraduate school at UCLA’s School of Film and Television and in study years later with award-winning playwright and screenwriter Corey Mandell, to craft the story.
I ultimately decided to continue focusing on novel writing as long form fiction has always been my first love. I’ve only taken one fiction class in high school, so to say I’ve had little to no instruction in writing fiction is not an exaggeration. Nonetheless—and I know this from experience—if there’s a story inside of you, you’ll find a way to tell it.
Start with a Plot Points or Scene List.
Screenwriting taught me scene building, how to get creative about creating conflict and to avoid holding the story hostage to “traditional” structure. When working on a script, a writer lists the “beats” or actions within a scene, which eventually become a scene list.
This same principle can be applied when creating plot in fiction. A plot or scene list is a list of events and becomes your novel’s roadmap. Having one will keep your story moving.In looking back on the writing process of my debut novel, Did You Hear About Kitty Karr?, I realize that I naturally pulled from my education in screenwriting.
Thinking of your story in terms of scenes may help you differentiate between what information needs to be narrative summary and what you need to show. It helps to write out all the main story points before you know what order it makes sense to tell them in.
Your plot points will change as you begin to write out the narrative, but the list will remain your blueprint for where you think you’re headed. It will help you imagine the scenes and the characters and keep your characters in action, which in turn reveals who they are.
When you’re in the weeds of the narrative, it’s helpful to take a beat to see how the details fit (or don’t fit) into the whole. For this reason, your plot list should remain flexible. Things will change—you might decide you need another scene to emphasize something, or that other scene is duplicative.
Rest assured that the order of events will clarify themselves as you write. Think of your plot points list as a CliffsNotes.
Dig for Conflict
Conflict can present as a violent clash, a subtle whisper or even just intellectually. As you get acquainted with your characters, you must destroy their world as they know it and set it on fire. Remember that a story exists because something happened, something changed and something urgent needs to be said or done.
In screenwriting, because the story will eventually be viewed, conflict becomes the driving force as it creates action. The perspective of the “watcher” can help create compelling fiction.
These actions are what differentiates scenes from narrative summary. Every character in a story must want something and take an action to get it. Even in short scenes or with seemingly unimportant characters, everyone should want and do something, even if it’s the smallest thing.
To create conflict, this something must be in opposition to another character’s wants or needs. Conflict can be subtle and knowing what it is, knowing what each person is desperate for, will help you write the undercurrents that makes fiction interesting. Things are rarely the way they appear on the surface and it’s your job as the writer to dig for the clashes and expound upon them.
Follow the Story to Inform Structure
While a plot list is my step one to creating structure, it is by no means the answer. There’s the story, “what happens,” and the “how” you will tell it. The how is the structure.
Every story has a beginning, middle and end but the definition of what those markers mean can change from story to story. Some stories begin at the end and proceed backwards. Some stories start at the beginning and tell you how it all ends and then fills in the middle.
Choices about structure are informed by the plot. You don’t have to know the way you’re going to tell the story immediately. Screenwriting praises ingenuity and if you can throw out the “rules” of traditional story structure, your story might feel more organic to the reader and more authentic.
Give yourself the freedom to work beyond the confines of traditional structure. Let what happens show you how it wants to be told.
Resist Vision Lock
It’s easy for any creative to become tied to their vision of their work. In screenwriting and novel writing, however, because your story is meant to be read (or seen), remain flexible during the editing and publishing process about what needs to change to make the story work better. While it’s true that not every suggestion will resonate, it’s helpful to strongly consider other perspectives about the story itself but also, how it will be marketed.
Remain objective and resist being too absolute about anything. As the writer, you’re in the weeds of the narrative and holding fast to your vision often has more to do with ego and not the mechanics of the craft or what’s best for the work itself.
Remember That Writing is a Skill
Writing is hard, fiction writing is even harder, but it can be mastered. Screenwriting takes practice just like novel writing. Multiple drafts and edits are just a part of the process. Sure, some may be naturally talented, but they’ve still put in the work to be great at what they do. The same principle applies if you’re not naturally talented and just have an idea that’s been bubbling up inside.
Writing is a skill that can be developed through repetition, by reading and analyzing others’ work, and sharing your own for feedback. The worst thing you can do is let self-doubt creep in. Just keep going and know you can get better at writing, just like any other skill.
Did You Hear About Kitty Karr? by Crystal Smith Paul is available via Henry Holt.