Use these 5 screenwriting techniques to write a better novel. These proven screenwriting tips can make your novel come alive visually and help you avoid exposition and information dumping. In other words, ‘show, don’t tell’.
We can all agree that movies are, at the heart of it, stories that are told in pictures. Cinema is a visual medium: it relies on action, dialogue, setting, and brings all of these together to register an emotion, to deliver a genre.
As novelists, we are told one of the sins to avoid in writing is ‘telling’ (exposition, backstory, information dumping) and that to keep our pace lively and our readers engaged, we must ‘show’ (narrative, dialogue, action played out moment by moment.) This is always easier said than done.
Look and learn
However, movies have a lot to teach us. So, what can the fiction writer learn from one of the most popular forms of storytelling in the world? What can visual writers teach us about a novel or short story? How can we steal some of their lightning so that it lives on the pages of our stories?
Here are five screenwriting techniques to write a better novel that will help you create a visually compelling story.
5 Screenwriting Techniques To Write A Better Novel
1. Showing A Moment Of Change
In her biography of the star, Charlotte Chandler relates the inciting incident of Joan Crawford’s movie, The Damned Don’t Cry (1950).
The story is about a bored housewife who lives a drab existence with her husband, a parsimonious oil-field worker. The only reason she stays in the marriage is because of their seven-year-old son.
So, how do they show this situation in the film?
When the wife buys the boy a bicycle on credit, her husband demands the bike is returned to the shop. The son is just up the street and the father calls for him to come back home immediately. As he pedals back, he is hit by a car and dies. Now, the wife has no reason to stay with her dull, overbearing husband and she leaves to start a new life.
In your novel, you can use one or two powerful scenes to show that pivotal moment in your character’s journey: the moment that they break free from their ennui or stasis. For it to register with the reader, it must be an externalised (the boy struck by the truck, finding the lipstick stain on his collar; a job offer in another city, etc.).
2. Showing The Character
The Art of Alfred Hitchcock by Donald Spoto (Penguin Random House, 1991) is a seminal analysis of the master director’s work.
In the book, Spoto explains how Hitchcock sketched an entire character in the opening scene of Suspicion (1941) with a few deft strokes. The story is about a shy young heiress, Lina, who marries a handsome charmer, but soon becomes suspicious that he is trying to kill her.
In the opening, a subjective scene which takes place on a train, Lina meets Johnny for the first time. She is a prim young woman, wearing glasses, and reading a book on child psychology.
Of course, we will later learn that her vision is ‘faulty’ in other ways – in how she views the world through armchair psychology, or how she treats men as children or horses. But in this first scene, her core trait is perfectly and succinctly captured.
It is worthwhile giving some thought to what the first visual impression the reader will have of your main or lead character.
For example, if you were writing a romance, you might want to show the heroine arriving late for work, bearing a box of donuts and breathless with excuses of oversleeping – so you know she is an attention seeker without knowing it or even acknowledging it. She wants people to like her – so she’d be ripe for a little romance.
3. Showing The Enduring Image
The vivid image, cinematic iconography if you will: a poster that lingers and stays in our imaginations and in our culture. For a moment, think of these enduring images.
- The boy on the bike cycling across the moon in E.T: the Extra-Terrestrial (1982) – the image is shorthand for innocence, adventure, childhood, more. It’s whimsical, nostalgic, and unforgettable.
- Think of the body bleeding in the snow in Fargo (1996), a powerful tapestry of contrasts in a simple brutal image.
- And what of Forrest Gump (1994) sitting on a bench in his white jacket and single suitcase – a nostalgic and almost innocent image that captures the idea of journeys, new beginnings, and the cyclical nature of life. Moreover, it gives us a sense of this awkward character.
So how can you create this type of central and encompassing image in your novel? One way you could approach it, is to look at the theme of your story.
For example: say your story is about greed, evil, and the seduction of crime. You could have your villain have the whitest teeth in the biggest smile, but with a grille of pure gold across his bottom teeth. It’s an image that stays with your hero, that disturbs him, and keeps him up at night.
4. Showing Your Character’s Inner Intent
In a movie, a close-up gives you an intense image, almost an emotional microscope, it draws the eye. US screenwriter Philip Eisner, in Cut to the Chase (Penguin Random House, ed. Linda Venis), gives the following example.
In a movie, you can’t film ‘murderous intent’ but what you absolutely can film is this close-up: ‘He glances at fat bubbling away in the deep fryer and smiles.’ That is such a powerful image: the evil almost crackles and burns off the page.
You can use the same close-up technique in a novel if you isolate a short paragraph that draws the reader’s eye, attention, and imagination to the character or the plot point. Whatever you choose, it must register intent. It must ‘ping’ in the reader’s mind.
It’s like zooming in on a detail (a fresh scratch mark on the forearm of a suspected rapist), a beautiful moment, (a dragonfly caught in the reeds at sunrise), or a heartbeat (waking up to unusual noise in a haunted house).
In fact, it can even be framed in a line of dialogue, just think of The Great Gatsby (‘Gatsby?’ demanded Daisy. ‘What Gatsby?’)
5. Showing Subtext
In an essay for Cinema Catharsis, Allan Khumalo shows how cult director David Fincher uses simple visual symbolism as cogent subtext in Fight Club (1999).
To show the pervasive theme of disillusion of the dark consumerist culture that engulfed society on the eve of the millennium, he had a Starbucks coffee in just about every scene of the movie. A small, but telling, detail. Subtle, yes, but powerful.
As a novelist, you can search for a small image or two that can be repeated or peppered through the narrative, an image that will connect with the reader and illicit an unconscious response. For example, maybe your story takes place near a lake and water is recurring image to symbolise life.
We hope using these 5 screenwriting techniques to write a better novel helps you learn how to show and note tell.
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