When I teach creative writing, I often challenge fiction writers to try writing as if they were screenwriters, using only the tools that screenwriters have at their disposal. To put it another way, I challenge fiction writers to stay on the surface—to bring the inner lives of their characters out where the reader can get a good look at them, though dialogue, action, posture, physical appearance, personal effects, etc. 

In real life, you don’t have direct access to anybody’s inner life besides your own. No matter how close you are to another person, you know what she is thinking only insofar as you can judge from what she says, what she does, the expression on her face, maybe what she’s carrying (is she approaching you with a birthday cake or with a baseball bat?). Long experience with this person may make you a better judge of the clues (though this isn’t always the case)…but in any case, you’re judging from clues.

The things that roll and tumble around inside us always make their way to the surface, one way or another. That’s why, even without a narrator, you are able to navigate a world full of people who are as mysterious to you as you are to them. 

One of the things I admire about screenwriters and playwrights is their skill in communicating the inner lives of characters without the benefit of a narrator to explain these things to us.  Everything is out there on the surface.

I’ve been thinking about screenwriters because a friend forwarded me a list of “Script Principles” that screenwriter Tony Tost has been collecting and developing over the last decade. Storytellers of all kinds, and not just screenwriters, will find them exceedingly helpful. (I found them so helpful that I’m going to make them the basis of my November webinar, this Thursday evening).

Here are a few of my favorite tips from Tony Tost’s list:

  • The purpose of dialogue is not to be impressive, but to be revealing.
  • People don’t change. They get revealed (Success doesn’t change people. It reveals them.) Create layers and masks for your main characters. What mask do they show their spouse? Their coworkers? What happens when their souse shows up at work and start chatting with those coworkers? What mask does your character wear then? What situations trigger forth layers they want hidden from sight?
  • The drama is not in the dialogue being spoken. The drama is in the desires and goals underneath the words. If the characters don’t have specific desires or goals, they can say many interesting things. But it won’t be dramatic.
  • When possible, make the scene’s protagonist’s goal/desire/emotion be something physical the protagonist’s scene partner can play. The husband doesn’t just feel a desperate sadness; he wants his wife to hold him. (They can play this.) The grandmother isn’t just scared: she wants to get the scary teens off her porch. The good-hearted deputy isn’t just concerned: he wants the scared girl to look elsewhere so she can’t see her father’s dead body. The protagonist’s word’s and actions (and the actor’s performance) can then be directed at getting the other actors in the scene to achieve that playable goal.

There are thirty-six of these principles on the list. Some address screenwriting pretty specifically. But if you want to tell better stories, I commend this list to you. And I’d love to see you Thursday night when we talk through some of these principles in my webinar.

One more note about writing like a screenwriter.
I mentioned above that I often challenge fiction writers to try writing as if they had only the screenwriter’s tools at their disposal. That’s a great exercise, and it helps train storytellers in the vital skill of showing instead of telling. But the narrator’s ability to eavesdrop on at least one character’s thoughts and feelings is one of the great benefits of fiction-writing, and it is one that you shouldn’t ignore. 

There’s a moment in Chapter 12 of The Hobbit that demonstrates what I mean. Bilbo is sneaking down a tunnel toward the dragon Smaug’s hoard of treasure, and he faces a moment of fear:

It was at this point that Bilbo stopped. Going on from there was the bravest thing he ever did. The tremendous things that happened afterwards were as nothing compared to it. He fought the real battle in the tunnel alone, before he ever saw the vast danger that lay in wait. At any rate after a short halt, go on he did…

As you can see, this is a pretty important moment in The Hobbit. What would happened here if Tolkien had accepted my challenge to write this moment using only the tools available to a screenwriter? Well, we would see Bilbo walk, then stop, then start walking again. The actor could get a scared look on his face, then get a brave look on his face. Maybe he could make a speech about how scared he is, then buck himself up by saying something self-inspiring. But that wouldn’t make much sense, since it is extremely important at this moment that he stay quiet. And even if Bilbo did deliver a lovely soliloquy at this point, there is no way for him to know what the omniscient narrator knows, that this moment of courage is more important than the deeds of bravery that he hasn’t accomplished yet.

I don’t know how this moment is played in the Hobbit movie…it appeared in the second of third of those movies, and I barely made it to the end of the first one. The long and short of it is that the omniscient narrator opens up possibilities here that aren’t available to the screenwriter or moviemaker. So while fiction writers have a lot to learn from screenwriters when it comes to showing and telling, they shouldn’t neglect the fact that telling is sometimes exactly what the doctor ordered.

1 Comment
  • Natalie Pace
    4:10 PM, 16 December 2020

    I’m both a screenwriter and a fiction writer, and it can be hard to switch back and forth between the two for exactly those reasons! I’ve struggled to give myself permission to get back inside a character’s head after spending so long writing only what can be seen and heard.

    On a related note, after listening to your recent podcast interviews with Crystal Downing and Randall Goodgame, I started thinking that it would be very interesting to hear an interview with one or more of the screenwriters of The Chosen. They’re doing something very similar to what Dorothy Sayers did with her radio plays… Making the Gospel characters feel like real people… And there’s a strong collaborative aspect going on, too. I don’t know if you take suggestions for The Habit guests, but if you do, here’s mine!

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