One of my favorite jokes on The Office is when Dwight Schrute boasts, “I know everything about film. I’ve seen over 240 of them.”
It’s funny because it sounds reasonable at first, but then you realize that’s seriously nothing — when you think about how many movies you’ve actually seen, it’s surely thousands, not to mention thousands of hours of scripted TV shows (that’s also when you realize just how much time you actually have on your hands).
When we tell stories, it’s almost impossible to get movies and TV shows out of our heads. So when you sit down to write a scene, it’s exceedingly natural to think of it like a scene in the movies. But it’s also extremely problematic. Books are wholly different beasts than movies.
Here’s how to avoid screenplayizing your novel:
Don’t construct a scene around dialogue
Two people simply talking is not at all interesting on the page, no matter how scintillating the dialogue.
In movies, watching two people just talk can be fascinating because we are actually watching the actors and we’re absorbing way more than just the words they’re speaking. We’re seeing their facial expressions, their gestures, we’re hearing their vocal inflection, we’re absorbing the setting, and there are sound effects and music and countless other small sources of input. Reduce all of that to simply words, and you have yourself a hollow experience.
Instead, it’s up to writers to set the scene, to give the nonverbal cues, to articulate the physical action, and create a full picture of what’s happening. Elmore Leonard probably came as close as you can to successfully constructing novels wholly around dialogue, but his approach was more about economy of nonverbal cues than it was about removing them entirely.
Don’t rely on the reader to imagine a scene
Novel writers are not screenwriters. They’re also directors, actors, sound engineers, cinematographers, key grips, best boys… you get the idea.
When you’re writing a screenplay, all you have to do is say that the scene takes place in Rick’s Café Américain and it’s up to the director and movie crew to figure out what that looks like.
When you’re writing a novel, you have to describe the interior and provide all five senses for the reader. They simply won’t know what things look like unless you tell them.
Many writers feel like they’re being boring when they take some time to set the scene, but it’s so crucial for the reader to be able to physically place themselves within a scene and have enough context to picture what is happening. You don’t have to overdo it describing everyday items — a hammer is just a hammer unless you specify otherwise — but it’s not the reader’s job to fill in all the missing details.
Remember that books are about your characters’ inner lives
Movies are about the exterior. They show characters moving physically through a world. Even when they’re intensely personal and even when there is voiceover narration, we don’t generally see a character’s inner thoughts. Instead, we deduce motivation by what we see in a character’s actions and expressions.
Novels are about the interior. They’re more personal and more connected to a character’s thoughts and emotions. Even action-packed genre novels, which have much in common with movies, have more emotional context than their cinematic counterparts.
Don’t neglect the interior by keeping everything in dialogue-driven scenes. Make sure your reader is in touch with your characters’ emotions and motivations.
If you’re going to draw upon movies, think cinematically and not screenplay-y.
None of this is to say that movies can’t be an inspiration for the way you write. But if you’re going to incorporate some movie tropes, set aside dialogue and instead think about physical actions.
One of my favorite series of scenes from the past few years was in Rainbow Rowell’s Eleanor & Park. In the opening stages of the novel, the two eponymous protagonists oh so gradually escalate their relationship over the course of several morning bus rides largely without talking to each other at all. Instead, they’re simply sharing comics back and forth, then sharing music.
What’s important about these scenes are the gestures, those little physically acted moments. Park holding open his comics so Eleanor can see them, Eleanor showing interest and moving a little closer, escalating to sharing music.
Don’t think about what characters are saying, think much more about what they’re doing.
Have you noticed novels that read like screenplays? How do you avoid movies getting in your head?
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