Barri Evins reveals Screenwriting Secrets novelists should steal to elevate dialogue, up emotional impact, and focus theme to deliver a resonant message.
Last month, I suggested the top two screenwriting secrets novelists should steal from screenwriters before they begin to write.
I cited one of my favorite writers, William Goldman, who achieved success and critical acclaim as a novelist, screenwriter and playwright.
For this article, I looked for words of wisdom from another multi-hyphenate, whose career progressed from his start as a joke writer, to stand up comedian, screenwriter, playwright, essayist, and novelist, Steve Martin.
On screenwriting versus prose:
“Screenplays are more scientific – they really do need a beginning, middle, and end; they really have to be concise.”
“Concise” is the Top Screenwriting Secret to Steal While You Write
As novelists, you get to create the rules.
You choose the narrative voice. You might have a character narrate the story from their point of view. You could have many characters telling their version of the events. The narrator can be a participating character or an observer of the story. Your narrator may be anonymous, omniscient, or even unreliable, to create your intended effect.
Chapters can be as long or as short as you choose.
Your novel can have as many words as you like.
Screenwriters, however, live and die by “the rules.”
Rules govern everything from the acceptable page length of a screenplay to the amount of white space—yes, the space left blank that should be on a page. In screenwriting, if the page doesn’t “look right”—too dark with lengthy blocks of description or filled with long, unbroken passages of dialogue—it is instantly considered “amateurish.”
In addition, screenwriters can’t slip into the minds of their characters to reveal their thoughts and feelings. It must be brought to life in what we can see on the screen. In a way that an actor can portray. Telling instead of showing is verboten. Every major story element should to support a single thematic idea.
But these screenwriting rules are there for a reason. Because screenwriting uses words not as a final product, but to create a blueprint for a visual storytelling medium.
It’s hard to say if screenwriters envy novelists or resent their freedom. But I guarantee you, they’re happy to have you reap the benefits of the hardships they undergo every time they sit down to write.
Swipe these screenwriting secrets to strengthen your dialogue skills, escalate the impact of your characters’ emotions and make your story resonate with a single thematic message reflected from beginning to end.
Steal These Screenwriting Secrets WHILE You Write
Screenwriting Secrets: Deliver Deft Dialogue
Stories for screen and television are nearly as driven by dialogue as they are by plot. The industry has high expectations when it comes to dialogue. And we judge harshly.
Great dialogue for the screen must meet these standards:
- Lean—Succinct dialogue. No lengthy monologues. Less is more.
- Fluent—Flows smoothly, avoids non sequiturs, eschews esoteric language
- Distinctive to Character—Each character should speak in a voice that is unique to them; it reflects and reveals their essential characteristics. We should know who is speaking purely by how they sound.
Stiff, stilted, talky or on the nose dialogue is immediately disqualifying! Ouch.
One of the highest compliments screen dialogue can receive is that it sounds “authentic.” The trick, however, is mastering the difference between real life dialogue and heightened dialogue that reflects real life. At its best, there is a sense that the dialogue is “messy” in a way that sounds natural.
If words on the page cannot be translated to visuals on the screen, they will be lost to the audience. Working in a strictly visual medium forces writers to develop their strength at showing rather than telling.
In real life, conversations may be filled with “umms,” “uhhs” and incomplete thoughts. Great dialogue may still have awkward moments or thoughts that trail off; moments where characters struggle to say what they mean, but it is in service of making a point. It shows us that the character is dealing with a complex thought, working to express an inner emotion, or grappling with an external conflict.
Avoid extraneous chit-chat. It’s familiar. It’s dull. No “Hello,” What’s up?” or “Bye-bye”. It takes up precious space when they have only 110 pages (including all that white space!) to tell a story from start to finish. We all know these exchanges. Cut to the focus of the conversation.
Repetitive dialogue is a big no-no. If we’ve just seen something play out, we don’t need to hear a character recount it to someone else. If they absolutely must, start at the ending, “And that’s what happened.” Same goes for both telling and showing.
Monologues are awkward. You don’t hear many soul-baring monologues in real life. And you don’t find too many of them in screenplays either. They slow the pace. They can easily feel preachy or heavy-handed.
Narration is minimal. In screenplays, narration is conveyed as Voice Over. Narration can be useful, but only if there is absolutely no other way to show us other than by telling us. Use this device artfully and sparingly. It should be an integrated and integral element of the story and reflect its tone.
Top screenplay dialogue does two things at once: Advance story and reveal character. Push your dialogue to that level to make your work truly stand out.
Dialogue Screenwriting Secret: Get into a scene as late as you can. Get out of a scene as early as you can.
Nab these guidelines to create engaging dialogue that can elevate your skills.
Screenwriting Secrets: Master The Superpower of Subtext
Novels enable you to tell us what characters are thinking and feeling or reveal their backstories. But in screenwriting, the only option is to show us. If words on the page cannot be translated to visuals on the screen, they will be lost to the audience. Working in a strictly visual medium forces writers to develop their strength at showing rather than telling.
Subtext is one of screenwriting’s superpowers. What is unsaid is as often more meaningful than what is said.
Subtext is more impactful than words. Subtext conveys inner thoughts and emotions through visuals. Showing us a character’s facial expression, their body language, their behavior, a gesture or a glance can be more impactful than the most expressive VO narration or the omniscient narrator revealing the character’s thoughts.
Subtext activates our imagination. This creates a more engaging experience for the reader. Rather than spelling everything out on the page, it leaves our brain to fill in the gaps. To extrapolate. To draw on our own experiences. What we envision in our minds creates a moment more visceral than the most talented writer could craft from words alone.
For instance, I could describe the exact details of what I ate for dinner last night down to the sprig of parsley garnishing the plate. Or… I could tell you that it was delicious: A mouthwatering main course, paired perfectly with savory side dishes, finishing with a sinfully rich dessert.
The story of last night’s dinner lights up our sensory cortex—the area that processes the input of our senses—sight, sound, smell, touch, taste.
A story about going for a long run, up winding trails, along narrow paths, leading to the final push to the top for the magnificent vista, our motor cortex, responsible for controlling voluntary movement, activates.
A titillating sex scene needn’t reveal every graphic detail. In fact, unless you’re writing Adult Films, a few carefully chosen specifics will be more umm… arousing than a blow-by-blow account. A glimpse of skin, a subtle touch, an intake of breath…
When we hear an engaging story, the areas in our brain that we would use when actually experiencing those events literally light up with neural activity. The brain gets busy processing input and making meaning of it—because that is the brain’s primary job—to make meaning. If anything is missing, our brain’s work to fill in the gaps—activating our imagination.
Our brains experience engaging stories as if we were in the story.
Our mouth waters, our muscles clench, our hearts pound.
Activating the reader’s brain powerfully draws them into the world of your story. We experience the story as if we were in the shoes of your hero. We feel what your characters feel. This creates stories that keep the reader riveted.
Adopt valuable subtext techniques from screenwriters from the power of “What Is Left Unsaid.”
Screenwriting Secrets: Harness The Power of a Single Message
Theme is one of the most compelling elements of story. Whether or not we are aware of it on a conscious level, themes that speak to us draw us to stories. Theme makes us want to read or watch stories again and again. I’ve written here in the past on how novelist can harness the power of theme to entice publishers, captivate readers, and to capture the interest of the film and television industry.
In the world of screenwriting, theme gives a story universal appeal. Translation: It speaks to a wide audience. And in the industry we are always seeking the biggest possible audience. Because movies are the single most expensive medium in which to tell a story known to mankind. Ergo: We gotta put butts in seats.
Think for a moment about the hu-u-uge audience for Avengers: Endgame, which is crushing box office records. I offer this up as an example not merely of how much Hollywood loves the “Ka-ching!” but also as an example of the power of theme. According to Peter Debruge, Chief Film Critic at Variety, “’Endgame’ shifts the focus from extravagant, effects-driven displays of universe-saving – manifold though they remain—to the more human cost of heroism, which comes at great personal sacrifice.” Translation: Theme.
While novels give you the space to explore multiple themes, in a screenplay, as they say in the film Highlander, “There can only be one.”
Consider embracing this film precept, Support the one message you most want to share with your reader. Underscore theme with your protagonist, but also use your supporting characters to reflect different points of view on that idea. Use theme as a litmus test for every choice you make to add resonance to your story. Crafting a a single, strong message will reverberate with your reader long after they put your book down.
Adopt these ideas on incorporating theme into every aspect of your story to make it resonant.
Screenwriting Secrets: Concise Writing
Novelists possess the amazing ability to create a complex story on a grand scale. Screenwriters, however, don’t have the leisure of telling a story in 80,000 words.
Screenwriters can’t afford to weigh down their work. Every word they choose must to serve a purpose. Screenplays, as they say, really have to be concise.
What’s the simplest test to see if your writing is concise? Every choice you make, every detail, each adjective, every verb, every word spoken should be significant. A screenwriter friend told me the writing rule he lives by is: “Every word has to fight for its place in a good script.”
Apply this focus to your novels and make every word truly count.
Steal these screenwriting secrets to elevate your dialogue, up the emotional impact of your story, and focus your theme to deliver a resonant message.
Next month, Part Three: Psst! Steal These Screenwriting Secrets AFTER You Write to Market Your Novel