Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Envelope, Please…

By Amber Scott

More and more, we novelists are competing for our audience. Video games aren’t just for kids anymore and with 3D technology, films promise quite an experience. With no special effects, no stuntmen, how can we get a creative edge? I say we level the playing field by learning from the competition.

While we novelists have a lot in common with the other breed, like in relying on the hero’s journey for pacing, the screenwriting game follows certain rules and techniques that are proven to help a film succeed from the start, no matter what the budget.

What movie is this line from? “Inconceivable!”

A screenwriter has limited present tense action and dialogue to create an entire story. So every spoken word becomes crucial. And, memorable. Dialogue “prods your plot” (Robert W. Walker, Dead On Writing.) How can we make our characters dialogue more memorable? First, read every page and ask, what parts can I turn into dialogue rather than narration, or, if this were a film scene, what would they be saying to show the audience this? Second, read your dialogue out loud, or better yet, have a non-writer read it, and without the character tags of “he said” or “she said”. Do your characters have distinguishable ways of speaking? Third, in Hollywood, it’s best to be “off the nose”. This means say it without saying it directly, or not “on the nose”. Hemingway was brilliant at this. What are your characters telling us by not spelling it out? What can be inferred instead?

Whose signature props are a dusty hat, and a whip?

On film costume and set props are part of the story more than ever. They tell us who our hero is. They give actors something to do besides speak and help create activity. Things help define character and conflict. Think of the moments Indie is toying with his dusty hat, showing us his nerves aren’t so steely after all. He can’t leave it behind and we learn who he is through his relationship with his hat. In books, we think of these as symbols but doing so might complicate our perception a bit. We humans need things, we cherish our objects. How we dress, what car we drive, represent who we want to be seen as. Do any of your characters have a signature item that can show your reader who they are? What physical things do they value? What would they hate to leave behind?
If I told you aliens landed in the middle of Hogwart’s for a hostile takeover, would you believe it? Why not?
The late Blake Snyder, in his Save The Cat! series, elucidates a few noteworthy screenwriting don’ts we novelists can learn from, too.

Here are two:

Double Mumbo Jumbo: Why doesn’t an amnesia stricken time traveler in need of a lone, vampire-hunting werewolf’s help, but who’s forced by her soul guide into it, work? Too many magical elements. Aliens won’t work at Hogwart’s. A psychic medium cannot save Sigourney Weaver from the Alien. The Fifth Element has nothing to do with Druids. Our readers know these limits to magic and don’t like them being bent too far.
Too Much Marzipan: This is code for too many elements, but unlike Double Mumbo Jumbo, it doesn’t have to do with magic. Blake Snyder calls this ‘The Black Vet’ and uses a 70’s Albert Brooks SNL skit as an example. He’s black, he’s a veterinarian and he’s a Vietnam vet. It’s funny when spoofed. Sometimes in our aim to hit high concept, we reach too high. Low concept is just as popular as high concept in Hollywood and in bookstores.

Focus on the story, not on a secret never been done before formula sure to sell.

Overall, the biggest screenwriting lesson that consistently improves the pace, conflict and characterization in my manuscripts boils down to this: When the writing gods bless me and this book is optioned for the big screen, how will my scenes translate onto film? What will be changed? Cut?

And…why? Why not push that envelope now?


Amber Scott began writing genre romance and screenplays during her infant son’s naptimes. She has a B.A. in English (Creative Writing) from the University of Nevada, Reno. She’s a member of the Desert Rose RWA chapter in Phoenix, AZ and a staff contributor (‘First Mate’) with 1st Turning A mother of two little ones, and far from a domestic goddess, she lives vicariously through her characters’ fates, loves and complications.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for stopping by and sharing your very informative article Amber. :)

Laurie Schnebly Campbell said...

Oh, Amber, I love the idea of asking what'll be changed when it's made into a screenplay!

Sometimes when a romance-novel hero or heroine doesn't seem to be quite as developed as their True Love, I'll ask the writer whether whoever plays that character in the movie would be nominated for Best Actor or Best Supporting Actor.

It seems like when it's put into movie terms, the whole concept is a lot easier to GET.

Laura Breck said...

Great post, Amber! I'm always balancing on that dialogue vs. internal monologue fence. You've given me a new way of looking at it. Thank you!

Amber Scott said...

Thanks so much for having me, Kim! I'm a big fan.
I know exactly what you mean, Laurie. What a great question for character development! Questions like yours really help me see the forest instead of just the trees.

Amber Scott said...

Laura, Thanks for stopping in today. It means so much to me to help and share.

Erin Quinn said...

Great blog, Amber. But tell me, what move is the line "Inconceivable?" from??? I dunno!

Laura Breck said...

Isn't it from Princess Bride?

Author Amber Scott said...

You are correct, Laura! The Princess Bride seems to be one of my faves to quote from.

Gini Koch said...

Great article, Amber! Spot on all the way through (which is, of course, no surprise ;-D).

Ann Charles said...


Great article! I like the idea of having someone else read my work to me. That will be a mix of fingernails on the chalkboard (when I miss what I'm aiming for) and a heavenly "Ahhhh" choir (when I nail a line/scene).

I love the way you look at this writing business. It's very refreshing!

Ann Charles

Author Amber Scott said...

Gini & Ann, Thanks so much! And thank you for stopping by. Isn't this blog fun?

Donna Del Grosso said...

another good one, amber. Erin- "inconceivable" is from Princess Bride and yes, you have got soo see it!