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The Hollywood Touch: Screenwriting Tricks for Novelists

by Chris Eboch


Authors dream of having their books made into movies. But even if your story never hits the big screen, you can make your work better by thinking like a scriptwriter. Apply these screenwriting tricks to writing your novel and breathe new life into your work.

Open Big

My brother, Doug Eboch, wrote the original screenplay for Sweet Home Alabama. He gave me this advice on a novel manuscript: “You need a big opening scene. Think of visuals, color and movement—maybe a big party.”

Begin your novel with action, not background, to grab the reader’s attention. “Start with something big and memorable,” says David Steinberg, who wrote the screenplay for Slackers and co-wrote American Pie 2. “And big isn’t as important as memorable. It doesn’t have to be a big explosion, but start off with something exciting, different, weird—something that makes the reader want to keep going.”

Don Hewitt, who co-wrote the English-language screenplay for the Japanese animated film Spirited Away, agrees. But, he warns, don’t just make up any big scene for the sake of drama. “Start with an event that affects the character,” he says. Ideally, this event is a moment of change, where the character starts on a new path.

Establishing the protagonist’s role in the story is one of the most important functions of an opening, whether in films or novels. Let the reader know the character’s goals. “What does he want? What does he really need?” asks Steinberg. “What’s his external goal? And what’s his internal goal—what’s this person’s flaw, and how is he going to be a better person by the end?”

In addition, Doug says, “An opening scene should establish the genre. For comedy, I try to make a really funny opening.” If the opening is exciting, funny, sad or scary, the audience expects the entire movie—or book—to be the same. If the opening is boring, the reader assumes the rest is, too.

Scene by Scene

Set high expectations, then satisfy them. Consider each scene in your novel. How can you make it bigger, more dramatic? “Imagine the worst thing that could happen,” Hewitt says, “and force the issue.”

Doug stresses the effectiveness of “set pieces—the big, funny moment in a comedy, the big action scene in an action movie. The ‘wow’ moments that audiences remember later. Novelists can give readers those scenes they’ll remember when they put the book down.”

Yet even in big scenes, you must balance action and dialogue. Any long conversation where nothing happens is going to be boring. Steinberg says, “Movies are about people doing things, not about people talking about doing things.”

Even in comedies, he says, dialogue must be relevant to the plot. “Dialogue is funny because of the situation, not because it’s inherently funny.” The same goes for novels, too.

Long action scenes can be equally dull. “When you look at the page, it shouldn’t be blocky with action,” says Paul Guay, who co-wrote screenplays for Liar, Liar, The Little Rascals and Heartbreakers.

Adds Hewitt: “Try to be as economical as you can with the action, and as precise as you can. Break it up with specific dialogue to strengthen it.”

Get to the Point

Above all, screenwriters know the value of editing. Studios expect scripts to be within a certain length, generally 90 to 120 pages. Although some movies today run longer than that, any writer who turns in a 300-page script looks like an amateur.

“You should always be moving on to the next story point,” Guay says, “so you have almost no time to indulge in character flourishes or slow moments. If something is off-topic it has to go. Screenwriting teaches you to be ruthless.”

Doug says, “I’ll go back through every line and look for lazy writing, dialogue or description that doesn’t advance the character or plot, and see if there’s a better way to do that.”

As for description, keep it short. “A little detail is good in the beginning,” Steinberg claims, “but readers don’t care what things look like on page three, let alone on page fifty. Use description sparingly, and only if it’s really relevant.”

Novelists who focus on action over description are closer to making their books page-turners. However, novelists don’t have the luxury of visual aids, as screenwriters do. Just use short descriptions to advance the plot, not distract from it.

Novelists can learn from the movie world. Open big, increase the drama in each scene, balance action and dialogue, and edit ruthlessly. You’ll have a stronger story. And who knows? It may even increase the chances of your book being made into a movie.

BanditsPeak150Chris Eboch writes fiction and nonfiction for all ages. In Bandits Peak, a teenage boy meets strangers hiding on the mountains and gets drawn into their crimes, until he risks his life to expose them. The Eyes of Pharaoh is an action-packed mystery set in ancient Egypt. The Genie’s Gift is an Arabian Nights-inspired fantasy adventure. In The Well of Sacrifice, a Mayan girl in ninth-century Guatemala rebels against the High Priest who sacrifices anyone challenging his power. Her writing craft books include You Can Write for Children: How to Write Great Stories, Articles, and Books for Kids and Teenagers and Advanced Plotting.

Learn more at or her Amazon page, or check out her writing tips at her Write Like a Pro! blog. Sign up for her Workshop newsletter for classes and critique offers.

Chris also writes novels of suspense and romance for adults under the name Kris Bock; read excerpts at

This article was originally published in the July 2011 issue of SouthWest Sage and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Taming the Beast: What to Do with That Frightful First Draft

by Kirt Hickman

You’ve gotten your first draft onto paper, but it doesn’t look anything like the novel you envisioned. Somewhere along the way, it took on a life of its own. It became grotesque: overblown, disorganized, and rife with inconsistencies. Your writing is flat, your characters are boring, and your plot contains so many dead ends it resembles a maze for some masochistic lab rat. Somehow it got so out of control that you can’t imagine now how to rein it in.

While this article doesn’t address all of these problems, it will answer this question: What now? Before you examine the structure of your scenes or the tautness of your narrative style (see “Revising Fiction: Ten Tips To Tighten Your Narrative Style“), you’ve got to tame the monster you’ve created. You’ve got to trim the fat and organize the rest.

Scene Cards

To organize, create an index card for each scene. Give each scene a name and number and write it on the scene’s card. Then read through your manuscript and make the following notes on the cards:

1. Scene Purpose

Each scene must have a purpose; it must advance the plot or develop character (preferably both). Any scene that doesn’t is either a digression or it just conveys information. Delete it. Find another way to provide the necessary information. Make a note on the card of any scene you plan to move information to. Ideally, each scene that you keep should also show conflict between characters, create suspense, and show how the day-to-day life in your world is different from your reader’s life. Jot down ideas to enhance these characteristics of each scene.

2. Type of Scene

Is the scene an action scene? A romance scene? A dialogue scene? Something else? Write it on the card. Don’t string too many action scenes in a row. You want to excite your reader, not fatigue him. Similarly, don’t put several passive scenes together; you’ll risk boring your reader.

Color-code the title row of your scene cards with highlighter markers (pink for action scenes, yellow for passive, orange for others) and lay the cards out on a table with the highlighted title showing. This will give you a good visual display of the distribution of the action. Look for scenes that you can move to create a better balance.

3. Inconsistencies

As you wrote your first draft you may have made decisions that created inconsistencies in your characters or plot. If so, decide how best to resolve them, and in which scenes. Note any necessary changes on your scene cards.

4. Suspense Elements

A suspense element is any question you’ve raised in your reader’s mind, any loose end you need to tie up in another scene. On your scene cards, note the suspense elements you introduced or resolved in each scene.

Then go back through the cards. On a separate sheet of paper, list each suspense element. Next to it, write down the number of the scene in which you introduced it and the number of the scene in which you resolved it. Did you resolve them all? If not, tie up each loose end. Either find a scene in which to resolve it, or don’t bring it up in the first place. Make notes on the appropriate scene cards.

Rewrite Your Scenes

Before you rewrite your scenes, save your manuscript and begin working on a separate draft. If you decide later that you need something you’ve altered or deleted, you’ll be able to retrieve the original.

During this rewrite, you’ll throw whole scenes away, write new scenes, and revise some so extensively you’ll have to start them over from scratch. Every scene will need some form of revision. Don’t let this discourage you. You must trim the fat from your first draft and bolster the weak or missing elements. You already know what changes you need to make; you’ve noted them on your scene cards. Now rewrite each scene using these notes as your guide. When you’re done, review your notes to make sure you didn’t miss anything.

Now your manuscript is ready for the more detailed editing required to clean up your scene structure, narrative style, and dialog. Those topics, however, I’ll leave for future articles.

WorldsAsunder125_2Kirt Hickman is a technical writer turned fiction author. His books include three sci-fi thriller novels Worlds Asunder (2008), Venus Rain (2010) and Mercury Sun (2014), the high fantasy novel Fabler’s Legend (2011), and the writers’ how-to Revising Fiction: Making Sense of the Madness (2009).

This article was originally published in the March 2009 issue of SouthWest Sage, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

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