Blog Archives

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.

Trimming the Fat (aka Expendable Scenes) in Your Novel

by Lorena Hughes

frustrated-writer3I don’t blame you if you don’t want to read this post. Revisions can be dreadful, overwhelming, confusing and frustrating for many writers, and the idea of doing them (or reading about them) may sound as fun and exciting as standing in line at an airport security check point. But revisions have a strange quality, they can also be infinitely satisfying once you figure out what needs to be done, and the end result is a stronger manuscript.

One of the reasons why revisions are so difficult is because you must tackle several elements at once: character development, plot progression, pace, prose (to include style, grammar and dialogue), among other monsters. Today, I’m going to focus on what constitutes the structure of your novel: scenes.

Since your novel is basically a sequence of scenes with transitional sentences/paragraphs/thoughts, it’s essential to evaluate each and every one of them as both a unit and a part of a whole. My writer friends tease me because I’m ruthless with them (“If I were you, I would delete this scene” is my motto!). But there is a good reason for my callousness. More often than not, a pacing issue is the result of a scene—or several—that aren’t serving an important purpose in your novel. These “problem scenes” are difficult to spot because we often grow so attached to them. (Very often we need someone else to point them out.) So how do we determine if a scene is important enough to keep or if it’s more problematic than useful?

Here are the five questions I ask myself when evaluating a scene.

1. Is the scene active or reflective?

Ideally, you should have a good balance between active and reflective scenes. Active scenes being the ones where something important happens (an action that moves the story forward), and reflective scenes are those where the character ponders on his situation, informs other characters of his problem or fills the reader with backstory and/or information dumps. In my experience, agents and editors often complain that novels are “too slow.” This problem may be the result of too many introspective scenes or instances where characters engage in ordinary activities.

Arguably, you will need more active than reflective scenes to create a good progression, but the balance of active vs. reflective heavily depends on the genre you’re writing (though the consensus seems to be that even in literary fiction there must be enough action to keep the reader’s interest). In genres such as adventure and thrillers, most of your scenes should be active, but in Women’s Fiction, for example, it’s tolerated and even expected to have many introspective scenes to reflect the author’s voice and the character’s personality.

Once you figure out if your scene is active or reflective, determine whether or not you have too many of one or the other. Perhaps you have too many reflective scenes in a row and the pace would benefit from moving them around (if it doesn’t affect your sequence of events, of course). The same goes for active scenes. Perhaps it’s time to give your character a coffee break from all the chaos surrounding him!

2. Is the scene repetitive?

Do you have similar scenes throughout your book? In other words, have you used the same setting many times before, have you had similar conversations or too many scenes between the same characters? Perhaps it’s just a matter of condensing two scenes together.

3. Is an entire scene necessary to convey this information?

Sometimes we hold on to a scene because we think that the information shared on a particular line of dialogue is vital but we don’t realize that an entire scene may not be necessary in order to divulge this one, tiny, bit of information. When I’ve recommended to my friends to cut scenes that are dragging forever, I try to spot what is important about them and suggest they move this information elsewhere. But what about “show, don’t tell,” you may ask? As you know, “showing” (in this case, enacting a scene) is fundamental for a reader to identify with a character or situation, but not all events are equally interesting or deserve this much attention. It’s your job to determine which events are relevant enough to turn into a scene.

4. What purpose is this scene serving?

It’s important for a writer to understand why a scene deserves to take room in his or her novel. Is the scene in question advancing the story? Enlightening the reader about the character’s past or his quirky personality? Developing a bond or conflict between characters? If you don’t understand the purpose of a scene you’re holding on to for dear life, you may have a problem.

5. If I remove this scene, will it affect the flow of my novel?

My first novel started as a telenovela for the Latin American market. As you know, soap operas have tons of characters and last A VERY LONG TIME. Therefore, writers have the luxury of penning what I call “peripheral scenes.” These are scenes where secondary characters catch up with the main action, or where the heroine ponders her decision with friends, or where a subplot between secondary characters develops (but does nothing for the main plot). When I translated my soap opera to English and formatted it as a novel, I had tons of scenes like these (no wonder my novel was over 143,000 words!). In novels, these scenes are sometimes hard to spot because they can be considered “bonding scenes” between characters. A good test is to evaluate if your novel will suffer if you remove a particular scene. From my experience, it probably won’t. Readers are smart and will catch up with the action without you having to overexplain how things came to be. If you’re doubting the validity of a scene, you’re probably on to something.

In conclusion, the trick to revisions (especially if you’re going to do them on your own) is to be honest with yourself—which can be difficult considering your emotional attachment to your work. As a critique partner, I have noticed that many writers are very resistant to deleting superfluous scenes. (Sometimes they’re more willing to kill a character than a beloved scene!) I think it has to do with the fact that these scenes become familiar to us and it becomes harder to envision our novels without them. However, many times after the deed is done, writers realize how much better their novel flows, and they don’t look back (it’s happened to me several times). It’s rare that after deleting a scene, a writer will bring it back (at least not in its entirety).

What do you think? Do you have an emotional attachment to your scenes or are you ruthless when it comes to evaluating (and getting rid of) them?

LorenaHughes2Lorena Hughes was born and raised in Ecuador. At age eighteen, she moved to the US to go to college and got a degree in Fine Arts and Mass Communication & Journalism. She has worked in advertising, graphic design and illustration, but her biggest passion is storytelling. Her historical novel set in South America, The Black Letter, took first place in the 2011 Southwest Writers International Writing Contest (Historical Fiction category), an Honorable Mention at the 2012 Soul-Making Keats Literary Competition and was a quarter-finalist at the 2014 Amazon Breakout Novel Award (ABNA). She is represented by Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency and is a freelance writer for What’s Up Weekly. You can find her on Twitter at

This article was originally published on The Writing Sisterhood blog, and is reprinted here by permission of the author.

Sign Up for Elerts  Stay Connected

SWW YouTube Videos

Search Posts


More information about SWW Programs can be found on WhoFish.