A Screenwriter Gets Schooled in Novel Writing (A Guest Post by Heather Jackson of WriteOnSisters)

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Today is the second half of a guest-post swap I’m doing with WriteOnSisters. My article on high fantasy vs epic fantasy is already live at WOS. Now, it’s one of the “Sister’s” turns to post here! Heather Jackson lives in Canada and writes YA novels as well as television and video game screenplays. In fact, she began with screenplays before tackling novel-writing. Here’s what Heather learned during that transition.

I started my writing career as a television screenwriter, but my first love has always been books. So, after screenwriting for what seemed like an eternity to my young self (though I’d only been making a living at it for five years), I decided it was time to write a novel. Being a “seasoned professional,” I estimated I could develop a book idea and write a first draft in one year. After all, I already knew how to craft great stories. Novels simply used more words to tell those stories, right?

Oh, the naiveté of inexperience. I soon learned that more differentiates novels and screenplays than the number of words.

But let’s start with the similarities. I wasn’t totally wrong; many screenwriting skills do transfer to the process of writing novels.

Three Helpful Screenwriting Skills for Writing Novels

 #1: Pitching

A huge part of a television screenwriter’s job is pitching episode ideas. Whether you work as a freelancer (hired on a per episode basis) or as part of the “room” (the permanent writing staff on a TV show), you must be able to pitch ideas. If not, no job for you!

A pitch is essentially a condensed story, told in one to three sentences, that sums up the protagonist’s goal and core conflict (a.k.a. main obstacle getting in the way of the goal). A pitch is the nucleus of every story. Therefore, it helps determine whether a story (be it for the screen or the page) will work or not. If I can pitch an idea in a couple sentences, I have the building blocks of a solid novel. If not, I revise and focus, or come up with a different idea.

I prefer this approach over just writing and finding out 200 pages in that I have a non-existent or weak story nucleus. The pitch is a valuable and efficient pre-writing test. Plus, I now have a head-start on my query letter!

 #2: Story Structure

Storytelling is an age-old tradition; and when scholars, screenwriting gurus, and average joes studied why some stories resonate and others don’t, this idea of story structure was born. Structure is not a formula to follow; it’s an observation of common elements within a story that help it connect with the audience. You can’t just fill in the blanks – you need to understand why these elements exist.

Luckily, through screenwriting school and work experience, this knowledge was passed on to me. So, even though I had lots to learn about writing novels, at least I already had a handle on story structure.

#3: Action and Dialogue

Since a screenplay is all action and dialogue, a screenwriter must learn to excel at these. After all, they are the only tools a screenwriter has to tell the story! As a result, action and dialogue are the two aspects of my prose that pretty much never get any criticism. Internal thoughts and sensory details? Well, that brings me to the differences…

Three Novel-Writing Skills You Won’t Learn In Film School

#1: The Five Senses

In a film or television script, the writer works with two senses: sight and sound. The only thing that goes into a script is what the audience can SEE (action and setting) and what they can HEAR (dialogue and sound effects). In a film, the audience doesn’t get to taste the meal or feel the sunburn or smell the flowers, so you don’t put that stuff in the script. In fact, I’m so unaccustomed to using these senses in my writing that I had to Google them because I forgot “smell”!

As a result, my first drafts always read like screenplays with a lot of action and snappy dialogue but not much else. On my second draft, I put in the other three senses, as well as the next element…

#2: Internal Thoughts

Unless you are writing a screenplay with narration / voice over (which is generally frowned upon because it’s so hard to do well and not come off as a hokey cheat), screenwriters do not write any internal thoughts. Why? Because the audience can’t see internal thoughts on screen. If the character is hiding a secret, the screenwriter must have the character DO or SAY something that suggests the character has a secret.

Yep, screenplays are at the extreme end of “Show Don’t Tell” because you quite literally can’t tell – unless you use some terrible, on-the-nose dialogue. And nobody wants that.

So, writing prose that includes characters’ internal thoughts was is really weird for me. It feels like I’m writing wrong. My critique partners will point out, “Your character needs to react here.” To which I answer, “She does react — by doing such-and-such!” Typical screenwriter response; character reactions are actions in a screenplay. But what my critique partners are requesting is the reaction inside the character’s head. Readers want to know that. Not about every little thing (too much internal monologue is annoying), but characters must have thoughts about the big moments in the story. Especially when writing in close 3rd or 1st person…

#3: Point of View

In a screenplay, you are always writing in distant 3rd person present tense — 3rd person because, as I mentioned above, the audience cannot be inside the characters’ heads and are merely observing them from the outside, and present tense because a film or television show unfolds in front of the audience in the moment. OK, makes sense.

So, you’d think that a screenwriter like me would naturally gravitate to writing novels in 3rd person present. It would make things easier. Though I do write in present tense, I prefer 1st person POV. I like the intimacy of it. Or perhaps my subconscious was trying to make this foray into novel writing extra hard.

*   *   *

Now you know some technical differences between screenwriting and novel writing. There are other kinds of differences, like writing alone (most novelists) versus with a team (television writing rooms), or writing in other people’s voices (all of television unless you’re the creator of the show) versus finding your own voice, but those warrant posts of their own. Especially the voice one.

That’s probably what has made my own journey to completing a novel so long and arduous: After spending almost a decade imitating other writers’ voices, I hadn’t developed a voice of my own. It ended up taking me a couple years just to figure that out, and then I still had to develop the other skills I was missing.

Whether you’re a screenwriter embarking on writing a novel, or a novelist considering trying your hand at screenwriting, I hope this post has been helpful. And if there are any other screenwriter-novelist hybrids out there, please share your experiences in the comments!

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Heather-Jackson-WriterHeather Jackson escaped her small town for the big city of Toronto to attend Ryerson University’s Radio & Television Arts program and the Canadian Film Centre’s Prime Time Television Writing program, which led to a career penning cartoons and tween dramas that are broadcast all over the world. But recently she transferred her screenwriting skills to a new medium: video games. She wrote an episode of Bloom Digital’s dating adventure game LONGSTORY, and is currently writing a super cool educational game for a top-secret client.

Heather is also working on two YA novels: PSYCHO SMART and DEMONS DON’T DO LOVE. Neither is autobiographical. Mostly.

Heather is one half of the blogging team at WriteOnSisters. You can also find her on Twitter, Tumblr and her website.

Interested in guest posting here in the future?  Check out my guest posting policy before contacting me to see if your idea might be a good fit.

14 thoughts on “A Screenwriter Gets Schooled in Novel Writing (A Guest Post by Heather Jackson of WriteOnSisters)

  1. An in-depth look into writing novels from a screen writer’s perspective. Thank you for sharing your experience, Heather! I have wondered what it would be like to be a screen writer, since I figured it wouldn’t be too hard for a novelist to try some screen writing, but now I see it’s quite different. I would be too timid at pitching ideas, and I would be tempted to write out the characters thoughts and everything else you probably shouldn’t. 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

    • You’re welcome! I think the transition from novelist to screenwriter would be difficult because you’d have to pare back, and most novelists I know confess that cutting words/pages is hard for them. However, since it’s the 21st century it’s easy to find example screenplays online so you can see how they’re written and emulate the style. Just be aware that the big writers will include the odd character thought, perhaps because they’re so well-known and experienced that they can give those internal clues to the director/ actor without reprimand, but if a newbie writer does the same, the script reader will think you don’t know what you’re doing. 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Pingback: A Screenwriter Gets Schooled in Novel Writing | Heather Jackson Writes

  3. Thanks for having me, Sara! It’s always fun to look back on my younger self and realize, “I was so naive!” and then share that with the world. Hurrah for learning and moving forward!

    Liked by 3 people

    • You’re welcome, Heather! It’s a really interesting post, and eye-opening for a novelist who wants to try their hand at a very different kind of creative writing. I admire you for taking the “reverse” leap and finding your way through! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Great post, Heather! I edit novels as well as write them, and I frequently see the problems you’ve outlined here. It seems many novel-writers learn from movies more than prose, so I’m always having to tell them ‘show me what that felt like’ or ‘show me how the character reacted’. I’m off to tweet this, with blue knobs on.

    Liked by 2 people

    • So… it’s not just me? Though since we live in a world where people consume far more films than books, I suppose it’s not surprising that people learn storytelling from films. Still, an interesting observation! Thanks for the comment and the share, Roz!

      Liked by 2 people

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