As a break from my study of the novel, I’m studying scriptwriting. In the process, I realized that perhaps we novelists should follow the scriptwriter’s methods—meaning we should write more concisely and keep the action moving at a fast pace. Most movies are just under two hours long, some less. Can you read your novel in that amount of time and pack in as much action and drama as a scriptwriter does? Scriptwriting is all about economy of words.
When explaining what makes a good story, Alfred Hitchcock said, “Life, with the dull parts taken out.” We need to visualize the movie and write with that vision in our brains. The story needs to be all about action—showing, not telling. For example, we can eliminate internal monologues and allow our reader to reach his own conclusion about what our character was thinking by the way we’ve described a look or an action.
Scriptwriters can argue that writing is easier for a novelist. They can switch heads at will and go into any character’s head, whereas a scriptwriter has to show all this. So, take a break from all the tools you have available and try writing like a scriptwriter by showing your reader. When you’re about to switch heads to tell the reader how the other character feels, pretend you’re making a movie. How would you make the audience see what you want them to see?
When we first learn to write fiction, we may think that writing dialogue is all about making it sound like real life. More experienced writers know it’s basically smoke and mirrors. You make the reader feel as though they’re reading real dialogue, but it can’t be, because real-life conversations are mundane. Listen to people talk. Most talk is repetitive and downright boring, even if the dialogue is a heated argument. I would go so far as to say record an argument on your mobile phone and then edit it—you’ll take out most of what is said.
Dialogue is a tool used to illustrate a character’s personality or even the character of the person being addressed or discussed. It’s a way to reflect a character’s mood and emotions, or it can convey the relationship the characters have with each other. Dialogue can expose a motive or hide it. Dialogue must always have a root in what was said or what happened before and must lead smoothly into what happens next. It must convey meaning pertinent to the story, and it can be a portent of what might happen next. Above all, dialogue must be concise and easy to understand, not convoluted like real life. Again, see dialogue as if it is in a movie. Make your characters act it out rather than telling the reader what happened.
Scriptwriters have what they call subtext. It’s the understated scene. For example:
A single mother comes back from a double shift at work. She worked the extra shift to help a friend who needed to attend her little girl’s school play. Dark rings underscore the mother’s eyes and she drags her feet as she walks into the sitting room. Her teenage son sits hunched over, glaring at the TV.
The mother drops her bag on the floor. “How was your day?”
He transfers his glare to her. “Just great!” He jerks up and stomps from the room, punching the wall on his way out.
The mother sighs heavily. But as she’s about to walk to the kitchen, she stops and stares at her shattered glass-top coffee table. An MVP Trophy lies in the center of the ruin. Tears fill her eyes and she bites her lip.
This is the under text. It isn’t served to the audience on a plate. They must figure it out on their own. On a subliminal level, this makes the reader/viewer feel clever for having figured it out. Although the writer could have done the work for them and written the scene out with a lot of dialogue and argument, it would still be showing. Many times, the understated is best.
Leonardo da Vinci said: Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.
As a novelist, we need to kick it up a notch and describe the scene because it isn’t a movie and the reader cannot literally see the characters in action. But if we can start off by doing what a scriptwriter does by just describing the action, then later we can add the bits between. With clever writing, our characters’ actions, emotions and dialogue should have filled in most of the blanks—the things a reader can’t see like a movie-goer can—and we should have a tighter story that is much more powerful.