Thursday, July 31, 2008

Another Screenwriting Book

First, as a public service, a television programming note: According to my digital cable guide, Friday night's episode of Doctor Who on the Sci Fi channel is starting half an hour earlier than normal, at 7:30 central time. The original BBC episode came in at more than an hour, so let's hope that a 90-minute slot will allow Sci Fi to only use the chainsaws to insert commercial breaks and not to edit out content because they need to squeeze in more commercials. Set VCRs and DVRs accordingly because you'd hate to miss what happens right after that cliffhanger. (Mom, this means you.)

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I'd bought some screenwriting books. I talked about one of them last week, so now that I've finished the other, I can discuss it. This one was Writing for Emotional Impact by Karl Iglesias, and wow, it was Life. Changing. Oddly, I mostly bought it to get my Amazon order up to the point of getting free shipping, since it popped up in the "people also bought" list for the other book I got, and yet this is the one I think I'll end up re-reading and trying to make use of. It's very much aimed at screenwriters, with the premise being that to sell a screenplay, it has to make it past a studio reader, and the script alone has to be able to hook the reader without the benefit of all the other tricks movies can use to generate emotion, like the actors' performances, music, special effects, etc. But I think this is also applicable to novelists because we always have to rely just on the words on the page without the benefit of actors or music. The tricks that make a screenplay read well enough to get a studio reader excited should also work in a novel to get a novel reader excited.

There are certainly screenplay rules that don't apply to novels, since they are totally different forms. In today's short attention span market, though, it really doesn't hurt for a commercial/genre novel to read almost like a movie, with a focus on action and dialogue and very little "telling." That would include science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller, etc. In romance, you can get away with a little more introspection because readers in that genre are looking for the emotional insight. That's probably why there haven't been too many successful adaptations of romance novels to film. Seeing a man clenching his fists and breathing heavily doesn't have quite the same emotional impact as reading a page or two about him struggling with his feelings. The section on description in this book is probably the least applicable to novelists, as a lot of it has to do with how to present description and action on the screenplay page, but I think there are still lessons to be learned in the idea of having to come up with terse, vivid descriptions of characters and settings.

The book pretty much breaks down the elements of a story (premise, characters, plot, scenes, etc.) and then shows the various methods for adding emotional impact to each. The focus is not on conveying the emotions of the characters, but rather generating emotion in the reader -- making the reader be engaged and involved in the story, caring about the characters, and intrigued enough to keep turning pages. I loved the section on subtext. It's enough to make me think about registering for that community college acting class so I can think about how I'd act the scene and then come up with ideas for describing that in a book to really focus on showing rather than telling.

One caution, though: this book seems simple and easy. It's short. It's concisely written. It has lots of lists and bullet point type things. So many of the techniques seem obvious in their simplicity, almost to the level of "duh." But this is actually a pretty advanced book, and to get much benefit from it, you'd probably need to already know something about story and structure. It's designed to take you to the next step beyond being able to write a good plot. If you try to use these techniques without understanding how story and plot work, you'll just have shallow, manipulative gimmicks (I suspect that after this book was published, Hollywood was flooded with screenplays that used all these little tricks but that had no plot or substance to speak of). The author has a web site with more info on his book and a fun page of writing jokes and inspirational quotes, in case you want to check it out.

Now we'll see if I can actually put this to use in a book. Using screenwriting techniques to develop a novel is working for me so far. Forcing myself to really develop the idea instead of plunging into writing has already made me come up with some more interesting and deeper ideas that probably would have been skimmed over. And I already know I'm going to have to totally rewrite the parts that I started writing. I probably won't get much done until after WorldCon. I'll just stick with the initial brainstorming stage for now, since I've got a lot of other stuff going on for the next couple of weeks. Then when I get home, I can hide in my cave and create a work of staggering genius.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

That sounds like an interesting book. No being interested in writing movies, I've never bought a book on screenplays, but from what you said this book is a good all-rounder.

Can you give us an example or two of what the author suggests?