5 Tips Every Novelist Should Borrow From Screenwriters

Stories are stories—no matter what medium they’re told in. While novelists have been honing the craft of writing gripping tales for centuries, screenwriters are no slouches. Borrow from screenwriters. Often working with succinct timeframes and limited resources, screenwriters have developed special techniques for crafting stories that draw in audiences and keep them glued to their seats. So why not grab a tip or two from their playbook?

If you’re an aspiring novelist, here are five tips from screenwriters that can give your story the star power it deserves.

Tip #1: Open With Action 

Nothing grabs your attention faster than some good old-fashioned action—and nobody does action like screenwriters. From car chases and shootouts to daring escapes and dramatic reveals, screenwriters know how to open with a bang. After all, it’s their job to hook viewers and draw them in from the very first scene. You should do the same.

Consider opening your novel with a thrilling sequence. What intense scene can you use to draw your readers in? What high-stakes moments can you create to set the stage for the story to come? Don’t be afraid to go big and bold right from the get-go.

Tip #2: Open With Intrigue 

Another great way to mesmerize readers from the start is to open with a sense of mystery. Screenwriters are no strangers to this technique, often painting a  world of confusion and uncertainty before slowly revealing all the pieces. It’s a great way to capture readers’ attention and keep them turning pages.

To emulate this approach, consider starting your novel with a challenging question or situation that will keep readers guessing. What riddle can you pose? What jaw-dropping issue can you introduce? Open with an unanswered question or an enigmatic moment. Start by leaving your readers hanging, then gradually fill in the gaps as they progress through the story. The need to know what happens next is a powerful force—use it to your advantage.

Tip #3: Don’t Dilly Dally 

Rarely will you find a quality movie that drags its feet. Screenwriters understand the power of pacing, and they make sure to keep their stories moving along swiftly. Every second counts, so they’re constantly looking for ways to trim the fat and keep their stories on track. To do so, they focus on only the essential elements—cutting everything else out in the process.

The same should be true for your novel. Though you may be tempted to stretch each scene to its limit, remember that brevity is your friend. To ensure your story maintains a tight pace, take a step back every now and again. Ask yourself: Is this scene absolutely necessary? Does it move the story forward? If not, cut it out.

Screenwriters often work on stories that must be told within a sharply defined timeframe and often turn to structure methods such as the Hero’s Journey and the Story Circle. It’s worth your time analyzing your favorite movies with attention to narrative drive, the setup and payoff of questions, and the timing of key plot elements.

Tip #4: Create Compelling Characters 

Today’s movies are quite long, and more often than not, they’re watched from the comfort of people’s homes where millions of other things are vying for their attention. The only way to maintain interest for such a long time is to create characters that people care about. The viewer needs to develop a real emotional connection with the fictional human up on the screen. Otherwise, what’s the point of watching?

Take care not to push forth relentless action for action’s sake. It must mean something to someone. That’s where the main character(s) come in. Big action sets the stage for those more revealing sequel scenes that pull the audience deeper into understanding (and loving) the character.

Novels are no different. To make sure your characters don’t fade into the background, they need to feel real. Give them struggles and dreams that people can relate to. Show them making mistakes, learning lessons, and growing as they face new challenges. Make sure your characters have flaws, quirks, and vulnerabilities that make them come alive.

Most importantly, show their interiority: their reasons for doing, thinking, and reacting as they do. If you spend more time developing your characters, you’ll give readers a reason to stay with them until the very last page.

Tip #5: No Boring Scenes 

Action-packed sequences and compelling dialogue are a hallmark of good screenplays.  Screenwriters know that there’s no room for boring. So they make sure to provide a constant stream of entertaining moments. Whether it’s an action sequence, a clever bit of banter, or an emotional reveal, there’s always something interesting happening.

As novelists, we can learn from this approach. Instead of relying on long descriptions or tedious dialogue, try to make each scene meaningful and interesting on its own. If you pulled out a single scene from your novel, would it have stand-alone value? If so, how can you spice it up? How can you make sure that each scene is just as captivating as the last?

By giving every scene and sequel of your story the grit and flair it deserves, you can ensure that your readers will remain enthralled all the way through to the end.

Give Your Novel the Star Treatment

Whether you’re a novice novelist or an experienced wordsmith, it never hurts to play around with other storytelling methods. By following these tips from your screenwriting counterparts, you can craft stories that keep readers engaged until the very last page.

So don’t be afraid to borrow from screenwriters, including taking some tips from their writing gurus. After all, great stories are great stories—no matter where they come from.

And if you’re hungry for even more screenwriting inspiration, check out the following awesome resources:

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Story Coach, Story Development

I’m Pam, Your Story Coach

I help busy professionals write and polish the book of their dreams. Let’s bring authenticity to your speculations, flow to your structure, and heart to your words.

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