Eight Tools from Fiction to Make You a Better Screenwriter
by Sarah Archer
After studying and practicing screenwriting for years, and working in TV development in Los Angeles, I decided to try something new, and wrote my first novel, The Plus One. Throughout that process, I found there were many lessons I’d learned as a screenwriter that helped me get off the ground as a novelist. But now that I’ve spent several years writing fiction and learning about the publishing industry, I’ve seen the learnings go the other way too. What are some takeaways from fiction that screenwriters can use to improve their craft and their careers?
- Think outside the box with story and structure. Many screenwriters can recite the beats of Save the Cat story structure by heart. And that traditional, three-act, hero’s journey type of plot works. It’s climactic, it’s solid, it speaks to our universal desire to see rewarding transformation. It’s ubiquitous for a reason. But it’s not the only way to tell a story. If you have ten minutes and want to see a new perspective on storytelling, try reading Ursula K. LeGuin’s short essay “The Carrier Bag Theory of Fiction.” LeGuin proposes an alternative to the clear linear story arc that we’ve come to expect. And her overall principle has wider implications: a story doesn’t have to move in one direction, in one predictable fashion. Movies and TV episodes often follow a clear act structure, the bones of which are visible right under the skin of the story. Novels tend to submerge their structures more deeply, and are more likely to depart from a typical hero’s journey arc. Many novelists don’t even outline, letting the story go where it wishes as they draft. While being versed in fundamental story principles is an important foundation, once you’ve mastered the basics, don’t be afraid to experiment. Look at movies by writers and directors like Tarantino and the Coen brothers. Their stories often don’t follow those Save the Cat beats—but they’re engaging to watch because they’re composed of their own compelling beats that raise story questions for the audience.
- Embrace language. You’re a writer! Just because the words you’re writing won’t end up being literally read by an audience doesn’t mean they don’t matter. Push your dialogue to incorporate lyrical language, inventive imagery, or specific vernaculars, as your characters demand. Even in your action and description lines, writing clean, considered prose allows you to communicate the story vividly, and signals your competence as an artist. Don’t underestimate how much that can impress script readers—who are used to austere sentence fragments—on a subconscious level. The trick, of course, is to flex your craftsmanship while maintaining precision and brevity. But hey, you’re a writer—you’re used to pulling off magic tricks.
- Know your characters thoroughly. Fiction offers a uniquely intimate view of character because it can be narrated from a first person or close third person perspective, allowing us to fully inhabit the mind of the character. The camera’s-eye perspective disallows this closeness (unless the character narrates through voiceover), but you, as the writer, can still get into your character’s head as fully as writing the story in his or her voice would require. Before writing a script, try writing a few paragraphs in your main character’s perspective, or narrating the scene from his or her voice. This can be a great exercise to familiarize yourself with your character’s speech patterns and particular worldview.
- Even more important than knowing your characters: know your voice as a writer. Just as fiction lends itself to representing character voices strongly and clearly, it’s also the best venue to showcase authorial voice. When so many stories have already been told, it’s difficult to find an entirely new one. But the writer’s way of looking at the world, and way of putting that into words, can make any story fresh and distinctive. I’ve heard numerous literary agents and editors talk about how highly they prize a strong authorial voice: it’s something that can’t be taught, and it’s an asset that can carry through an author’s entire body of work. Screenwriters are less free to explore their voices, partly because they’re working under tighter format constraints, and partly because the end product (the produced movie or show) is not the screenwriter’s actual words, but those words filtered through the work of many other creators. Still, you can find ways to bring your voice through in your turns of phrase, style of humor, and choices of details and visuals. Having a clear literary style gives your work panache and communicates confidence in your vision. This is also essential if you want to:
- Know your brand. Screenwriters need to be known by those working in the entertainment industry in order to get work. But the audience of a movie or TV show rarely knows or cares who wrote the script. Authors, on the other hand, are a public-facing brand. They are the ones out there promoting their work in interviews and bookstore appearances. Their names become synonymous with a certain type of book. If I say “John Grisham,” “Stephen King,” or “Agatha Christie,” you can probably tell me roughly what each of those writers writes, even if you’ve never read one of their books. If they want commercial success, authors are encouraged to cultivate a clear brand and stick to it. Screenwriters are lucky in that they have a bit more flexibility, since they’re not selling to a wide audience. Still, it can behoove them, particularly when starting out, to pick a lane. This allows those agents, managers, producers, and development execs they’re working with to easily identify who they are as writers and what opportunities they might be suited for. As you build a career as a screenwriter, you may have more freedom to branch out. But early on, think like an author and define your brand. If your screenplays had covers, like books, is there a consistent art style that they would have?
- Play the long game. It typically takes longer to write a book than a script. It’s not uncommon for an author to spend ten years on a novel. Screenwriters are often used to working under tighter time constraints, which is good: they know how to churn out those pages and be efficient. But if you have the freedom to write a project on spec, particularly if it’s a passion project that you want to be as strong as possible, take the time you need to get it right. Don’t be afraid to write many drafts, or to put the project away and come back to it later if that’s what you need to do.
- Be entrepreneurial. Self-publishing has revolutionized the publishing world. Sales of self-published books rose 264% in the last five years. Any author can write a book and publish it to an audience all on his or her own, without buy-in from the gatekeepers of traditional publishing. While self-publishing is not necessarily easy, and it can be hard to reach a mass audience that way, it means that the door is open for any writer, writing any story. A similar revolution is happening in filmmaking, where new technologies have made it easier for filmmakers to produce content on a micro budget. Getting a movie, no matter how small, off the ground is arguably harder than self-publishing a novel. Still, it’s doable. If you’re not finding success within Hollywood, or you want more control over your own product, explore other options for getting your writing produced independently.
- Be creative. I’ll say it again for the screenwriters in the back: you are a writer! You are an artist! Book writers are able to take more creative risks because their work is never going to be shot and produced, so they don’t have to worry about how to make their scenes a reality, and also because it generally costs less to publish a book than to produce a movie or series, so the financial risks are smaller. But that limitless imagination is often where the magic happens. Think as creatively as possible, dream up whatever story you want—and then figure out how to make that work within your practical parameters. No matter what type of writing you do, your imagination is your greatest weapon.
Sarah Archer’s debut novel, The Plus One, was published by Putnam in the US and received a starred review from Booklist. It has also been published in the UK, Germany, and Japan, and is currently in development for television. As a screenwriter, she has developed material for MTV Entertainment, Snapchat, and Comedy Central. She is a Black List Screenwriting Lab fellow who has placed in competitions including the Motion Picture Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship and the Tracking Board’s Launch Pad. Her short stories and poetry have been published in numerous literary magazines, and she has spoken and taught on writing to groups in several states and countries. She is also a co-host of the award-winning Charlotte Readers Podcast. You can find her online at saraharcherwrites.com.