I’ve mentioned the following fact ad nauseum: my background is writing scripts. I went to college for it and I’ve placed well in important competitions. So on and so forth. I’m bringing it up yet again not to bore you silly, but because I feel knowing how to craft a script has been a boon to my novel writing.
Think about the main ingredients that make up a story. You have characters, action, dialogue, setting, thoughts, and exposition. With these six ingredients, you can make a lively concoction that steals hours away from your readers as they are caught up in a world you created. Or you can lose readers as they give up on plowing through extraneous information that bogs the book down. Stories offer an embarrassment of riches when it comes to all the stuff you can shove into them, and sometimes more is definitely not better.
Scripts are an entirely different matter. Movies are made in the tens, sometimes hundreds of millions of dollars. That’s a lot of money. That means every page of script written costs thousands of dollars to produce.
Just for the sake of this article, let’s say you’re writing a 100-page script (typical for a feature movie). The film in total will cost 50 million dollars to make … actually kind of cheap by today’s standards. Probably a straight-to-DVD kind of flick. A scene usually runs the length of one page. So each scene you write for this movie costs five hundred thousand dollars. You read that right. $500,000 per scene. Or, $500,000 per page. That is some expensive paper.
That means no extra stuff. No fluff. No filler. Just bare story. Get into the scene as late in the action as you can, and get out as fast as you can. Keep it moving.
The fat that gets cut from a screenplay is an excellent guide to use when you’re writing a book. It makes you take a long, hard look at what superfluous nonsense might be bogging your story down. So let’s see what falls by the wayside when you’re making a movie, or a good book.
First Cut: Thoughts and Exposition
Except in a few cases, you never hear the characters’ thoughts in a movie. Voice-over narration that gives the audience a view of what is happening in the main character’s head is used very sparingly in film for the reason that it drags the tale down, distracts from what’s happening, and can be flat-out boring. Movies rely on action and interactive dialogue to tell us what the characters are thinking and feeling. You can use this trick in your storytelling as well.
We don’t have to be told what the tearful heroine is thinking when she says, “I will always love you,” as she raises a gun to kill her abusive boyfriend whom she’s crawled back to time and again. We totally get what’s going on in her head. Sentence after sentence of her brain activity only bores us to the point of screaming, “Get to it, already! Shoot the bastard!”
Exposition is another page filler that has no place in a script. Nor should there be huge chunks of it in your story, as it leeches all the drama. Got tons of back story your tale just can’t live without? Give us a lively flashback. Think about the movie Forrest Gump, which contains long periods of action-filled flashbacks with little bits of the current events thrown in here and there. Would anyone have plunked down their dollars to watch Tom Hanks sit on a park bench droning on and on about his lifelong adventures? No, and they won’t buy your books to read such mindnumbing drivel either.
That’s not to say you’ll completely eschew thoughts and exposition in your writing. But if you think like a scriptwriter, you’ll certainly pare down these instances to the point where they only show up when they absolutely have to.
Second Cut: Characters
In moviemaking, characters cost a ton of money. A single character who speaks just one or two lines can cost more than half a dozen extras in the background. So everyone who has something to say had better be uttering something incredibly memorable or something that moves the story along.
Too many characters in your novel will cost you readers too. They will lose track of who is who and their importance to the tale. Frustrate the readers enough and they’ll give your story a bad review. Or, even worse, they’ll put the book down and refuse to finish reading it. In addition, each and every character in the story has to contribute something to the plot. Sure, your straight-A student who is also a surly Goth chick is a colorful bit of amusement, but if she doesn’t drive the story then she has no place in it. Save her for another book where she can actually shine like the star she was meant to be.
Final Cut: Description
I have covered descriptions in a great many tutorials already, from characters to settings. I’m not going to repeat myself (much), but this is the final component of getting rid of the fat via writing like script author.
Here is how I would write the setting and descriptions from the first scene of Alien Embrace if it was in script format:
INT. ISRALA’S BALLROOM – NIGHT
The room is filled with long, willowy Plasians, their bronze skin showing in scanty clothing. The public room is an ode to sensuality with lascivious murals painted on the ceiling and walls. The lighting is low and intimate. In darkened corners, many Plasians are enjoying carnal delights. They are an amorous race who thinks nothing of indulging in public sex.
Earther exchange artist AMELIA RYAN stands with her Plasian friend AMBASSADOR VRILL. Amelia, in her late 20’s, is a gorgeous redhead and famous painter. She is wearing a very low cut clingy dress with a hemline so short she can’t help but tug at it as if afraid she’ll be exposed at any second. She appears extremely nervous. Vrill, a typical Plasian with a willowy build, bronze skin, olive fur/hair, and black marbled eyes, is dressed as scandalously but the amorous Plasian is not concerned about it at all.
Now if you’ve read my novel, you know I waxed much more poetic on the surroundings and character descriptions. But this is what I started with – the bare bones of description with no extra flab. It was to this basic description that I added just enough (I hope) to present the reader with a clear picture of the setting and people. Every word was weighed carefully to make sure it wasn’t just filler before it was added on.
Make action and dialogue your leading man and lady when it comes to your fiction. Keep thoughts, exposition, and descriptions to the B-list. Don’t go over budget. Remember, words cost money – and sometimes readers.