Monday, September 19, 2011

What My Foray Into Screenwriting Taught me about Crafting a Novel

All my life I wanted to be a novelist. The idea of trying my hand at screenwriting never entered my mind until I moved to Los Angeles. Once you live here, writing at least one screenplay is practically a right of passage, whether you’re a doctor, a lawyer, a waiter/actor, or a psychic to the stars. Everyone gets the bug at some point.

Before I moved to La La Land, I’d written two gargantuan epic fantasy novels that were basically collections of all the things I loved. Vampires, were creatures, parallel dimensions, violence, gore, sex, witchcraft, dystopia, westerns, I could go on and on. I’m telling you, these monstrosities I had created were like True Blood to the tenth power.

I was a decent writer, but I was struggling like crazy to write a book that could actually sell.

I got frustrated with writing novels, so I decided, “Hey, why not write a screenplay? It has to be easier than writing a book.”

Turns out, what I learned from screenwriting made writing a novel easier. And as soon as

I returned from my foray into screenwriting and wrote a new book using my new knowledge, that was the one that got me an agent and sold.

Here’s a breakdown of what I took away from screenwriting that helped me become a better novelist:

•The notion of high concept – There are a lot of definitions for high concept, but on the most basic level, it is this: a really f#&@*$g good idea that makes people’s eyes light up when you tell it to them. Easy, right? Okay, not so much. Let’s delve. A great high concept idea is one that is generally unique, but with familiar elements. Something that is “the same but different.” That’s why using a mashup of two ideas works so well to create a high concept idea. You end up saying things like “my story is like ___ meets ___but with ___.” If a mashup comes easily to mind when you think of your story, you probably have a great high concept idea on your hands. Remember, idea is king.

Save the cat There’s a screenwriting book called Save the Cat, by Blake Snyder, which is chock full of great wisdom for storytellers of any form. Buy it. It’s worth it. But for now, I’ll talk about the most important notion in the book: your main character needs to save the cat. What this means is that your MC needs to do something early in the story that gets the audience/reader on her side. You can have a character who is secretly a cold-blooded serial killer, but if, early in your story, this killer sees a smaller kid being bullied and stops it, we’ll be on the killer’s side for the rest of the novel. A great example is Katniss Everdeen from The Hunger Games. As a character, she’s heroic, but she’s also stoic and stubborn and single-minded. But . . . she makes a great sacrifice in the first chapter to save another, and for that we will forgive pretty muchanything else she does for the rest of the series.

Language is not enough – Screenplays are action and dialogue, which equals story, story, story, and they have to be 120 pages or less in most cases. There’s no room for overwriting and showoffy language. Before screenwriting, the two books I’d written were both 250,000 words. I was obviously doing some overwriting, and quite a bit of showing off. Screenwriting taught me the art of saying a lot with a little, and more importantly, it taught me the importance of placing story above language. Language is great, yes, we all love a beautifully crafted sentence or metaphor. But if all you have is language, you’re dead in the water.

•Be willing to move on – In the world of screenwriting, you can’t just write one screenplay and sell it for a million and that’s that, you’re set for life. Most writers don’t ever sell a screenplay. They get assignments by studios to write them, and usually they need to show a body of work in order to get those assignments. Screenwriters can’t become so attached to their work that they never get past that first screenplay, or they’ll never get paid, and never see their work produced. The lesson I learned from this is that I should not cling to my projects. I should keep moving. Keep writing. Sharks have to keep swimming or they’ll die, and the same is true for a writer’s career. Some books can be an anchor, holding you back, pulling you under. Be willing to write something new. Lots of somethings new.

Jennifer Bosworth is the debut author of STRUCK, a story of post-apocalyptic proportions. When a massive earthquake devastates Los Angeles, teenage lightning addict Mia Price finds herself at the center of a battle between two doomsday cults, one that wants to save the world and one that wants to destroy it. And she will be the deciding factor in who succeeds at their aim. (FSG/May 8, 2012)


  1. Jennifer,

    This is a great post. You're awesome. I adore you. Keep rocking it! : ) I'll take you on Zombie apocalypse team any day.

  2. Yep. Yep. I'm a huge believer in the "script it" method of novel writing. I generally script scenes, then flesh them out into novel chapters. (Though I started with screenwriting as a teenager, rather than going from novel to screen)

  3. This is all such great advice!!! And thanks for the explanation of "high concept." I hear it a lot, and it's one of those things that's taken a long time to understand, just like figuring out what the hell "voice" meant too, lol.

  4. Great post, Jen! Although I have to say that I am probably one of the few writers living in LA who has no desire whatsoever to write a screenplay! :-)

  5. Awesome post, Jen! And I have to agree with Heather that I'm glad you explained high concept and that it's "same but different." That's a hard one to explain and you did it beautifully. Also, I'd never heard of SAVE THE CAT before, but now I'm going to go check it out.

  6. Awesome post, Jen. SAVE THE CAT is a book every novelist should read imo.

  7. Great advice! I did it the other way around. Began with script writing, read about 8 books on crafting the script, but really began to understand crafting a story through writing a novel! I think an understanding of one can help enormously with the other. Can't wait to read STRUCK. It sounds amazing!