Cinematic Writing: Keeping Your Story Reel

Storytelling is a visual medium

Who doesn’t want their novel turned into a movie?

While I wouldn’t say you should write your book with the goal of someone buying it to make a movie, I think it’s valuable to borrow techniques from screenwriters to improve your story.

A movie script is the most structured form of writing you’ll encounter. The three-act structure is tightly adhered to, and as Blake Snyder reveals in his book Save the Cat, certain things happen on certain pages and only on those pages.

The storytelling medium is supremely limited because the writer has 90 to 110 pages, or 90 to 120 minutes to tell the story. In contrast, your book will likely take hours to read. Because of this time compression, screenwriters have certain techniques that we as novelists and non-fiction writers can borrow for our books.

Yes, I said non-fiction writers. Moneyball was written from a book about statistics. Yes, it was baseball, too, but if the author hadn’t done such a cinematic job on his book, it might not have happened. Further, screenwriters can take the principles of a non-fiction book and be inspired to write a script that incorporates them.

First and foremost, for a script, every scene must be essential to the story. A screenplay’s chief structure is the spine of the story, or the dramatic question. Anything that doesn’t hang from the spine has to go.

But that isn’t enough for the screenwriter. Every scene has to do double and triple duty, packing as much into a scene as possible, including plot, character development, foreshadowing, and more. As book writers, we can borrow that double duty for our scenes. We also have more leeway to interpret what hangs from the spine and what doesn’t. I’m not saying you should compress your story, this is a book, not a movie. Borrow the techniques, not the rigidity.

Movies are visually striking. Your scenes should be, as well. That doesn’t mean ever scene must be set somewhere exotic, but you need to paint your scene with just enough unique detail for us to visualize it. The reader will fill in a lot from just a few cues.

Every scene is active, layered with conflict, visual metaphors, and energy. Talking head, just two people chatting, is rare. Consider the scene in Avengers, Age of Ultron, when Steve and Tony are having a tense conversation. They aren’t sitting drinking tea, they are chopping wood with more and more intensity until an angry Captain America rips a big log apart. You can turn off the audio and see what the scene is about. Then Tony has a conversation with Fury as he works on a truck engine. Characters should do something metaphoric as they speak.

Dialog is almost always short and snappy, to the point. Few characters are long-winded. Your dialog should have no small talk, nothing unrelated to the spine.

Strong, clear character arcs are important. Unlike the comic book Tony Stark who never changes, the movie Tony Stark has a vast character arc that includes being selfish, heroic, traumatized, broken, and sacrificially heroic, the complete opposite of where he began. Comic books need to maintain the status quo, movies don’t. Books don’t, even if they are series, the characters should change. If you have a strong character arc, you can include a lost novelist technique of foreshadowing. Again, the Marvel movies are outstanding at this. Every argument Cap and Iron Man have is a foreshadowing of the character’s eventual change.

Finally, the ending is clear, wraps up all major plot points, and leaves us energetically satisfied.

Studying screenwriting will improve your book writing; there are a lot of tricks I haven’t touched on here. You have more freedom, but using the concentrated techniques of a screenwriter can help guide you through your story.

Isolation: A Vital Element of Story

Your main character, the hero of the story no matter the genre, must be isolated to make a logical, powerful story.

I don’t mean stranded on a desert island isolated, but cut-of-from-help isolated.

It’s amazing how many pictures of “alone” and “isolated” are negative. Am I the only one who likes to be alone?

Consider, your hero encounters a problem in the first act of the story. We learn who the hero is, what their normal is, and then something happens… this is the inciting incident. What happens next is the isolation of your hero. It isn’t enough for the problem to be solvable, it must only be solvable by the hero.

Such isolation takes on many forms. It could be they (the hero and the merry band of support characters, or the ensemble) are literally cut off. Their plane crashes in the dinosaur-infested jungle and there are no other humans for miles.

Or it could be a matter of skill set. The president is dying on Air Force One and the hero is the only doctor. It all on the hero.

It could be relational. The hero estranged from his dying father is the only one who can fulfill his last request. Or a terrorist will only deal with the hero, no one else.

This is vitally important because, hey, if there is someone better suited to save the day, why is your character the hero?

This is particularly difficult in today’s society where everyone has a cellphone. You either need to get rid of the phone, out of range, broken, or dead battery, or isolate through time; there are others more suited, but they don’t have time to get there, or are unmotivated, or in league with the villain.

How is your character isolated? Make sure it’s clear and strong or your story will be unbelievable.

How Supple A Spine

Along the lines of last week’s post, we’re going to look at the flexibility strong writing gives us. There are two schools of thought, literally.

Look at writing programs around the country and you’ll find that most concentrate in one area, such as Technical Writing, Communications (Marketing), Instructional Design, Creative Writing… the only problem with that is that most of those disciplines don’t take a strong writer that long to learn.

See the source image
Be Twisty with Skill!

The other school of thought is to focus on strong writing the first year, then hit each area of writing for a semester. Pensacola Christian College’s writing program (my daughter is now rolling her eyes because I talk about this program a lot), is just that and it’s the best program I’ve seen.

As someone who hires Instructional Designers, you’d be amazed at how many can’t write.

I’m not saying you have to go to school to learn how to write. I am saying that if you are a very strong writer, you can learn another writing discipline quickly. The reason I like PCC’s approach is because it was mine across 30 years. I began with writing essays and short stories, then in college, papers, and in my major plays where I learned structure and that every kind of writing has its own unique structure. Plays and screenplays have rigid structures, stories and novels, less so, but still structure. It gave me the ability to look for structure, and once you have that, the rest fills itself in.

I continued to learn writing though trial and error after school, a bad novel (with potential), more plays, a couple screen and teleplays. Then working at Boeing, I took a class in Technical Writing and found it easy.  Years later, I learned instructional design in an afternoon. Still later got a certification in copywriting. In all of these, I was at the top of the class. Not just because I’m handsome, but because I had the foundational tools to begin with. Then I worked for a company writing resumes and got the best editing I’d ever received, that served all my other writing.

For a few years, I was a ghostwriter. My theatrical background helped me easily capture someone’s voice. I wrote a dozen books, learning from each of them.

PCC shoved that all into 4 or 5 years. Of course I’m a fan.

I have other friends who wrote newsletters, skits, blogs, and produced a wonderful novel with more to follow (read about her in my forth-coming book around the end of the month (you’ll see an announcement here)).

I’ve spent the last 20+ years making a living with different forms of writing. Typically for a company because I suck at self-promotion. It began with strong writing skills.

If you’re a strong writer, you have amazing flexibility. Having a dream is important, but paying the bills is pretty good, too. I’ve heard someone say if you want to finance a writing career, dig ditches because if you write for your day job you won’t have anything to give your dream. There’s some truth to that. But not always. It might slow you down or it might fire you up, because, hey, I write every day. And I have three books of my own and three strong screenplays. It works out.

Refine your skills and enjoy the suppleness it gives your creative spine!

The Writing Dream

Much like the American Dream, the Writing Dream can be a bit tricky.

It begins somewhere before, during, or just after the first story, be it a short story, a blog, or a book. You realize it isn’t so hard after all (that first one seems like a mountain, the future like hills. It’s a misperception because they are all mountains but go with it for now). And you begin to dream.

A long time ago, I would have guessed that dream is to have J.K. Rowling’s sales, yet after talking with hundreds of writers, the dream goes all over the place. Some want to use writing to travel, others to burn their high school English teacher (figuratively, not literally).

Dream Big – Be Ready if it Changes Capes.

However, like the American Dream, what you think is the goal may just be a weigh station, or even a lodestone that gets you moving so you can get to where you’re supposed to go.

After a while, once you perfect the craft of writing, things will pop up. Opportunity or distraction? Hard to know. William Goldman was happy being a novelist. He wrote half a doze books and then one got turned into a movie. Marathon Man, starring Dustin Hoffman and Sir Laurence Olivier, became his fork in the road. He just wanted to write novels, but the studios wanted him to write screenplays. So he did, and became one of the best at it. In fact, he worked on most Hollywood movies in the last 40 years doing rewriting, polishing, or mentoring of screenwriters before his death.

He said he wrote screenplays for money and novels to keep his sanity. Yet he wrote no more novels (too bad, because I love his novels). Was this a slap to his personal Writer’s Dream?

Not at all.

The better you get at writing, the more opportunities arise. Sometimes you have to say the second hardest word, “no.”  Sometimes the number 1 hardest word, “yes.”

How do you tell the difference between what should be yes and what should be no?

Ask yourself a couple questions:

  • Will this further my goal?
  • Will this give me a new, brighter goal?
  • Will this detract from my goal?
  • Is this a worthy philanthropic task? Because sometimes you need to do right without reward. It’s just a truism of life.

It also helps to be honest about how focused you are on your goal. If you say no to something, like writing Sunday School curriculum, for example, because you need to focus on your book, but instead eat bon-bons and watch TV, it’s time to honest with yourself. If you do, in fact, work on your book, happily say “no.”

Say “yes” when you can see the next step beyond the request. Is it moving you where you want to go? Are you gaining skill or finding a new application for your writing? Sometimes a detour is helpful. And sometimes the other parts of your life need attention. Turning down PTA meetings to write misses how important your kids are.

Ultimately, keep building the skill to be desired. And don’t be surprised if a new path springs up. Determine what’s important to you. For Goldman, it was money. For you it may be something different.

Your Writer’s Dream can be edited, just like a story.

Book Design

I’m currently designing my latest book. It’s non-fiction, and let me tell you, designing a non-fiction book takes days and often weeks to get right. Novels, fairly easy, but if there’s special formatting, that takes a long time too.

I’m not complaining, far from it. I’m making a point about using a publisher such as us rather than self-publishing. For a lot of writers, the written word is their strength, layout and design, not so much. Covers! Oh, my, there is so much that goes into that!

Don’t be a lonely wolf just howling at the moon.

It doesn’t matter what publisher you have, traditional, independent, or self, marketing and publicity is going to be on you. Publishers help, but platform building is a writer’s job. Layout and design? ISBN, registering, loading and categorizing to Amazon the most effective way… these are where 90% of writers need help.

If you’re a designer and writer, and you’re confident you can do it alone, good luck and best wishes. Not sure about all that? Want a little help and fellowship along the path? That’s what Prevail Press is about.

If you’re not a Lone Wolf, join our band of merry writers. We want to help.

Small Print: We don’t take everyone. You have to have a quality book that fits our profile. But I’ll talk to everyone.

when he tells a story… he TELLS a story!

I’m currently reading The Reckoning by John Grisham.

Image result for grisham

Clearly, no one has ever told him to Show not Tell. John Grisham is the master of telling, and I mean TELLING a story. He has a vast narrative distance, never walks us beside a character when he can just tell us, and rarely makes us feel for a character.

And yet it works.

Originally, I thought it was because his characters were nasty and lawyers and since everyone hates lawyers, he found his niche. Then he started writing about non-lawyers who were often nasty, and yet many who weren’t.

My favorite Grisham novel is still his first, A Time to Kill, which I think had more passion, but I’ve enjoyed all of them. Largely because he plots in the micro and macro very well.

This, however, is not a book review. It’s about how he tells a story his way and makes it work.

YOU can relate a story your way and make it work.

Yet there are some non-negotiables. Accurate grammar and spelling and punctuation everywhere except in dialog and maybe if you’re first person narrating, but even then vernacular speech should be weighed carefully and in small measure. Struggling to understand what’s being said gets old fast.

Everything else is up for grabs. Linear or non-linear? Yes. Truthful narration or false narration? Yes. Flashbacks? Dream sequences? Sure, why not? Take a rule and break it? Yes if you know what the rule is.

Find your own unique angle. It may become your signature.

Write on!

What is Vanity Press and What is Not?

I’ve seen it over and over again on writer channels in social media. “If you have to pay for anything it’s a vanity press and avoid them.”  While I whole-heartedly agree you shouldn’t use vanity press, the definition is wrong, wrong, wrong.

Vanity Press prints anything. If you write a book with one eye closed, hopped up on stimulants, and only while running, a vanity press will publish it. They will try to upsell you to editing services, but a pig of a story can’t be edited to quality. They don’t care, though, because any money they make off sales is just gravy, because they make their money off the author.

Vanity Press uses different words, such as partner press, or co-publishing, but make no mistake, their money is from the writer. They often have good advice for positioning, and claim to market (some even do), but their money is made, both through up-front costs, and minimum order demands on the author.

If you submit to a publisher and they say you have to buy 100, or 1000 or 10000 copies, you’re probably at a vanity press. Read some of their books before signing. Are the books well written? Some may be, but most will not be.

Prevail Press, and our peer companies, are not vanity press. We have the same screening process as traditional publishers (and more rigid than some), taking only the best books who traditional publishers SHOULD have picked up. Here’s our process:

There is no charge to submit. See our website for submission guidelines.

We may:

  • Reject the book because it isn’t ready for publication, or it doesn’t meet our guidelines (we will tell you if it’s well-written or not).
  • Reject with conditions. If it needs work but has potential, I’ll tell you what needs to be done and if you follow through, we’ll consider it again.
  • Accept it.

If we accept it, we’re going to have a frank talk about what we can do for you and what we can’t. If you want to proceed, if book design is needed, there will be a small charge for that, typically $300. If you need a cover beyond what we can do, or if you need an editor, I have a few freelancers you can work with or you can use your own resources (I can help with some suggestions). If you have a good book cover, and if it’s already been designed as a book, I’m not going to charge anything. A Prevail Press logo and barcode will be added to the cover and ISBN to the front matter.

If you do pay us for design, the tiny percentage you’re charged (10%), will be deferred until all your costs are recovered (this doesn’t include outside editing or design work). After your costs are recovered, you’ll get 60% of the retail price and we’ll get 10%.  Contrast this with traditional publishers who give you a fraction of that, normally about 25 cents, as opposed to $2+ per book with us.

You have the benefit of a publisher’s brand, a quality assurance, no-hassle publishing, and a lot of extras. You’ll also be part of a network of writers who help promote one another.

You own your copyright, an ISBN is included for each form of the book (Kindle, audio book, paperback), and truthful, trustworthy partner. No hollow promises and no falsehoods.

Self-publishing is for some people, but it isn’t as simple a process as you might think. If you don’t know how to self-publish, come to us first.

A unique publisher who is Author-Centric and Reader-Sensitive