Writing a Novel is Like Directing a Movie

I’m a big movie fan and I noticed that nearly all of my top ten directors also write their own scripts. That’s not an accident. Writing a novel is analogous to directing a film. You have the script, the actors, the set and the pacing to consider.

First off, I strongly believe that any novel writer should bang out at least one screenplay in his or her life. Screenplays are the bare bones stories of this world. There’s nothing but plot and dialogue. No elaborate scene descriptions or convoluted point of view. Just pure story.

I was lucky enough, in my final year at UCSD, to stumble into a screenwriting class. Best thing for me. I wish I’d discovered it early. Most of the creative writing program was a joke. The same people inhabiting the classes (which were little more than glorified critique groups) all peddling the same story they started as freshmen (usually this involved some crisis of the soul about a broken relationship).

In screenwriting, we analyzed scripts of successful films. That’s something that harder to do with novels because they’re so damn long (and I read like a snail stuck in molasses). Because there’s nothing to get in the way of plot, I was able to see the elements unfold clearly before my eyes. I recall analyzing The Silence of the Lambs and marveling at how the screenwriter fit all the pieces together.

After that, I launched out and wrote a few screenplays of my own. I even worked for a “producer” up in Hollywood to punch up his script. Don’t get excited, the guy was from Eastern Europe, and every five pages girls were mysteriously taking off their tops. It made Asylum scripts look Oscar worthy in comparison. But the upshot was, I learned how to get to the essence of a story quickly.

I learned about beats (which can mean two things). I drafted a story idea for another producer that was just the beats (story elements) and condensed the whole script down to about 20 pages. I also learned about inserting beats into dialogue. A beat is that dramatic pause when someone is speaking. In filming, the actor (or the director) gets to decide how to fill that beat. As a novelist, it’s a bit more complicated.

When I write out a chapter in novel, I often take the idea of screenwriting and beats on the first pass. That is, I just lay out the various story actions and raw dialogue. When I want a pause, I just write BEAT, and move on. In the second pass, I start to add layers of detail and description.

For me this mimics the actions of making a film. First you have to write the screenplay (cement the elements of plot and dialogue), and then the director and actors can come along and throw up the scenery, add the tone and mood, make the plot live.

This is the trouble I think most novelists have. They try to do all this at once. I’ve seen first drafts where people have concentrated on the character and descriptive end to the detriment of the plot. That’s like a director bringing together a set of actors and starting to film without a script. It works sometimes (like with Iron Man), but not very often.

I try to switch hats when I write. First I write the script, concentrating on the action events, or if there’s substantial dialogue, I’ll run through the lines without any punctuation, just to get down the flow. Then, preferably on a different day, I’ll go through as a director, setting the scene, adjusting the pacing, and motivating my actors (characters) to give better performances.

Tim Kane