Write Your First Draft Like A Movie Script

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movie script

Spotlight the essentials of action and dialogue in your first draft, then add all the exposition and descriptive “book stuff” the next time around.

To be sure, books and movies are quite different. When writing for the big screen, you typically can’t hear inside the heads of characters — everything needs to be driven by action and dialogue.

So why cram a 100,000-word book into a script of 120 pages that are mostly white space since only dialogue and the briefest of setting and action instructions are supplied?

Exactly because you need to spotlight the essentials of action and dialogue, it is a superb idea to write your first draft as a script and then fill that script in with great “book stuff.”

Thought exercise

At a minimum, thinking about writing in the format of a script is a great thought exercise for all book writers.

If you were to watch your story, scene by scene, what would the movie version look like? Who is where, what are they doing, and why? What stellar images do you see?

What will the audience feel at the end of your movie? How does everything in the movie build to this ending?

Essentials

Movie scripts leave tons of creative room for directors and actors to fill in. They are brushstrokes of reality compared to the explicit detail of a novel.

Take a look. Here is an example of a script, from the movie Inception, showing how densely – yet sparsely – scripts are written.

If you follow this thinking in drafting your book, you’ll be effectively writing a big sketch of what will eventually become readable text, focusing on the heart of all stories: character interactions.

Here is the opening exposition of Inception. As you can see, it’s minimal!

FADE IN:

DAWN. CRASHING SURF.

The waves TOSS a BEARDED MAN onto wet sand. He lies there.

A CHILD’S SHOUT makes him LIFT his head to see: a LITTLE BLONDE BOY crouching, back towards us, watching the tide eat a SANDCASTLE. A LITTLE BLONDE GIRL joins the boy. The Bearded Man tries to call them, but they RUN OFF, FACES UNSEEN. He COLLAPSES.

The barrel of a rifle ROLLS the Bearded Man onto his back. A JAPANESE SECURITY GUARD looks down at him, then calls up the beach to a colleague leaning against a JEEP. Behind them is a cliff, and on top of that, a JAPANESE CASTLE.

INT. ELEGANT DINING ROOM, JAPANESE CASTLE — LATER

The Security Guard waits as an ATTENDANT speaks to an ELDERLY JAPANESE MAN sitting at the dining table, back to us.

Everything in bold is a new character or something you see or hear. This is a great way to make yourself think about what you need to describe in full when you come back to add all the exposition and description.

Dialogue follows these context blocks.

The “book stuff”

Writing as a script is a way to focus your mind and creativity on the action and dialogue, your “shows” and spectacle, imagery and body language.

Focusing on dialogue will make sure you have all your story elements in place. Without conflict and subtext, which come from opposing agendas, dialogue falls flat and goes nowhere.

Without descriptive words to fall back on, script mode makes you focus on characters’ actions. You must force yourself to express things as actions and dialogue instead of telling.

The focus on the visuals helps you develop your setting and spectacle.

Movie scenes are short and get to the point immediately. Writing in script form means you’ll plow ahead quickly and not get mired in long tracts of description or exposition.

In the end, you’ll have a beautiful structure, a “whole” to work with, and a mind brimming with ideas about how to fill it all in and flesh it out.

There are no limits

Bring on the exposition and the description! You can go deep into the psychology of characters. Give them as rich an inner life as you can imagine.

Unlike the movie-world, nothing is too expensive or impossible to shoot in book world. You can imagine anything, in any time, any way you like.

Best of all, you can make mental leaps that are impossible in movies and include all manner of clever and moving figurative language.

You can also leave room for the reader’s imagination, even about what the characters look like, which is impossible in movies where we see the actors.

Starting point

Writing a complete book can be a daunting task. Starting somewhere gives you a foothold and you can climb from there. Thinking through a book like a movie helps you imagine it. You try your best to see it. Where is everyone and why? What happens and how do you select the best details to convey to readers?

Taking a movie script approach is just one way to get your ideas on paper and then keep opening up the accordion a bit more to fill in.

This approach gives you the best of both movie and book worlds: strong visuals, dialogue, rich inner lives, and the narrative power of working in the medium of words where your imagination has no limits.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. Im sorry, but this is the worst advice someone could give a writer. Write your novel as a movie script, then add in the “book stuff”? Really? And this from a writer whose published work is nonfiction. The advice she should have given was to imagine your story as a movie in your mind (and not everyone can do that, by the way) and write what you “see.” That works for screenplays AND books. However, to start writing a script and then turn it into a book is working at cross-purposes. They are two different disciplines. Writing a novel is a completely different experience, requiring different mental muscles. For example, it takes an ad copywriter’s mentality to write succinct and evocative scene description in the fewest number of words, while description in a novel, by necessity, can and should be more detailed, whether your writing a lyrical literary novel or a hard-boiled detective novel. The style of the novel will dictate the type of description you use. My advice is don’t try to mix the mediums. Give each one the attention it deserves.

  2. I can see writing in pulses, brief setting, and dialog, dialog dialog. Get that just right in your head and the way it sounds and then rewrite it adding expanded setting and dialog/action tags. But only write a chapter or scene — not the whole story — not all at once. Discovery of devices, MacGuffins, setting influences, time influences all aid in the story’s evolution. Banging out the whole thing in minimalist fashion will lose you the opportunity to discover new paths and subplots. I like EL’s theory to edit while you go. The periodic fleshing of the dialog skeleton might fall into this category. Good thought exercise. Thanks.

  3. Good advice when you have already written the book and before you write the synopsis that will go out to many and must present images, place and characters in as few words as possible.

    • Thanks! Yes, a pass through at a late stage ‘as a movie’ is a great way to tighten the text and heighten the impact — and brainstorm mechanisms to improve concision! Great!

  4. It’s a good idea… and a sensible approach, highlighting the action and dialogue interlacing through the story…key ingredients, to be sure… so its a good idea as an exercise… but for most authors of novels, that exercise will be completed during the final re-writes of their novels. For the simple reason that it is impractical for most authors to write a screenplay as a point of departure for embarking on a novel. Instead of beginning by writing the screenplay, begin by structuring the story in a format that is typical of films (three act structure etc). And then with the two structures refined, one for the novel, and one for the screenplay/film, the two can be used together, and written together, to reinforce each other. This allows your novel to wander off and ‘ be a novel ‘, for ‘longer-take’ book reading audiences, but with an ‘auto-pilot’ that keeps it on course to score as a compelling story, for ‘short-take’ film audiences.

    • Many thanks for expanding on the idea and applying it to later stages as well! You can take this approach at any time to make sure you are getting in enough spectacle, action and dialogue. If you know what you are doing, late in the game is a great way to add ‘more zing.’ Early in the game it reminds you to do it and gives you a start. Structure is always important – thanks!

  5. I have a completed 24,000 word 126 page screenplay which many readers have said I should turn into a novel. I have considered self-publishing it i its current form or doing as they suggest and rewriting it. But the issue I see with starting with a script and turning it into a book is that a movie is naturally concise and has been trimmed to have only what is necessary to the story. Where do you find another 75,000 words without addding a lot of unnecessary flller? 75,000 words is a great deal of extra exposition and description, alternatively you are adding additional scenes which you already know are not really essential to the story. I do however agree that script writing helps you focus on what is really needed, but I think to really make this method work for a 100,000 word novel you would be aiming for a much longer script than would usually be used for a single film to avoid my dilema mentioned above.

    • Many thanks for sharing your experiences! Now we are getting into more detail in this discussion of the differences between the two 🙂 I imagine they are both the same in the sense that imagine if all the visuals in a screen play had to be translated into words in a book. Also, all the things the actors impart to the audience by prosody and actions, would have to be written out in a book. This is much of the extra length. By definition a screen play is not prose. Once you turn each scene into prose, you get a word count like a book — 1000-2000 words, or so. But beyond that, comes the reflective, descriptive, inner life parts of a book that movies have to miss or to show visually. You can explore things in a book that are very hard to do in the visual medium of movies. So, you can only take this exercise so far — of ‘seeing your story’ and blocking it out as a movie. It’s just a first pass sketch…of a BOOK. If that makes sense. If you go too far, it’ll be a movie, and movies have a very different concision than a book… BUT if your screen play is 24k words and novels start at 50k, you are only adding words to double the length of each current scene. That isn’t so much, is it? To fill in the prose? If you want to talk more about this — write me at unityinwriting – at – gmail.com! I’d love to hear from you.

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