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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