5 Lessons That Novelists can Learn from Screenwriters


Some of the biggest screenwriters in our generation have something in common: they develop a lot of their skills by reading novels. In fact, many of the greats learned all of their skills through novels, not from watching movies. The reason is fairly simple; novelists and screenwriters have a lot to offer one another. So if a screenwriter can learn from a novelist, then it’s fair to say that a novelist can learn a lot from screenwriters. Here are the five biggest lessons.

Lesson #1: Learn to Say More With Less

Having abridged several screenplays and adapting them into novels, I can tell you that there are a lot of wasted words in most novels. Most of the novels that I have read would be absolutely perfect if they were to be cut by 20 to 30 percent. Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of authors who make every word count. However, most of the novels that I read tend to spend too much time on setting descriptions when they should be focusing on characters or storyline.

One of the first things I do when editing my books is to cut anything that does not contribute to the book. If a paragraph can be removed and not affect the story, then it doesn’t belong.

Lesson #2: Using Scenes to Build a Story

Most writers start out on page one of their novel and then focus on daily word count goals. Eventually, they finish their book and then make revisions. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this method but if you find yourself struggling then you should know that a novel can be broken down into scenes. In fact, I never write a novel starting at page 1 – I start with the most important scenes. The first questions I ask myself are:

What is the goal of this book?

What am I writing about?

To screenwriters, this is known as the controlling idea. Only then can I begin the process of tying characters together and forming the overall story. This is the absolute best method of approaching the writing process. It almost completely eliminates writer’s block.

Lesson #3: Every Scene Must Provide Tension

We all know that a good movie makes us feel tense from beginning to end. We need to keep watching because we just have to know what happens next! The same is true of a novel. Every page must provide enough tension to keep the reader’s interest.

Once you have laid out each scene, make them all count. If a scene doesn’t provide tension, then it is not moving the story forward. The secret to creating a page turner is to never allow the tension to let up. Characters within each scene will be trying to accomplish a goal. They will either succeed or fail but they will not resolve the overall dilemma. They remain in peril until the climax.

Lesson #4: A Novel’s Characters and Plot Are Besties

Some novelists will put too much emphasis on their characters and forget that the plot of the story is just as important – or vice versa. Whatever the case, it’s seen as a matter of trying to find a balance between character development vs. plot. You should start looking at it as characters create the plot. They are equally important and should never be pitted against each other. After all, they are best friends.

Writers can learn a lot from magicians in this respect. Learn how to put your reader’s focus exactly where you want it. If you can accomplish that, then you’ll have them eating out of the palm of your hands.

Lesson #5: Bring Dialogue to Life

Dialogue is extremely important to screenwriters but it’s often underestimated by novelists.  However, novels should incorporate just as high a standard when it comes to dialogue. Here are a few popular tips that will help you create better dialogue:

  • Read it aloud in the same way you imagine your character saying it.
  • Act out a scene if it is comprised of a lot of dialogue.