Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Guest Post by Al Boyle

I’d wanted to be a screenwriter.

The screenplay format can be intimidating. In the simplest terms, it consists of scene headings, action paragraphs and dialogue, but there’s nothing simple about writing a great screenplay. There are a few unwritten rules to screenwriting which stand in contrast to the novel format:

They tend to run 90-120 pages, depending on the genre.
Action paragraphs are typically kept to a maximum of four lines (rather than four sentences). A screenplay riddled with dense paragraphs suggests the work of an amateur (unless your last name is Tarantino).
Since movies are what we see and hear, inner thoughts must be dramatized through action, dialogue, or both.

There have been plenty of exceptions, but you had to know the rules – as demonstrated by command of your craft – to break them.

Screenwriting teaches you to be disciplined. The lessons I learned helped a great deal when I wrote my novel and I found the transition liberating. My story could span hundreds of pages. I could let my paragraphs breathe and get inside my characters’ heads at no peril to my perceived craftsmanship.

The irony was, despite the newfound freedom, my approach remained the same:

Make every word count.

If you don’t, your reader will know. They’ll grow impatient. Some may skim, others may skip.

Some will put your book down.

As readers, we know what we put down may stay down. If you’ve enjoyed other works by the writer, you might cut them some slack. If their work is new to you, there might be no second chance.

If you struggle with brevity in your writing, I’d recommend securing copies of the motion picture screenplays for your favorite movies. A screenplay is a different reading experience, but after a few pages you’ll find a rhythm. You’ll also see how those writers made your favorite stories leap from the page using comparatively few words. Many can be downloaded for free online.

Here are a couple of sites with good inventories:

One of my screenplays became the basis for my debut suspense-thriller novel, Unhinged. For television buffs, think The Dead Zone meets Without a Trace.

A brief synopsis:

Eighteen-year-old Jared Chambers vanished in broad daylight. The police have no leads, no suspects, and no persons of interest. 

One eyewitness has come forward. She was twenty miles away when it happened. 

Amy Dylan is a psychic with a loyal following on WXYZ-FM in rural Sussex County, New Jersey. She experiences a disturbing vision of eighteen-year-old Jared's abduction and captivity by a brutal, unseen assailant. Her offers to assist the police and the Chambers family are met with skepticism and hostility. 

Undeterred, she conducts an independent investigation and produces the first solid lead, thrusting herself into the media’s spotlight. Jared's elusive captor challenges her on the air and provides chilling proof that Jared is at his mercy. 

To save Jared, Amy must take the battle to his captor and live to tell.

Wilding is a short story in the same genre. It’s free on Smashwords and Kobo. It’s .99 on Amazon until enough people besides me nudge them to price match. 

After learning his thirteen-year-old daughter and her best friend are being harassed by boys, Jake rushes to their aid. When he arrives, he realizes the boys are young men and he’s vastly outnumbered. His quiet, suburban neighborhood is about to become a vicious battleground.

Thanks again, Joe, for the keys to the kingdom. I’ve enjoyed my stay.

Joe sez: I wanted to write movies when I was younger. Back in my pre-publication days, I'd penned three screenplays and spent two weeks in Hollywood, knocking on agents' doors and trying to get my work read.

I wound up getting over a hundred rejections on my screenplays, and rightfully so--they weren't good.

So I became a novel writer, and now, twenty years later, I make a good living at it. But after I'd gotten published, I took another shot at a screenplay, and I think I did a pretty good job on it. Synopsis:

You’re chopping wood at your cabin in upper Minnesota—a cabin forty miles from anything—when a man in a filthy orange jumpsuit comes running out of the woods.

“Please hide me! I’m an American citizen! They’re holding me against my will!”

Then you see it. The black helicopter. Coming this way. And like the man’s jumpsuit, it has no numbers on it, no identifying marks.

“Don’t let them take me! I can’t go back there! I haven’t done anything!”

Do you hide him? 

Greg Point does. And then they come. They come to make sure no one alive can reveal the government’s darkest secret.

But Point has secrets too.

He’s been living in the US for almost twenty-five years under a false identity. Now his cover has been blown, his adopted country has turned against him, and Greg Point is about to see how a Black Site operates... from the inside.


I enjoy writing screenplays. But I no longer play well with those in power. I spent a long time trying to get free of the legacy publishing world, and I have no desire to work in Hollywood where decisions are made above my pay grade. While I love movies, and think it would be cool to see some of my work on the screen (either adapted from my books, or an original screenplay like THE SITE), I don't want to have to jump through hoops to please the money people.

If anything by me is ever shot, I'll have no hand in it other than cashing the check. Having control over my work means too much to me to watch someone else adapt it. So I'd either shoot it myself, or stay completely out of the process.

Here are some random musings based on Al's post, many of which seem to contradict each other but really don't.

1. A screenplay forces you to think visually. As I've said for years, a novel is a movie that plays in the reader's head. The better you are at picturing a scene, the better you are at writing it.

2. Less is more. When I was teaching writing and publishing at a local community college, I asked my students to write about walking into a hospital. They gave me long, florid descriptions of sights and smells and sounds. Then I shared mine:

"I walked into the hospital."

That's oversimplifying my point, but the point still needs to be made. Everyone has been in a hospital. Everyone can picture it. Don't waste words writing stuff the reader already knows. Thinking visually doesn't mean bogging down the story with minutiae.

3. There are no unneeded scenes in movies. Or at least, there shouldn't be. Ditto with novels. This is called pacing, and the pace should always be quick, even if you're writing a 1200 page novel of a man dying of boredom. Each chapter, each paragraph, each sentence, each word, should be doing something.

In most cases, that "something" is moving the story forward. But in other cases, that "something" is making the reader emote. A joke. A scare. Turning them on or making them cry. Which brings me to:

4. Faulkner was wrong when he said, "In writing, you must kill all your darlings." Stephen King elaborated in On Writing: “Kill your darlings, kill your darlings, even when it breaks your egocentric little scribbler’s heart, kill your darlings.”

Actually, my darlings are some of the things my fans like most, and some of the things I most enjoy writing. While I try to make sex, violence, and humor essential to the plot, I often take them further than needed. And that's what makes my work appealing to many. Tom Clancy probably didn't need all the technobabble in Hunt for Red October, but those who like that sort of thing were just as enamored with the overabundance of detail as Clancy undoubtedly was. If challenged, I bet King could whittle Under the Dome down to the length of Carrie or Cujo, but he kept a lot of his darlings, and his readers like that.

It's important to be objective, and cut the parts that don't work, even if you like them. But the fun of writing, and reading, often comes down to the odd bits that probably could be cut. I could certainly remove Harry McGlade and the Feebies from Whiskey Sour and have a leaner, more traditional thriller, and the plot wouldn't suffer. But the entertainment value of the book would.

5. The three act structure is a guideline, not an outline. Your story must have conflict, rising action, and resolution, but it can have many plot points and twists and go in whatever direction you dream up. Yes, your hero should have inner conflict as well as story conflict, and there should be an inciting incident and a call to action and a low point and all the crap you learned in school. Formula works for a reason--it's why our brains are so receptive to storytelling.

That said, novels and screenplays don't have to be cookie cutter. I take perverse pride that my eight Jack Daniels books are all very different structurally and tonally. Bloody Mary has two full three act structures. Shaken has three. Fuzzy Navel has twelve points of view and is written in real time. Fully half of Cherry Bomb is in the villain's POV (name another book that does that.)

The point is to take the reader on a ride. Once you understand how to manipulate story, you can have a lot of fun playing with structure.

6. Control control control. Whether you are writing a novel or a screenplay, make sure you're able to justify and defend every word. That's being in control of your craft.

But once you write "the end" you have to make a choice. Do you want to maintain control by self-publishing it or shooting it yourself? Or do you want to give up control in exchange for a publishing or movie deal? Are you willing to change things because an editor or producer tells you to? Are you willing to let another writer do a second draft of your screenplay? A sixth draft? To change it so drastically you only get a story credit?

There is no right or wrong answer here. Personally, I doubt I'll ever sell novel rights again. I would sell movie rights to my works, but I wouldn't want to adapt them myself, and wouldn't want anything to do with the final product (unless I was the one shooting it.)

We must remember than in 2013 we not only have control over our words, we have control over our careers. For the first time ever, writers have choices.

Choose wisely.