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.


Anonymous said...

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?

This is such a hard decision. I've done it both ways recently and it's still difficult.

(Stories not screenplays.)

I'm glad there's no one right answer.

Unknown said...

Good distinction between 'darlings' and scenes that have no bearing on the story. The writer's voice is one of the most critical elements for gaining fans. If those darlings are what people enjoy, then I'm all for them.

Merrill Heath said...

Joe, your screenplay sounds a lot like Afraid. Which came first, the novel or the screenplay?

Movies are like novels in that some have tons of stuff that could be cut out. But I like movies that move along without a lot of unnecessary fluff. I think that's why I love Casablanca so much. There isn't a single scene, a single line of dialog, that isn't critical to the story. It's masterful in that regard.

Steven M. Moore said...

With books and movies, the Goldilocks syndrome haunts us. When watching a movie and say, "Huh?", I usually think that something was lost on the cutting room floor. On the other hand, long, drawn out "epics" don't work for me. Titanic (I knew the ending, so I couldn't wait for the ship to sank--Celine's song didn't help either) and The English Patient (I thought I had sand in my armpits for months) are examples where not enough was cut.
Of course, your readers and movie goers are the Goldilocks you have to deal with. One's good book or flick is another's disaster. Keeps us on our toes, I suppose.

w. adam mandelbaum said...

If you like, writing a screenplay is a great way to have a detailed outline for your novel. I took one of my screenplays, which only made it to the quarter finals of the Page competition and the finals of Story Pro competition, (which means little) and used it to write my novella, Detachment Echo and it made the "book" writing process very easy and efficient. For software, you seriously want to consider Final Draft.

Anonymous said...

Steven, I thought I was the only one who felt that way about "Titanic." lol

Unknown said...

Great post!

Screenwriter Gregory Widen (BACKDRAFT, THE PROPHECY) is a fellow Thomas and Mercer author, and I got to hang out with him a bit in Seattle a couple of months ago. One of the things that struck me most is that even with his connections and track record in Hollywood, his book doesn't really have any greater chance of being adapted and shot than my does. He can hand it to the right people, bypassing an agent I suppose, but it doesn't mean those people are going to make a movie out of it. There's big money out there, but actually having something adapted and shot is kind of like winning the lottery. It happens, but the odds are against it.

And I'm with you about being hands-off if anything of mine ever does get adapted, Joe. I would love to see my ideas make it to the big screen, but I don't think I would want to deal with trying to write the script. There are people out there better at that than I am. I just want to cash the big checks and then kick back in the theater and enjoy the show. :)

McVickers said...

One of the best parts of self-publishing for me is that you can write however you want. Whether you get an audience for it is another matter. I personally think there IS an audience for people who love details in a book. Yes, I can write that "John Smith walked into the hospital." But personally for me, I want to know how that hospital smelled, why the lights are so bright, and why the nurse at the receptionist is wearing that white blouse. There is a big market for that kind of thing, just ask George R.R. Martin's readers. Also, I find it odd that Stephen King advocates killing your darlings. The guy has often been accused of having "diarrhea of the word processor". And that's EXACTLY what I love about his books! If John Smith gets shot in the shoulder on page 5, and it's a day later on page 100, the author better mention that gunshot instead of just acting like it never happened. The only time I don't expect details in my books is when I read a YA novel. When I read a book meant for adults, and it reads too much like a script, I feel cheated. If I wanted to read a script, I'd buy a script, not a novel.

Unknown said...

BTW, Dean Wesley Smith just admitted to tossing out 5 chapters (about 6000 words) from the novel he's finishing now because, although his characters traveled around the Old West and did a bunch of cool stuff, it didn't advance the plot. Have to cut the excess fat sometimes and not feel bad about it.

Alan Spade said...

Joe said : "For the first time ever, writers have choices."

Writers always had choices. Denis Diderot self-published. There was a time when self-publishing was cool. Granted, for a long time in our lives, authors self-publishing were marginalized, and the tendency subsists, even if self-publishing is now cool again.

You didn't have choice if you wanted to sell a million books or more, but even in the darkest hours of trad publishing, I think we could find writers who made a living self-publishing.

Unknown said...

I personally think there IS an audience for people who love details in a book.

Absolutely. To me, kill your darlings refers to those self-indulgent passages that you loved as you were writing them but just seem silly or even embarrassing during the editing process. I would imagine that anyone who has ever written a novel knows what I'm talking about.

Description, done well, is an entirely different matter. I'm not a big fan of long descriptive passages, but some readers love that stuff. To each his/her own. But if you're going to do that kind of thing, I think it's important to do it skillfully, with a sense of how it's affecting the pace of the overall story and how it's affecting the resident characters. Description for its own sake, or merely to pad the word count, is never a good idea, IMO.

McVickers said...

Description for its own sake, or merely to pad the word count, is never a good idea, IMO.

Absolutely. I guess my idea of detail is something that adds to the reader's understanding of the story. When that's the case, I have no qualms about spending two paragraphs explaining how it works. But sometimes, yes, it's just pointless. For instance, I skip over all of George R.R. Martin's elaborate descriptions of the food people are eating in the "Ice and Fire" books. I really could care less, because it borders on food porn at that point, and we know how much GRRM loves his food.

Joe Flynn said...

The movie biz, like most things, goes in cycles. The last analysis I read, a few months ago, was that spec scripts, i.e. unsolicited scripts, were finding very few buyers. Producers are looking for franchises that derive from already published or produced properties, ones that have a ready-made audience.

Besides all that, writers have a much more significant standing in television than in feature films. In TV, a writer can also be a producer, a position with far greater status. Television also provides a far larger canvas on which the adaptation of a novel might be spread.

antares said...

"Fully half of Cherry Bomb is in the villain's POV (name another book that does that.)"

Frederick Forsyth, _The Day of the Jackal"

Forsyth made me identify with the Jackal until the end. Then I thought, "My God! What have I done?"

It is a hard trick to pull off. Excuse me. I gotta go read _Cherry Bomb_.

Jill James said...

I had someone ask me if I was going to write a screenplay of one of my books. Although I'm sure some writers can bounce from form to form, from short story, to novel, to screenplay, I don't know that I'm that person. I've learned to never say never in this business, so maybe I will write a screenplay some day. Or maybe not. Thanks to the people who led the way to giving us the control.

Anonymous said...

@Jude Hardin: Thank you! And sobering point about Gregory Wilden. I've enjoyed his work and wish him well with his book.

If that lottery called my number, I'd be game to take the first shot at adapting my novel under the right circumstances.

@McVickers: I've read much of King's work and enjoyed it. His descriptions can run a bit long, but he's more than earned that right with me.

I love how a few well-chosen details can lend texture to a scene and/or depth to a character.

@Joe Flynn: That analysis is pretty much verbatim with what i was reading when I still followed the industry - two years ago. :(

Tori Minard said...

"Fully half of Cherry Bomb is in the villain's POV (name another book that does that.)"

Eye of the Needle and The Man From St. Petersburg, both by Ken Follett, have extensive material from the villain's POV. In fact, when I read them I almost identified more with the villains than the protagonists.

Unknown said...

And sobering point about Gregory Widen.

Well, even knowing the extreme odds against anything ever coming of it, when Greg asked for a copy of my book, you better believe I gave him one. :)

Patrice Fitzgerald said...

I wrote one-and-a-half screenplays, some years ago. I really had fun. You do have to streamline everything, but it goes so fast! To someone who's written novels, to come up with 100 or so pages of mostly dialogue is absurdly easy. As to whether or not it's good...

And I agree that it's a good vehicle for paring down excess in your writing.

Thanks for another good guest post and thoughtful commentary!

Unknown said...

> 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.

Hi Al,

I just reported Kobo's $0.00 price of Wilding to Amazon. I hope it helps.

I'm in a similar situation. I would like Stormy Night ( to be free on Amazon. If anyone would care to report it to Amazon, I would appreciate it. It is free on

Apple (

Smashwords (

Kobo (

If you do report it, please email me at to let me know, and so we can see if might like one of the Nepo Press books (mine or Rebecca Radley's) as a thank you.


Anonymous said...

@Jude Hardin: That would've been my move, too. ;) Which book of yours? I know I enjoyed Colt...

@Patrice Fitzgerald: I hope those screenplay ideas found new homes in your books. Thank you for the kind words!

@Frank Sergeant: Thank you! I'm happy to return the favor. A heads up, though - you're still at .99 on B&N. I had to un-publish and go through Smashwords to get it offered for free on B&N.

Steven M. Moore said...

People have mentioned King and his verbose tendencies. It's natural to compare him to Koontz, whose books are shorter but still with plenty of description. I prefer the latter author.
In general, I prefer minimalist writing because it makes reading less passive. Saying "I entered the hospital" should be enough to motivate your reader's imagination to spring into action--he provides the description, and every reader's description will be different. Is this being a lazy writer? I don't think so. It's allowing your reader to take part in the creative process.

Unknown said...


Just wanted you to know I read your screenplay this morning.

I liked it a lot.

Keep it up - you just might have a future at this writing thing. :-)

author of Summer's Journey
admin of WTRAFSOG

Unknown said...

I gave him a copy of KEY DEATH, Al.

And thanks! So glad you enjoyed COLT.