Over the course of writing and publishing six books, I’ve been told that each of them reads like a movie. I find this extremely flattering, but not for the reasons you might imagine. You see, I dream up my stories quite literally from beginning to end and write them the way I “see” them. With this in mind, a comment about the theatrical qualities of my books assures me that I’ve successfully completed my goal by developing visual stories. Sounds bizarre, I know, however I’ve been asked by a number of writers to provide some helpful hints for creating “movie-like” books that appeal to readers and can also be translated easily into screenplays.
Tip 1: Write a Driving Plot with a Solid Narrative Arc
You might be wondering what the difference is between plot and narrative arc. The various events that occur throughout the story construct the plot, while the narrative arc is the order in which those events are presented. A driving plot and solid narrative arc are symbiotic elements that exist in all good books, especially those that have what it takes to be made into movies.
It’s crucial that you craft a strong narrative arc. I cannot overemphasize the value of each plot line (including all subplots) having a clear beginning, middle, and end. Don’t get too caught up in how many subplots you have as more is not necessarily better. Keep the plot moving forward at a comfortable pace so readers don’t get bored or feel hurried.
Tip 2: Develop Dynamic, Three-Dimensional, and Compelling Characters
Characters that are both three-dimensional and dynamic are the most compelling because they’re interesting and, rather than being static, they demonstrate growth and change. Also, audiences become emotionally invested in sympathetic characters because they have traits they can identify with, and f readers can see themselves in characters, they’re more believable. But don’t mistake sympathetic for likable; readers don’t always have to admire your characters, they just have to care about them.
Tip 3: Craft a Visceral Setting
The setting of a book is as important as the plot and characters because it roots the story in both time and place. Don’t treat your setting as just the story’s background, instead make it an integral part of the book.
Would the Harry Potter books be the same if they occurred in California in 1850? Would Memoirs of a Geisha have been a best seller if it was set solely in a teahouse? Probably not. The setting of a story is as critical as the story itself.
Authors need to think of their books’ settings as another protagonist—a distinct and visceral world that radiates with the mood and atmosphere the writer envisions.
Tip 4: Show, Don’t Tell
Put simply, this often-repeated adage describes the technique of allowing readers to deduce what you’re trying to say through the use of descriptive details, rather than info dumping or spoon-feeding readers the information. As films are an inherently visual medium, books that succeed in showing rather than telling tend to translate easier to the screen.
Here’s an example of “telling” where the author flatly states what’s happening:
John waited for June at the restaurant. When she walked in, he noticed that she was tall and looked cold.
Although readers are told substantive details about the characters and setting, a rewrite that invites us into the book’s world and shows us the same information is much more captivating.
John watched as June had to duck her snow-covered head to comfortably fit through the restaurant’s doorway. Her cheeks were red and chapped, and her hands were balled into frozen fists.
Authors that show, rather than tell, craft distinct narratives that allow readers to see, feel, taste, hear, and smell what the characters are experiencing. By harnessing the senses, the audience is invited to actively, rather than passively, engage with the prose. As Mark Twain said, “Don’t say the old lady screamed. Bring her on and let her scream.”
However, writing is an art in and of itself, which means rules are meant to be broken. In books that employ a strong narrative voice or that need a great deal of exposition, telling can be the most efficient choice. In other words, just go with your gut on this one. Keep in mind that film is primarily visual, so telling instead of showing could get messy in the adaptation.
Tip 5: Don’t Write a Screenplay Masquerading as a Book
My greatest recommendation is this: if you want to write a book, write a book, and if you want to see your story told through film, write a screenplay. Don’t write a screenplay masquerading as a book. Although both authors and screenwriters are storytellers, a book is a fundamentally different medium than a movie.
If you’re uncertain about if you should write a screenplay or a book, ask yourself these questions:
- Can my story be told in two hours or less? If so, a screenplay may be best.
- Does my story involve a lot of narration or internal dialogue? If the answer is yes, write a book.
- Do I want my writing to be followed by another robust creative process to translate it to film? If that’s your plan, go with a screenplay.
- When I think of my story, do I see people reading it or watching it? A good answer would be both, if your aim is to create pictures in your reader’s mind.
- What does my story want to be? How does it want to be told?
There are no right or wrong answers to these questions. Just follow your intuition. You’ll do fine. But most important of all, write what you know and have fun in the process. That is what writing is all about.