Four Things a Prose Writer Can Learn From a Screenwriter

By Mark Fogarty


Editor's note: Learn more about the "evil twin sibling of the novel" at Fogarty's upcoming workshop, "Cinematic Structure for the Prose Writer"! 


The screenplay is the evil twin sibling of the novel -- short, rude, unrefined, often superficial and obsessed with money; the screenplay and the novel do not always get along. However different, both serve the same essential purpose: the telling of a good story. Both have lessons to learn from the other. Here are a few lessons for the prose writer taken from their evil twin:


1. Tell the reader less. 

With only two hours to tell a story, screenwriters are forced to be as economical as possible. Only what is absolutely necessary can make it to the screen. The seasoned screenwriter knows that the audience does not need much information to be engaged.

Take, for instance, the film Memento. This is a film told in reverse, and the main character suffers from short-term memory loss. The movie thrives on the audience constantly asking questions. “What is happening?” “How does his short-term memory loss work?”  “Is that Guido the killer pimp from Risky Business?”

The film does not stop to explain away the plot in some tedious expository monologue.  It slowly doles out information as we need it. It is 10 minutes before we know he has short-term memory loss, another 20 before we find out why, and even longer until we find out how it works. The questions posed draw the audience along and leave a feeling of a much larger story beneath the surface.


2. Give yourself limitations.

The enfant terrible filmmaker Lars Von Trier created a short-lived movement called Dogme 95, which was a system of self-imposed limitations designed to strip away the endless choices a director has to make and reduce film to its most essential power -- storytelling.

The rules were weird: the director could not be credited, there could be no artificial lighting, and if any of the rules were broken the filmmaker had to apologize in a written letter. Many dismissed this as ridiculous, but the movement produced at least one masterpiece: Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration.

To the screenwriter, the novel would seem a domain of endless possibility. Who should narrate my story and in what voice? In what order should it be told? Should I have one protagonist or a dozen? Should the pages number 300 or 1,000?

The level of choice involved in writing a novel would make Lars crawl up in a ball and weep.

Screenwriters are stuck with the limitations of the medium. They can not narrate. They can not show the inner life of the character. They must use only dialogue and images to tell the story. And they must do it all in no shorter than 90 pages and no longer than 180.

There may be no rule maker coming down on novelists to give them their limitations; novelists must do this for themselves.


3. Dialogue is a powerful tool.

Screenwriters do not have the luxury of telling the audience what a character is like or what he or she is thinking. Without the use of prose or narration to fill in the blanks of character, the screenwriter is left with dialogue.

Dialogue is a tricky and effective tool to use. The rule of dialogue is that no one can ever say something if they have no reason to say it. The power of this limitation means characters must never explain themselves outright and instead can only reveal themselves through dialogue.

Take the mob classic Goodfellas. A prose version might stop and explain Tommy’s (Joe Pesci) psychotic violent tendencies. Instead of doing this, Tommy reveals himself through dialogue.

In the middle of telling a brutal and funny anecdote, Henry (Ray Liotta) tells Tommy he is funny. Tommy replies, “What, do you mean, funny? I’m like a clown to you?” The tension grows and the scene escalates until no one knows whether he is joking or about to put a bullet in his friend’s face for calling him a “clown.” This is the power of dialogue -- dialogue always shows, never tells.


 4. The structure works.

Screenplays follow a common structure created by screenwriting guru Syd Field. The structure has been adopted by Hollywood and then reworked and renamed by hundreds of other screenwriting gurus trying to sell their version of the formula to hungry writers desperate to sell their work.

The formula, or as Syd Field calls it, “The Paradigm,” can be paralyzing to writers who take it as a dogmatic rule of law. Many think it is the reason movies have become so generic, blaming Syd for killing writer’s inspiration. But the smart writer can see Syd Field’s formula for what it is -- not dogma to be blindly obeyed, but a set of tools designed to strengthen his or her writing.

Take the Syd Field concept of “Plot Point One”

In Plot Point One, an event occurs that forces the protagonist onto the journey. This crucial moment is about watching a person make a decision that will irrevocably change their life. The idea that the protagonist is forced into the decision drives home the power and significance of the event.

For example, in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club, the unnamed protagonist meets Tyler Durden on an airplane. Although drawn to him, he at first does not pursue a friendship. Upon going home, he finds his apartment in flames. With nowhere to sleep, he contacts Tyler and they meet for a drink, leading to the creation of Fight Club. Had he just woken up one day and said “I think I’ll start a Fight Club” the story just would not be the same.

Working in a form of writing as unusual and specific as screenwriting can have its drawbacks and its benefits. The writer, always in search of new tools, can look for inspiration anywhere, whether on screen or page. By using tools from other mediums, writers will create new ideas and push themselves to expand their form.


In a future post, we will look at what a screenwriter can learn from a prose writer.

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About the Author

Mark Fogarty is a story consultant and co-producer on the film, Respite Road, filming Spring 2018. Mark runs the filmmaking program at Bishop Hendricken High School, a Catholic school for boys. The program allows students to study film every day of their High School career and combines theory with production. Before becoming a teacher Mark worked as a video editor and cameraman for Numark, and Pet Fashion Week. He has made every kind of video imaginable, including short films, fashion videos, DJ tutorials and more.

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