Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Screenwriting Tricks for Authors

ROBERTA: Today's guest, Alexandra Sokoloff is a woman of many talents.
Coming from a background in theater, she's acted, directed, sung, danced,
written screenplays, and written four well-acclaimed horror and thriller
novels, most recently BOOK OF SHADOWS. We welcome her to JRW today to talk about her expertise in screenwriting tips for novelists. (She has published a
workbook on this subject, published as an ebook on Kindle.) Take it away Alex!

ALEX: Always great to be here on Jungle Red.

These lovely vixens, I mean ladies, have invited me today to talk about screenwriting, a very unladylike subject. And Roberta says I only have 800 words, so this is going to be all about the discussion, people! Jump in and ask those questions.

So I worked in Hollywood as a screenwriter for twelve years. For a while it was great. My screenwriting partner and I wrote original scripts, thrillers, which mostly sold, and we got hired to do assignments, sometimes off original pitches, some novel adaptations. I was getting paid well to do what I love, working with wildly talented people-and some assholes-but mostly, truly, incredibly talented and passionate and fascinating people. I was having too good a time to realize I was miserable.

And then, in the middle of what seemed like a run of the best luck possible, I crashed. We had gotten our dream director on an original script, a ghost story set on a college campus, and were also working on an adaptation of a novel based on a famous parapsychology experiment that had always compelled us. Two dream projects. I was on top of the world.

But then we lost our director to another movie that got its financing together first. And the production companies attached to the book we were adapting reversed power roles and suddenly we were faced with starting over, a page one rewrite, with no extra money offered for the extra work (an increasingly dire reality for screenwriters, the "one-step deal" that becomes a never-ending nightmare).

Now, this kind of thing happens in Hollywood all the time-- it's turned into the norm, actually. But this time, I snapped.

And so while we pounded out that adaptation that wouldn't die, I took my original script, and started writing it as the novel that became THE HARROWING. Even if I could only write a paragraph at the end of the day, I would force myself to do it. People always ask me if it was hard to make the transition from screenwriting to novel writing, but it was no harder than any writing ever is. We screenwriters know all that internal stuff about our characters anyway--now I didn't have to hold back.

I gave the book to my film agents, they hooked me up with my fabulous literary agent within a week, and he sold the book to St. Martin's Press in a two-book deal two weeks later.

While every book sale and subsequent career has a lot to do with luck and timing, I also know that my quick representation and sale had a lot to do with my screenwriting background - because my agent and editor said so.

The truth is, book agents and editors and the whole publishing business in general has been corrupted--I mean, influenced--by Hollywood. The blockbuster mentality is rampant. Even though the bottom line is always a great book, publishing houses increasingly want big ideas; fast, visceral, visual plots; and a big, high concept hook for marketing.

So that means authors can give themselves an edge by using film techniques to make their stories more immediately appealing and easily marketable--and by the way, to create better, more engaging books. I believe any novelist, from aspiring to multiply-published, can benefit from these screenwriting tricks of the trade.

But when I started teaching writing workshops (a happy and unexpected perk of being an author), I realized very quickly that the storytelling techniques that we Hollywood types take for granted (such as the Three-Act, Eight-Sequence Structure) are a huge revelation to people outside the glass dome of the film business.

The thing is, film is such a compressed and concise medium that it's like seeing an X ray of a story. In film you have two hours, really a little less, to tell the story. It's a very stripped-down form that even so, often has enormous emotional power. Plus we've usually seen more of these movies than we've read specific books, so they're a more universal form of reference for discussion.

It's often easier to see the mechanics of structure in a film than in a novel.

So the workshops I teach, now all over the country, my Screenwriting Tricks For Authors blog: and the workbook , are my way of making these screenwriting techniques and tricks available to novelists and aspiring novelists who may not live anywhere near Hollywood, but who could get the same benefit I and other author friends have reaped from applying screenwriting techniques to our novel writing.

My word count is up (already!!!!) but here are some links to get you started on the basics of screen story structure.

What Is The Three-Act Structure And Why Should You Care

The Three Act, Eight-Sequence Structure

The Master List

The Index Card Method

And I'll be in and out all day and very glad to answer any questions people have on the business or craft of screenwriting.

ROBERTA: Thanks so much for stopping by Alex. Now let's have all your questions--Alex is full of great information!


  1. Hi, Alexandra - happy to see you at JR! When I was trying to figure out how to structure the plot of a crime novel, I turned to screenwriting you say, there really is such a defined process for plotting a screenplay while we novelists can end up wandering around in circles being arty. One of the best pieces of advice ever: start a scene as late as possible, end as early as possible. And so many tips and tricks for screenwriting come in nice simple packages like that. So GREAT IDEA writing a book on screenwriting techniques for novelists. Can't wait to read it and find out what else I should be applying!

  2. Good to see you here, and thank you for taking our questions. I have two:

    --My twenty-five-year-old daughter (who would like to be a screenwriter) has heard that if you don't make your mark in your twenties, you're toast. Is it already too late for her?

    Thank you!

    --Cable television must have created an enormous demand for scripts of one kind or another. How has that changed the market?

  3. ALex, your book is really jump-started me on my new book. (It was one of the first books I bought on my new Kindle--okay, after my own, of course.)

    What do you see as the biggest mistake new mystery authors make in starting a manuscript?

    (Oh, my captcha word is spotlit! Seems appropriate...)

  4. Thanks for visiting and for sharing your knowledge, Alexandra. I went to several of your links to your blog, and am excited about getting a pack of index cards for my WIP!

  5. I can't wait to dig in to all this information, and to download the book. (I've been trying to decide which e-reader to buy since RWA.) Thanks so much for sharing all of this!

  6. Hey Hallie! Yes, I find that defined structure so comforting when I'm floundering around with the first draft of a book. If I can just say, "Well, I need to be heading toward an obsessive drive by the protagonist about now" - then just that general knowledge will help me get specific about what's missing in the book.

    Ask the question and your creative mind WANTS to answer, it's magic!

  7. Sheila, it's true that it's best to get going on a screenwriting or TV career in your twenties. Hollywood is every bit as sexist, racist and ageist as anyone has ever said, and while many writers do work into their 40's and 50's (and do their best work then, naturally!), it's because they built that career when they were young.

    But 25 - she's still fine!

  8. As to the cable market, unfortunately, producers and networks fill that need with "unscripted" (yeah, RIGHT...) shows, that hire kids for slave wages, no benefits, because those shows aren't unionized.

    At the same time, top screenwriters have fled to TV because things are so dire in the feature market and business, but every show's staffs have been cut drastically - it's normal now to have only four writers on a show instead of 6-12.

    The good news for US, though, is that both TV and films are into books, books, books instead of scripts.

  9. Thanks, Hank! I miss you!

    I think the most glaring mistake, or omission, I see in new writers of any genre is an inattention to the visual. People work so hard on their first lines and first pages, but I read these mss and have no idea what I'm LOOKING at. Where are these people? What sensual and emotional effect is the location having on them?

    We are visual creatures and an author should be keenly aware of that and serve the visual first, or pretty close to first. You can add whole new layers to a book by learning from film and thinking of yourself as a production designer.

  10. Thanks, Susan! Index cards will change your life. You'll wonder how you ever put together a story without them.

  11. Thanks for checking it out, Susan! When you get going, I'm always willing to answer questions on my blog.

  12. Alex: This is great! One of the things you might not know is how large your following is! I am on your newsletter list and have a file that's just for your postings. You helped me think through the note card method- picture this- I'm at my house in Italy and told the housekeeper that if she touch one singe note card spread across the table she was the victim in my next book- All your fault, Alex.

    Truthfully, thank you for your extensive postings. I read them all with appreciation.

  13. HI Alex,
    Welcome to Jungle Red. Your story is fascinating. And it sounds like you had a lot of fun along with the success. (before the crash)
    I began writing by studying screenwriting, moved to novels, and then just recently finished a screenplay for a director. I have to say, I really enjoy screenwriting, its so freeing in some ways --but I knew going in -- its a long shot business, even more of a long shot than publishing.

    Whether you sell a screenplay or not, the story structure techniques are so useful especially in mystery and suspense.

    I thought I had every book on screenwriting, but I can see I'll have to get yours!

  14. Well, thanks, Cassy!

    That's right, keep the housekeeper away from the index cards. (My cats ignore my threats, it's very annoying.)

    I have people telling me they've just taken over a whole wall of the house and painted up a Three-Act structure story grid. Take that, Martha Stewart!

  15. Hey Jan. Yeah, I loved the actual writing of scripts, but for me it's writing novels that's freeing. It's harder, no doubt, you can't cheat at all in a novel. But you don't have to think about budget or time or location restraints, either, and I love that.

  16. Hello Alexandra - I wrote training videos (talk about the underbelly of the writing world...) for 17 years and I agree it's all about the visual (esp. when you're trying to explain HOW to do something). But I find that being concise in visual description is needed because editors tend to cut stuff that isn't moving the plot forward. Can you comment on the balance between plot and description?

  17. Well, I tend to overwrite visual description myself because I love it so much. My editor is always saying to me - "Enough of the buildings!"

    I think the best way to figure out if you're going overboard on description is to read every single chapter aloud, to yourself or to others if you can bribe them. It takes a while to get through a book that way, but SO worth it because it becomes immediately evident where the fat is.

    Also I'll post a link to a post on visual storytelling - I think using THEMATIC images gives you lush but concise imagery.

  18. Visual Storytelling:

  19. Hi, Alex - thanks so much for the link. I love the word list idea! I'm buying the screenwriting book right now.

  20. Yeah,Alex--from being in TV all these years, I've learned always to start with my BEST video.
    And so why should it be different with a book?

  21. Hey Mary! I haven't seen you for a while. Yes, the word list can bring up some amazing things.

  22. Alex, thank you so much for visiting with us today and for all the info and thorough answers! we hope to see you again soon!

  23. You find such neat people for junglered. I can't wait to read Alexandra's book. The whole idea of seeing a novel in screen writing terms is exciting, looking at movies I loved and novels I recreated in my head. I've made copies of the add ons.

  24. I only dabble in screenwriting but I must say, doing so changed the way I write, all for the better. I'm a big fan of the Save the Cat! series and think every novelist should check the series out. Thanks for a great post!