Thursday, September 29, 2011

Making a Scene: Using Scriptwriting to Fix Problem Scenes

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

One of my least favorite writing snags is a scene that isn’t working and I don’t know why. I’d rather not have a clue what to write than know there’s a problem I can’t figure out how to fix. But I may have found a wacky way to look at a troublesome scene in a whole new light.

Turn it into a script.

Sounds weird, right? But I recently took a scene from Blue Fire and turned it into script format so a few local students could act it out at a Darkfall event. I’d never done a script before, and I learned some interesting things that will actually be quite helpful next time I’m stuck.

1. Useless characters stick out
This scene has five people in it. Nya, Neeme, Iesta, a boy and a girl who are never named. I never noticed before than the girl doesn’t do much. She gets knocked down and runs off, but that’s about it. The boy does a little more (he has lines) but I actually added a little to the script because he needed a bit more to do.

Does this useless girl ruin the scene? I don’t think so, but she’s certainly not necessary either. I wonder what I might have done differently had I realized this while I was writing the book. Maybe I would have given her more to do, maybe cut her, maybe added more of the street pack and upped the tension further. But writing the script shined a huge light on a girl who didn’t do squat for the scene.

2. You have to focus on the action
A script needs to be able to give concise descriptions of the action. Concise is the key word here. If you find yourself writing long descriptions, it might hint that you need more dialog or internalization, or just less description of the action. It forces you to focus on the key steps only.
Nya rolls out from the fountain and gets to her feet. The pack has their backs to her, and they’re kicking and taunting Neeme. Nya kicks Pack Boy behind the knee. He falls down, clutching his leg and yelling. She dives and rolls at Pack Girl, knocking her legs out from under her.

3. You have to focus on the dialog
There is no internalization, no inner thoughts, no exposition. Characters act and speak. A script format brings the dialog front and center (literally since dialog is centered). It’s easy to see how it flows without all the rest of the text. If your characters aren’t having a realistic conversation, or are spouting lines more than talking, you’ll spot it right away.
You really want to do this?

Leave her alone.

Or what? You’ll push me over and bruise me?

(smiling evilly)
I’ll kill you. Only you won’t die for days.

Iesta laughs

Don’t see no weapon on you.

4. You have to clarify the motivations
You don’t get a lot of space to show motive, but the actors need something to go on to understand why their character is saying and doing what’s in the script. Explaining a lot of backstory here really stands out. You only get a few lines to get across how your character feels.
Iesta kicks Neeme and she whimpers. The others laugh. Nya puts her hands over her ears, not wanting to hear, but unable to block it. She’s torn whether or not to help the fallen girl. Iesta bends over and grabs the sack.

5. It makes you tear apart your scene in a new way
Description vanishes. Internalization is gone. All you’re left with are the drive portions of your story. What’s said, how it’s said, what’s done, why it’s done. The focus is on the external, not the internal. If the problem lies externally, it should be a lot easier to spot it (too much action, stilted dialog). If it’s internal, you’ll spot it because you’ll have a script that isn’t too different from your original scene. You won’t have to cut the internal stuff because there won't be much to cut.

Granted, this is a bit extreme and not everyone needs or wants to rewrite a problem scene like this. But if you’ve tried everything else and are still stuck, maybe give this a try. I’ve discovered time and time again that a change in perspective can suddenly make you see something you didn’t before.

Have you ever written a script? Did it change the way you thought about your writing? Have you ever rewritten a scene in a new way to try and fix a problem?


  1. This is such an interesting approach. I can see how it would help. Thanks for the tips :)

  2. Very cool exercise, Janice! As always, thanks for the great advice.

  3. Okay, now I want to see people acting out Darkfall.

  4. Absolutely! I try hard to picture the scene I'm writing as a movie and eliminate the elements that wouldn't work for a film. The script writing techniques definitely helps, especially for action sequences!

  5. I did write a script, for a musical no less. Man, what an eye opener! I have to say it improved my dialog skills 206%. Oh, and a script leaves absolutely NO time for dilly dallying. Who knew? 2.5 hour is so much shorter than you think it is.

  6. I'm a screenwriting student, but I've written prose for a long time. It's definitely stretching me.

    Screenwriting makes you have to show (no telling). If the audience can't see it or hear it, they don't know it. I've also noticed my sentences getting tighter when writing action scenes.

    Plus I'm more conscious of tense and pov because I'm switching from limited third in present for scripts to first person past tense in my novel.

    But I've never rewritten a prose scene into a script to see what's wrong with it. I'm gonna have to try that. :)

  7. This is a tremendously helpful approach - thanks! I'm going off to play with my WIP now. :-)

  8. I love this suggestion. I'm trying it right now. Not only do I think it works to define key elements in the scene but it is fun too!
    Thanks Janice!

    So cool that you have students acting out your scenes too. I can't wait for that to happen to me.

  9. Script writing is a great writing exercise for novelists. I wrote a screenplay based on my first novel and it was very eye opening. I recommend it to all novel writers.

  10. What a great idea. I can see how it would really focus the scene.

  11. I've never tried re-writing a scene in script form, but it sounds worth trying.

    I wrote a play back in high-school while I was studying Shakespeare. I kept trying to turn the dialogue into poetry, and forgot to put in stage directions because Shakespeare barely has any. Mostly I discovered that I can't write sonnets to save my life. :)

  12. Interesting. I've blogging about justifying the existence of scenes at my blog today--I never thought of going the script route. Mostly, I grit my teeth and ask myself if it advances the plot.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  13. I do this often, and it really does work.

  14. Interesting technique. I may have to try this with a few trouble scenes. I can't wait to read Darkfall.

  15. Great post. :)
    I've tried this before, sometimes even writing the scene like this initially and then adding to it. It really does work to keep things tight.

  16. Glad to see folks like this idea. And that so many have tried it already with success. I found the whole process interesting.

  17. I actually did this for my thesis - turned a piece of prose into a screenplay and then back into prose. I definitely found the screenwriting form helped dramatically in figuring out the essentials and helping you avoid needless exposition.

  18. That would be interesting, to go back from script to prose. You really would cut a lot of stuff that way.