Wednesday, May 31, 2017

5 Important Tips Fiction Writers Can Learn From Screenwriting by Caitlin Eha

Jill here. Today I'm super excited to welcome Caitlin Eha to the blog. She was one of our top ten semi-finalists in the Go Teen Writers #WeWriteBooks Contest. I remember her contest entry. It was a fabulous contemporary fantasy with a Peter Pan twist, and I couldn't put it down. She has been studying screenwriting lately, and when she pitched this article idea to me, I knew it would be something different and fun for you all. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Please welcome Caitlin.

Caitlin Eha fell in love with books at a young age and never recovered. Today she is pursuing her dream of being a published novelist and screenwriter, in between the multitudinous demands of adult life. She is also a staff writer for the website Geekdom House ( When she has a free moment, she enjoys reading, fencing, archery, cosplay, and time with her Lord. Caitlin can be found on her blog,, and on Wattpad @authorcaitlineha.

I’ve been writing fiction for most of my life, but screenwriting is a recent passion of mine. Although the format of a screenplay is quite different from a novel, the basic principles of storytelling do not change from one to the other. Below are some of the most important lessons screenwriting has taught me for writing my novels. 

1. FADE IN: Writing Distinctive Characters

Novelists and screenwriters alike strive to create distinctive characters, but strange though it may sound, physical description is not the most important element to consider when designing characters. For proof, all you have to do is compare Gandalf to Dumbledore—although they have similar physical descriptions, their personalities and abilities clearly distinguish one from the other. 
Screenwriters are encouraged to keep the physical descriptions of their characters to a minimum. Details like the actor’s hair color and the style of his jacket are usually decided by the casting director and costume designer, not the screenwriter. Instead, the screenwriter’s job is to convey the character’s personality, or essence, and this is an important skill for novelists as well. Think: what visible elements of your character’s behavior and bearing reveal who the character is?
Consider these screenplay character introductions from the opening scene of Pirates of the Caribbean: Curse of the Black Pearl:

Gibbs’ introduction is one of my favorites. There are only two phrases of description for him, but they’re enough to encapsulate his whole character. The phrase “who was born old” immediately implies a weather-beaten appearance and a severe outlook on life without the writer having to include any additional description. 
Here’s a similar, but longer, description from a following scene of Pirates. Notice how the physical specifications for Will’s character serve the purpose of highlighting his personality and social station: 

Capturing the essence of a character is a difficult task. Some writers try to do so by piling descriptor on top of descriptor—usually of a physical nature—but this creates ambiguity and bogs down the reader. As the Pirates script illustrates, short and effective descriptions without excessive emphasis on physical details are the best way to go. 

2. ANGLE ON: Including the Right Details

Choosing the right details to include in each scene of your story all comes down to context. What does your reader need to know in the given situation, and what is just extra information?
Here’s an example from J.K. Rowling’s script for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This is the beginning of the scene where Newt attempts to recapture his niffler inside the bank:

Notice that the description of the bank is pretty skeletal, even though this location is a bustling business. Rowling didn’t bother to give extensive detail about the bank because, in this scene, the focus is on Newt finding his niffler. The interior of the bank, beyond some general specifications, is not relevant. 
However, here’s another description, taken from the scene where Newt and Jacob go inside Newt’s Tardis-like suitcase. In this scene, the focus is very much on the place and what it reveals about Newt, so the description is deeper:

It’s important not to overload your readers with descriptions, particularly of place, when a shorter explanation will do the trick. Too much description risks distracting your reader from the storyline and characters. However, as these examples show, longer description can be warranted and even needed when understanding the place is essential to understanding the storyline. 

3. ZOOM: Focusing on Your Plot

Once you’ve reduced your description to only the right details, you’re no longer as apt to find yourself writing “bunny trails” of irrelevant information. One of the things I love about the screenplay format is that it challenges me to be concise, forcing my focus away from detailed descriptions and onto the progress of my plot. 
Below is an example of screenplay format, showing the three main formatting elements: the scene heading, the action paragraph, and the dialogue block. 

  As you can see, screenplays are a streamlined format that focus on telling a story through sight and sound. Notice that there is no room for internal monologues or lengthy exposition—the screenwriter is limited to story elements that can be shown or heard. This really tightens the action of a story and keeps the plot moving. When I learned to write screenplays, I discovered that I could write a good story much more concisely than I imagined.
Novels have different demands than scripts, of course, and require more substance. However, making a screenplay-like draft is a terrific way to outline your novel’s plot and stay focused. You don’t have to use rigid screenplay format, but try jotting down a sequence of scenes and their locations in general terms. Then make notes on the essential action and lines of dialogue you need to include in that scene. When writing this outline, be as spartan as possible with your details—only include what is necessary to carry the story. If a detail isn’t needed to keep the reader tracking with your plot, leave it out for now. However, don’t be afraid to take some extra time with this outline and make your writing as good as possible. You might end up with some lines of description and dialogue you want to keep in the final draft.
Once you’re ready to write the first full draft of these scenes, stick to your outline as much as possible without adding too much extra detail. Then, when you’re finished, examine the result. You’ll find that you can tell a story with far less “extra” than you thought. It’s okay to add in more details in later edits, but starting with a scene framework should help you keep your focus where it belongs: on telling the story itself.

4. MONTAGE: Visualizing the Sequence of Events

When you’re writing your novel, it’s easy not to notice a plot flaw or to accidentally make your characters behave irrationally. But these errors are easy to notice in a movie. When you can see the characters moving and talking in front of you, it becomes obvious when their actions do not coincide with their personality or situation. 
Whether I’m writing a screenplay or a novel, it helps me to pause in my writing every so often and visualize what I want my characters to do next. If I don’t, I find myself in the middle of writing a scene and wondering, “Why are my characters here?” Then I have to backtrack and redo the scene, changing it to something that coincides with the plot.
It’s important to periodically take a step back and orient yourself in any story you’re writing. You can do this in your head or on paper, but try taking several minutes to imagine the story situation you’re having trouble with. Come up with some ways it could play out, based on the characters you’ve placed in that scene. Then compare your results and pick the one that makes the most sense for your story.
Don’t pressure yourself to write out minute details during this exercise. The goal is to visualize how the story plays out as a whole. If you’re getting caught on the details, just remember this humorous example from The Fellowship of the Ring script, in which the lengthy scene on the staircase above the Bridge of Khazad Dûm is reduced to a few sentences:

5. EXT. or INT.: Using Your Setting

Setting is a somewhat forgotten gem of storytelling. Because scripts are meant to be interpreted into a visual medium, the best ones use setting to create a mood and even say something about the characters. Check out this example from The Fellowship of the Ring

Notice how these descriptions of Lothlórien serve to create a certain impression. The second paragraph of this section (starting with WIDE ON) describes the forest and its capitol city, giving the reader a sense of wonder and nobility. But the following paragraph impresses the reader with a sense of foreboding by comparing Lothlórien’s brightness to the darkness of the rest of the world. 
When you draw your reader into a setting, you have control of his “mind’s eye.” By directing the reader’s attention to certain aspects of the setting instead of others, you can manipulate his feelings about the place. The reader’s impression of a setting also affect his feelings about the scene that is occurring in that setting. Point the reader’s attention where you want it to go to create the impression of place that you need.

Remember, no matter what you do, the perfect novel is not going to happen on the first draft. It’s important to have these tips in mind as you write to save yourself lots of trouble later, but mistakes can always be corrected during the editing phase. Don’t be afraid to cut material if you realize it’s hindering your story more than helping it (just make sure to save multiple drafts, in case you need that edited material later on). 
Most of all, relax, have fun, and keep plugging away. Lights, camera…write! Start by leaving a comment about which screenwriting tips you’d like to try!


  1. While I think some of these tips could be helpful, you mentioned not going into much about the description of the character in a physical sense and use more of a sense of what the character is like. I think with screenplays, you kind of have a visual of what the character looks like, so it isn't a problem. With novels, you have to give a description at some point of what the character looks like or else it might not convey well in the book.

    That's just my opinion. I think some of the tips you put here can be helpful. :)

    1. You make an interesting point, Ivie, because while novelists have more room for long physical descriptions of characters, are they any more important than in a screenplay? Do readers care if a person has ketchup-colored hair, a bulbous nose, eyes the color of a cloudy sky, an old torn jacket with soup stains, and one shoe if they can be told he's a sickly redhead with a wardrobe picked from the trashcan?

      It seems more important to me to give the important details--and only the important details--that show who a person is rather than what they look like. After all, movies may give us actors to look at, but books rely on readers' imaginations to visualize characters. We don't fall in love with a character for his gorgeous face in a book--often--we fall in love with them because of how they act and what they think.

      Screenplays do give description of characters, but it's only what's necessary to get a feel for their personality and lifestyle. I think most books would do better to give their characters that kind of description. I'll forget a description in ten seconds if you tell me the character has black hair and a green jacket, but if you tell me he has a jagged haircut and a scar on his upper lip, I'll remember him.

    2. Hi Ivie, thank you for your comment! I'm a writer who likes to plan out my characters' physical attributes to the last detail, so I understand the temptation to include all of that information in the novel. However, I think Lillian hit the nail on the head. The key is to include physical descriptions of your characters that serve a purpose.

      Check out the example of Will Turner from the Pirates movie. The writer didn't shy away from a physical description, but he used it to reveal something about who Will is. Moreover, he didn't bother to include details - such as Will's hair color - that don't matter to the scene.

      For another example, think of some Harry Potter characters. We all remember Harry as the boy with his father's messy hair and his mother's green eyes behind broken glasses, right? But those attributes are important because they say something about Harry, about his connection to his parents and about his social situation when he lives with the Dursleys (they didn't buy him new glasses). We remember the physical attributes because other elements of the plot have made them inseparable from the character himself.

      I hope that cleared things up a little. :) Thank you for reading my article!

    3. I've never read or watched Harry Potter, so the example there doesn't make sense to me. I've never watched the Pirates movies either, but you gave the exampled for that.

      Now, let me clear up what I meant for both you and Lillian.
      I do believe describing the character's personality is important and I don't believe in going into this long-winded physical description of the character, but to be able to visualize in a novel, you need the basic hair, eyes, and skin description.

      I've never written a screenplay, so I don't completely know the details to that, but I do think there are some differences as you said since it's more about the actor hired. With novels, you aren't hiring an actor.

      But everyone has a difference in how they write and that's good thing. We can't all write the same way or else we'd all be boring. :)

  2. As someone who loves writing and movies, I really enjoyed the article. It made me think about things I really haven't thought of much. Great job!

    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed it, Sarah! Thanks for reading. :)

  3. Thank you so much for this article, Caitlin! I've never attempted to write a screenplay before, but I hope to someday, even if it's just for practice. I think it sounds so fun to write something so concise like that. Also, I'm in love with the formatting!

    I love reading through screenplays and seeing how they were written. Character descriptions in particular are my favorite, because they add so much flavor to a person.

    1. Hi Lillian! So glad you enjoyed the article. :) Have you ever read The Screenwriter's Bible by David Trottier? That's the mainstay for any screenwriter and a great place to start learning! Also an easy read and super helpful reference book. :) And, as you mentioned, reading through existing screenplays is also a great way to learn!

    2. No, I haven't heard of that book. Thanks for recommending it! I'll look it up.

  4. Ah. I'm planning on pursuing screenwriting as a career. This was really good connecting the two world's. (I'd also like to be published one day as well)
    It's so cool that there are so many ways to tell one story.

    1. That's awesome, Hannah! Screenwriting is seriously fun, and it's nice to have the option of another format to tell a story. I've discovered that some of my story ideas work much better as a script than as a novel. :)

      As I told Lillian, be sure to check out The Screenwriter's Bible by David Trottier if you haven't already. It's SO helpful! I've learned what I know from that book and my college courses. If you take screenwriting courses, not only can they help you learn to write scripts but they can help you find a good screenwriting mentor. That's what happened to me!

      Good luck with all your writing. ;)

  5. Thanks so much for this great article, Caitlin. I really enjoyed it and am going to strive to incorporate these techniques into my fiction, especially the first one. Such simply descriptions stay with readers, I think. We can always find other places to mention hair or eye color, height and other physical qualities, if we have need. But I like this method very much for that first description of a character.

    1. Aww, thank you, Jill! And thanks for the great recommendation you included with this article. :) It means so much to get positive feedback and assistance from authors I admire.

      I'm so glad the article was a blessing to you! I love the screenwriting way of introducing characters as well, because I tend toward overloading my readers with unnecessary descriptions. It was such a revelation when I started studying scripts and realized that some excellent character introductions were extremely concise.

  6. I think your tip on limiting description would be really good for me to practice. I am a visual learner and tend to imagine my scenes like they come from a movie. Thus, I tend to want to include all the details as I see them rather than by the impression I receive from them.
    I also have a bad tendency to overemphasize body language, particularly eye movement. Do you have any suggestions for how I might move away from that?
    Thank you so much for sharing, Caitlin! I'll definitely have to revisit this article to absorb all your good tips.

    1. Hi Olivia! I have the same tendency to over-describe when writing my novels. It's actually a great ability to be able to imagine your scenes as if they're part of a movie; I do the same thing. However, the trick is to focus your "vision." You might see every detail of a scene in your mind's eye, but you only have to write out the details necessary for producing that image in your reader's eye.

      For example, if you're describing a familiar setting such as a grocery store, you probably don't have to explain how each aisle is organized or explain every kind of food exhibited on the display stands. Your reader's mind can easily fill in those unspoken details. But if this was a grocery store during the American Depression Era, for instance, you might want to draw the reader's attention to the empty spots on the shelves to create the impression that food is scarce.

      Hmmm as far as your question about body language...I would say that, again, it all comes down to context. Ask yourself, is the body language essential to understanding the dialogue, or does the reader get the point without the body language? Sometimes body language descriptions really give the dialogue a "punch." But other times, the dialogue can stand on its own.

      Try this: write out a scene of yours with just some dialogue and simple phrases like, "Joe said." Don't let yourself describe their body movements. Then read over it (maybe ask someone else to read over it too, if you need a second opinion). See what parts of the dialogue work independently, and what parts need some clarification from body language. Keep it real, also - how many eye movements do we make in real life when we're talking? People-watch for a while and see what you observe. :) Hope that helps!

  7. Thank you, Caitlin! This was an awesome article. I especially liked it because as an actor, I often work with scripts, although they are for the stage. I loved how the connections from two parts pod my life really came together as I read this. Thank you so much!

    1. Awesome, Vera! I'm so glad to know that an actor found this information valuable. :) It's remarkable how different forms of fiction, such as novels and screenplays, can overlap. Thanks for reading!

  8. This is great, Caitlin--I have a mild interest in screenwriting, though I prefer novels enormously. The idea of using powerful descriptive phrases, such as "who was born old," really catches my imagination. Such phrases are obviously useful in scripts, as you said, but it's interesting to think of them in context of novels, where longer description is allowed. Powerful phrases like that don't lose their weight in novels, and they can be combined with plenty of other stuff in novels to give an even fuller picture. Thanks for the post!

    1. You're absolutely right! Good storytelling is good storytelling, whether you're using novel or screenplay format. Thanks for reading!

  9. Ooh. Interesting. I've enjoyed studying playwrighting, but it is so different than screenwriting! For example, my professor once said that in screenwriting, the focus was more on the setting and everything else (what the camera sees), while in playwrighting, the focus was more on dialogue.

    I think I would like to try focusing more on setting. I don't do it nearly well enough. O.O Also, including the right details. I have a rambling problem, especially in first drafts.

    1. Hi Bethany! I've heard that about playwriting vs. screenwriting as well. If I remember correctly, plays are limited in their settings by what can be done with the set design on stage. Movies get to use CGI. ;)

      Good luck with your writing! I feel your pain about the rambling problem, but thankfully we can always edit after getting the first draft on paper!

  10. WOW! This is amazing! Thank you so much for these tips! I will use them in the future! XD

  11. I love the idea of outlining using a screenplay format! I might just have to try that.

    1. Great, Lucy! You should be able to find some online examples of screenwriting format and even some templates, if you want to use that to help you. Of course the outline is the important thing in this case, not the exact format :) Good luck!