“Audiences are harder to please if you’re just giving them effects, but they’re easy to please if it’s a good story.”
By Adela Belin
You pick up any form of storytelling, whether it is a poem, a play, a film, or even a vocally told epic or myth, you will find certain common ingredients in all the stories that work. There is a protagonist, there is a conflict, and a resolution to the conflict. On deeper examination, you notice the character graphs, arcs, intricately placed plot points, etc. Whether or not the storyteller is aware of it, a good story generally has these ingredients.
Screenplays are the formats where these ingredients are more explicitly stated than the other narrative formats. There are certain guidelines that screenwriters abide by while crafting their piece. The guidelines help the screenwriters engage their audience, take them on a journey, and eventually establish closure.
These guidelines are formed after gauging what kind of storytelling works for the audience. This means that the screenwriting techniques aren’t only meant to be applied to screenplays. They are general storytelling guidelines that you can also apply to your fiction writing.
Here are a few screenwriting techniques that you can use to write better fiction.
Show, Don’t tell
“Show, don’t tell” is the number one technique that screenwriters abide by. A film is an audio-visual medium. Your audience should see and hear the story, rather than just be blatantly told it. However, novels and short stories work slightly differently in that regard, wherein you can “tell” your readers what a character is thinking at a particular point, but you cannot do it all the time. Even in your fiction writing, you have to paint pictures with your words, give your readers audio-visual cues, create a visceral world where your readers can step into.
Think about it: what would you like better? —
“Adam sits by the window, contemplating suicide.”
“As the luminous moonlight glides in through the window, enwrapping the room like a fine mist, Adam sits in his chair with a gun in his hands. “Kill yourself” — a voice echoes from the deepest corner of his soul. He places the barrel on his chin.”
The first one is blatant exposition. In the latter case, you aren’t “told” what the thought is. Instead, the story unfolds using images and sound, which creates an interesting/engaging dynamic.
Apart from improving your general storytelling, I can assure you that by using the “show, don’t tell” technique, you will notice a significant improvement in your prose style as well. You will be able to create a world that the readers can step into.
One of the biggest weaknesses of most authors is dialogue. Not because they don’t know what to reveal and what to conceal, but because their written dialogue does not feel real enough. It feels literary, and when your story is placed in a real setting, literary dialogues can stick out like a sore thumb.
In the dialogue regard, books are closer to films than to plays. The world you are creating has to feel real and believable, and that can only be done if your characters speak in a way that is authentic to their setting/demographic. All your characters cannot sound the same.
Imagine in a movie; every character having the same set of words, and a similar tone. How odd would that be! Similarly, in your story/novel, your characters should have their own individualistic speaking patterns. This can be achieved by using the vernaculars of the demographic you set your story in. Remember — in dialogues, you can amend the grammar according to the way a character speaks. Our spoken language is not prosaic or flowery. It can be raggedy, lisping, or eloquent, depending on the character’s backstory and milieu.
If your story is dependent on plot, you need an action point somewhere at the beginning of your story that sparks a narrative progression. That action point will serve as a catalyst. The catalyst should directly affect your protagonist (positively or negatively), and the protagonist should react in some way. The reaction will spark yet another reaction and so on and so forth. Look at this catalyst as a kickstart to your main story. Ideally, this catalyst should also explain the major conflict of the story.
In the screenwriting world, the first plot points out serves as the catalyst. Most writers get too indulged in establishing the characters and revealing the predominant themes, that they forget about kickstarting their narrative in the right way.
If you are struggling with your dialogue, character graphs, or plot progression, these guidelines will certainly show you a direction that will help you take your story forward. However, bear in mind that these are merely guidelines, not meant to be strictly adhered to, but kept in the back of your mind whenever you are stuck in your story.
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