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Hone Your Screenplay Skills by Reading Books

By February 12, 2018No Comments

If you’re like me, then you probably write screenplays because writing each and every detail in a novel feels tedious and static without visual action. Then why should I suggest reading them? How would they benefit your skills? How-to books aside, reading novels and literature can be just as beneficial as watching and studying films.

Storytelling Roots

Before film, there were novels. Most of the structure of storytelling we know either comes from ancient philosophers like Aristotle or oral fairytales as analyzed by Vladimir Propp. With this information, novelists perfected and broke the rules. They discovered and created new genres and explored new writing styles. The world of film praises those that can take a basic formula and creatively manipulate it, giving audiences something new. By reading Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, you learn she took murder mysteries to the next level by “tricking” the audience and taking away the “fairness” of readers following the murders (saying any more would give away the twist). One of the earliest uses of nonlinear story structure was in Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights. Reading pioneers of certain genres, like Mervyn Peake’s Titus Alone which set Steampunk into motion, can inspire any writer to think outside the box of conventional genres.

Idea Harvesting

Why not just read for the simple goal of gleaning any inspiration you can? If you try to do this with film, you might find that there are some things you take away, but generally, it’s been done. Going back to novels, you might find some wonderful nugget to center your story around or tack onto your script for better detail. Lion King was inspired by Shakespeare’s Hamlet, O, Brother Where Art Thou is seen as the most incredible modern rendition of Homer’s The Odyssey, and Predator was clearly something born from Beowulf. You never know what plot or story design might spark the next screenplay idea for you. Most classical literature is available online on the Gutenberg Project website. If you’re worried about late fees at your local library or paying for a hard copy, start there.

Evolving Adaptations

A popular wave in the film industry is adapting novels to the screen. Last year alone there were around 25 films in theatres that were adapted from books. Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower, Palacio’s Wonder, Aciman’s Call Me By Your Name, and Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, just to name a few. While most fans of novels that are made into movies have their own standards that they hold the film to, a good adaptation can bring curious readers to see what you adjusted. It’s a tricky business, trying to stay true to the author of the novel and fit what they wrote for individual imaginations to satisfy all. Changes might be made for better or worse. For instance, the end of Crichton’s Jurassic Park, the park is supposed to get bombed. Thanks to Spielberg, four movies later, it’s still standing. There’s a lot of paperwork with getting the rights to adapt a novel.

Hard Copy Research

If I have a topic to research for a script, my favorite place to start looking is in the library. You can find all sorts of interesting information you didn’t know you wanted. For instance, I checked out Blamire’s Magic in the Celtic Otherworld, from the library thinking I was going to get a pseudo-historical account of Celtic magic. Nope. I was surprised to find it was a practical application book of Irish magic. While it wasn’t what I was looking for, I had an eight-hour train ride ahead of me. I have since incorporated a lot of the structure of the magic into my screenplay. It wasn’t what I was looking for, but I got a whole new perspective that I found more than useful. Research doesn’t have to be just Wikipedia or .edu sites. There are a lot of interesting things in print you’ll never expect to find online. Find the section for the subject you’re looking up and allow yourself time to wander and ponder on the titles and read the descriptions. Who knows what gold you may find?

World Building

I recently started reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer and I find myself immersed in his cyberpunk world. As I read, I try to reverse engineer his world. I wonder how he came up with the slang or the idea of these futuristic implants (after all, he wrote it in the 80s… when computers used floppy disks). While I probably haven’t come close to figuring it out, not only is it a good exercise in understanding what goes into world structure, but I can also pick out little pieces or ideas that I like and store for later to add into my own world or script. Reading Lev Grossman’s Magicians trilogy gives an incredible insight into their magical system that is lost in the TV show. While not everything can be conveyed (or explained) in film without the terrifying horror of exposition, it is good practice to have the world created with every moving piece in order and just not shown. Even if some detail isn’t explicitly explained in the film, just having it in the world can help your story feel more real to the audiences. You don’t need to know your character’s favorite food or music, but it can add to their character. Similarly, this detail can add to your world.

Rest Your Eyes

One of my favorite things about reading is not only is it portable, but it doesn’t include a screen (unless you have a kindle, nook, or another e-reader). There’s nothing more satisfying than turning the next page or reaching the end of a chapter. I also find it’s a good exercise in imagination. Can you see the whole city? What does the character look like to you? Why? Of course, if you want it to directly further your script, you can read nonfiction that is associated with your story. Either way, it’s a break from typing or watching and analyzing film. Not to mention, it’s directly from the writer. When you watch a film or TV show, you know there are several hands making it happen. The writer has the claim to the blueprints, but the cast, director, costuming, set designers, and more place their marks on it as well. You can never be truly sure whether something you like was the writer’s idea or the producers. Of course, you can always read the scripts to get a better idea, but to read an entire world straight from the writer’s pen is something you can’t get from film.

Whether you prefer the visual motion of film or the black-and-white map to adventure on the page, books are important to the history of storytelling. If you find inspiration or have other ideas for how books can improve screenwriting, let us know in the comments!

Read on!

Beverly Peders is a Screenwriting student at Drexel University. While focusing on writing for the screen, she has also dabbled in playwriting, writing comic books, and video games. World building is her favorite and she constantly obsesses over anthropology and linguistics. In her non-existent spare time, you may find her begging her plants to stay alive or trying to convince nonbelievers that dragons are real. She is also a percussionist in several ensembles with a love of music that outweighs her skill.

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