Should writers follow screenwriting tricks?

My 200 followers book give away and Act I critique ends Monday!

The post on Monday got me thinking about this. And Jennifer Hoffine pointed out that when creating the best-worst character, we run the risk of falling into cliche. (But when isn’t that a problem?) Why should we follow screenwriting tips? I mean, after all, I’m not writing a screenplay. What are the benefits?

First you have to figure out your goals as a writer.

Do you want to write a story that captures the attention of agents and editors? Do you want to become a best seller? Do you want to write high concept? (The answer doesn’t have to be yes.)

Okay, do you have to write high concept?

No. Absolutely not. But if you answered yes to the questions above you might want to try. I know. It’s hard.

But as is usually the case I can think of successful stories I loved that I don’t consider high concept. (Kate Messner’s The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z., Sugar and Ice; and Sara Pennypacker’s Clementine.)(I think those stories are the hardest to write because the success lies in the writing, emotion and character development – not the premise.) (Okay, I think any story is hard to write. And all stories need those elements.)

What about following my heart?

For me, being a writer is about being flexible.

  • It’s willing to give up a story idea that is nice and quiet.
  • Or it’s working with that nice story and making it bigger and more powerful.
  • Or it’s totally changing that story to something completely different but keeping the heart through theme.
  • It’s about giving up my vampire novel for something that isn’t quite so overdone.
  • It’s about staying within the market but not following trends.
  • It’s about changing the character who first popped into my head so he/she fits (or should I say doesn’t fit) the story better.

I think it’s possible to follow your heart, stay true to yourself, and write to get published. Be flexible. (Yeah, I’m still working on it all!)

Benefits of following screenwriting tricks:

  • Tight, well-structured plot
  • Great premise
  • High concept
  • Marketable
  • Active scenes
  • Stronger character arc

If you absolutely rebel at the idea of high concept and want to write your quiet but powerful literary novel then you must read this interview with agent Erin Murphy.

So what do you think? Agree or disagree with me? Thoughts? Who thinks we should just write the story and not think about high concept at all?


20 Responses to Should writers follow screenwriting tricks?

  1. Laura March 2, 2011 at 11:23 am #

    Hey Everyone, I’m gone skiing for the day. But I’ll be back tonight to visit all your blogs! Have a great day!

  2. Kris March 2, 2011 at 11:37 am #

    Have fun skiing!

    I was a film major in college. I think I use screen writing techniques instinctively. I’m not consciously thinking about them while I’m writing. But,the visuals are super important to me, placing the reader in the character’s space, physically and emotionally.

  3. Stina Lindenblatt March 2, 2011 at 1:08 pm #

    I’ve bought two books about writing screenplays even though I never plan to write them (EMOTIONAL STRUCTURE: CREATING THE STORY BENEATH THE PLOT and SAVE THE CAT). And so far (I’m still reading the first book) I’d say we writers can definitely learn a lot from screen writers even if we aren’t writing high concept.

  4. anne gallagher March 2, 2011 at 1:29 pm #

    Have fun in the snow.

    I think we all need to see what works and what’s not in our writing. I’ve just had to seriously take a look at one of my characters and I know I need to change her. Yet, don’t want to. She’s so sweet and pink-hearted, but she won’t work for the story line. She needs to be a little more blue. Hence, I must change her. And I really don’t want to.

    UGH! All for the sake of art.

  5. Creepy Query Girl March 2, 2011 at 1:31 pm #

    So weird. I posted about the writers behind television series today too! Great minds…;) I’ve never looked into how to go about writing screenplays but I’d think any book who follow the same tips could benefit.

  6. Susan Kaye Quinn March 2, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    I think writers benefit from borrowing from many arts, but screenwriting has to be the closest cousin. And in the age we live it, it can’t hurt to borrow from a medium so fantastically successful.

    As far as high concept, I look at what attracts my kids to a story. Since that’s my audience, I want something that’s going to immediately hook them and draw them in. What I do after that is all part of my dastardly plan. 🙂

  7. Angela Felsted March 2, 2011 at 1:59 pm #

    I don’t know. It couldn’t hurt to know about screen writing, even if you don’t actually use all of what you know. Structure is good in any case.

  8. Donna Weaver March 2, 2011 at 2:04 pm #

    Great post.

    Hadn’t thought about using screenwriting techniques to help. I know Suzanne Collins was a screenwriter before she wrote the hunger games. She commented once about how that did not develop her descriptive skills which she found it torturous.

  9. Laura Marcella March 2, 2011 at 3:39 pm #

    I think writers can learn from all different kinds of writing! I don’t write memoir at all, but one of my Writer’s Digest magazines had an issue recently mostly about writing memoir. I almost skipped reading all those articles, but decided to skim them anyway. I read one that had tips that could benefit fiction writers too. Now I’ll have to find it and write a post about it. Thanks for the inspiration!

  10. Patti Nielson March 2, 2011 at 4:21 pm #

    I agree with you about writing high concept – success lies in the writing, emotion and character development – not the premise. Which is something I’m learning to do better.

    As for screenwriting books. I agree with what Laura said – writers can learn from all kinds of writing.

  11. Sherrie Petersen March 2, 2011 at 5:54 pm #

    Even more than writing high concept, I think Save the Cat teaches you to write tighter and to find the theme in your story to give your writing more meaning. And it gives you a structure to help you stay on task. Any writer can benefit from a little structure 🙂

    Have fun skiing!!

  12. Margo March 2, 2011 at 7:58 pm #

    I think sometimes it’s a maturity thing… when we start out as writers, our book is “sacred” – I remember saying I would not alter it for anything. Many years later – I see the strength of good structure and how it helps my story become a story more people can relate to.

    But on the other hand, I think it’s possible to break the “mold” and write something really unique and powerful!

    And on the third hand (because I have three hands, ha – (wishful thinking)) an “average” writer can make it to the “good” or maybe even “great” level by carefully applying proven techniques, such as screen writing.

    Interesting question! I’m checking out that article you mentioned.

    AND – because this comment isn’t LONG ENOUGH (ha ha) you are one of the winners of my word-count-progress contest! Email me at to get your $15 Amazon gift certificate.

  13. Lisa Green March 3, 2011 at 1:13 am #

    Ha! I write mainly high concept, so I guess you already know my opinion. Everything starts from an idea after all.

  14. Karen Strong March 3, 2011 at 2:30 am #

    Man, it’s still snowing up there? We have flowers blooming down here. But I know you love it! 🙂

    I really do think one of the best benefits of using screenwriting tips is more active scenes, which in turn makes for a stronger arc.

  15. Amie Kaufman March 3, 2011 at 2:56 am #

    I’ve learned a lot from screenwriting frameworks like this. I don’t think you need to follow them religiously, but at the same time, they’re successful story frameworks for a reason–so if what you’re writing looks nothing like any framework you’ve ever seen, you probably need to stop and ask yourself why. Doesn’t mean you’ve done something wrong, but it’s a good prompt to check, I think.

  16. Susan Sipal March 3, 2011 at 3:56 pm #

    Whether they be screenwriting techniques, short story tips, or novel craft, it’s all about telling a great story that other people want to hear/read/see. I think high concept predates the movies. After all, the Greeks and Egyptians chose to write about gods and monsters and human sacrifice for a reason. Not to say that all high concept has to be this type of larger than life.

    Hope you had a good time skiing, Laura!

  17. Leigh Moore March 4, 2011 at 1:41 am #

    great points, Laura. I tend to write high concept, but I think that’s just how my brain goes. I’d love to write something quiet and powerful, but I get all blocked when I start trying to make myself write a certain way… 😀

    I think we just have to tell our own stories the way they come out. And if they’re good enough, I think they’ll be successful regardless.

    or am I just a cock-eyed optimist? ;p <3

  18. patti March 4, 2011 at 2:37 am #

    I’m a gumbo type of writer and think we can borrow a little bit of this, a little bit of that (laginappe) from different genres and styles to find that PERFECT voice of our own.

    Thought-provoking post!

  19. Andrea March 5, 2011 at 12:47 pm #

    This is an interesting question. People watch so much now that they are really familiar with the structure of movies or TV shows. Will they connect more easily with a story that follows a similar approach? Maybe. I agree with the point that these techniques help to make your writing tighter and help in creating a good story. Incidently, I recently posted about two middle grade books I really enjoyed, and realized later that both of the authors were screenwriters.

  20. Roni Loren March 28, 2011 at 4:03 pm #

    I’m a huge fan of using screenwriting techniques for novels. I’m a pantser by nature, but now that I’m writing on deadline, I need to be more efficient, especially if I want to sell on proposal/synopsis in the future. Reading Save the Cat and going to a screenwriting workshop by Michael Hauge changed SO much for me. It gives me beats to hang my plot on, to plan ahead a bit, but not so much that it freaks out my pantser brain. And I don’t think your story has to be high concept to benefit from the techniques. Really the beats and turning points fit 95% of well-told stories.

    Great post. 🙂

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