[Podcast] Author Josh Rutherford on Applying Screenwriting Principles to a Fantasy Book SeriesAug 21, 2023
I know what you’re thinking: “How are screenwriting principles applicable to writing a book?”
It seems farfetched, right?
Book writing is tens of thousands of words of prose. Screenwriting is an outline for a movie.
Book writing explores characters’ thoughts and internal monologues. Screenwriting relies on visual cues and dialogue.
They are different.
Yet, screenwriting is more applicable to book writing than you think. Screenwriting can teach writers how to structure a novel through scenes, how to properly pace a novel, how to engage the reader in the story, and more.
Former film major and published author of the Fourpointe Chronicles, Josh Rutherford shares his top tips on applying screenwriting principles to a fantasy book series or novel.
Where does he recommend starting?
New writers struggle with the beginning of their book.
Their first chapter is bloated with backstory and lacks engaging action. The real story—the conflict—doesn’t truly begin until later chapters.
The most commercially successful novels begin in media res, a Latin phrase meaning “in the middle of the action.” Josh refers to this as “start late."
What does this look like?
Let’s look at a few examples.
For a crime thriller, “start late” means the story either begins after the crime is committed or in the midst of the crime.
Think of the movie Zodiac. The opening scene is a couple being stalked and then attacked. It starts in the middle of the action and sets up the main plot of the movie.
For fantasy, “start late” means to introduce a conflict that disrupts your protagonist’s ordinary life. In A Game of Thrones, the opening scene introduces a continental threat (the Whitewalkers). In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter is left on the doorstep of the Dursley’s.
The first chapter of your book must grab your reader’s attention. Starting in media res introduces conflict and tension that that will hook your reader.
When writing a book series, it’s not guaranteed your readers will stick through to the end. If each book ends on a high note—if it lacks renewed conflict and raised stakes—your readers will drop off. To keep your readers engaged in your series, Josh recommends “ending early.”
“End early” means to conclude your novel (or chapters) with heightened stakes.
Let’s look at an example.
In the original Star Wars trilogy, the first movie ends on a seemingly successful note. The rebels destroyed the Death Star! The galaxy is saved!
Except the galaxy isn’t saved. Darth Vader survived the Death Star’s destruction, and the Empire still controls a majority of planetary systems. Viewers are eager to know whether the heroes will take on the Empire next.
Which leads to the next movie.
At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo is kidnapped, and Luke Skywalker learns his father is Darth Vader. Viewers need to know what will happen to Han Solo and what Luke will do with this newfound knowledge.
Because the first two movies are setting up the next installment, they conclude with renewed conflict. A part of the mission is completed but conflict still remains.
“End early” isn’t just useful for book series’ writers. It’s applicable to standalone novels and chapter conclusions.
A common misconception amongst new writers is that readers will read a book from start to finish. That’s not the case. Readers will stop reading if they’re not compelled to keep reading. If the tension and conflict is lacking.
To keep your reader engaged from one chapter to the next, consider ending each chapter “early.” End your chapter on a cliffhanger. Or introduce a new problem that can’t be solved in this chapter.
The Hunger Games is one of the best books to analyze for chapter endings.
The first chapter concludes with Katniss’s sister being called as a tribute to the Hunger Games. Chapter two concludes with Peeta being named the male tribute and Katniss’s fear of having to kill him. Chapter three concludes with Katniss and Peeta leaving their home. Chapter four concludes with Katniss realizing Peeta is a cunning enemy. And so forth.
Each chapter ends with renewed tension, conflict, and/or heightened stakes that make you want to keep reading because you have to know what happens next.
Review your manuscript. Does your story “start late”? Do your chapters “end early”? If your book is part of a series, does it reintroduce conflict that will keep your reader engaged to the next book?
The Sensory Experience
One of the most important screenwriting principles is to engage a reader’s sensory experience. To help a reader visualize the setting around them.
Your job, as the writer, is to immerse your reader into your story’s setting. You do this by engaging your reader’s five senses: sight, sound, touch, smell, taste.
Consider the differing sensory experience for these two settings: a winter mountain vs. a summertime beach.
- You can describe the gray, snowy peaks of the mountains expanding miles for miles, or the cerulean blue of the ocean extending to the horizon.
- You can describe the howling wind in the mountains, or the crashing waves along the beach.
- You can describe the chill of the blistery wind as it bites your character’s face, or the scorching heat of the sun as it burns your protagonist’s arms.
From there, you can heighten your reader’s sensory experience through descriptions of taste and smells.
If your character is in the mountains, do they taste the brittleness of the air? Do they smell pine or evergreen or bare, mountain air? At the beach, do they taste the salt of the sea? Do they smell an ocean breeze?
Consider the most important details to your setting and include those.
Josh cautions new writers: Don’t inflate the beginning of your scene with too many details. Break up the details throughout the scene, or even across multiple chapters, to allow your reader time to appreciate the setting.
Take the time to reevaluate your manuscript and apply these screenwriting principles to your novel. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Does my manuscript start in media res?
- Do my chapters conclude with renewed tension?
- If my book is the first in a series, does it introduce a new conflict?
- Do my scenes engage the reader’s five senses?
Now, buckle up and write.