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What I Learned From Screenwriting

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I began as a playwright in New York, spent years as a screenwriter and critic in Los Angeles, and am now a novelist in Pasadena (with a run for Congress along the way). While my first love was theater and I am happily at work on my next novel (my latest, 19 Angels, a political thriller, was just published), I have to admit that the oft-maligned discipline of screenwriting has, in addition to paying some bills, taught me as much about the fundamentals of writing as anything I have done. And, as in sports, I believe fundamentals are everything in the craft of writing.

Here are some of the basics that I learned through years of writing scripts -- not to mention going to development meetings, pitching movies, teaching seminars, writing film and TV reviews and watching tons of movies. These have been especially invaluable as I have moved into writing both fiction and non-fiction books -- and they even helped in communicating on the campaign trail when I ran for Congress. While these basic tools may seem overly crude or simplistic, I found that a great lesson of screenwriting was to pay attention to these fundamentals of craft, even as I tackled more challenging or sophisticated writing projects.

Tell a story: It sounds simple, but writers often slip off the narrative track. I'm not saying you have to write a straight-ahead, traditional narrative, but always remember that the reader is always asking, if only unconsciously, "What happens next?" The key to screenwriting is that every scene (in the generally fifty or so "master scenes" of a movie) must push the story ahead. Ask yourself, "what is the 'forward' in this scene?" How does each chapter of your book push the story ahead? It doesn't have to be a cliffhanger or a plot twist, it could be a simple character trait that you reveal. But it has to move us forward.

Character is king: Whether you are writing a thriller or a domestic drama, your characters -- and especially your central character -- is the key to good writing. For genre fiction -- and most commercial movies -- the plots are often incidental or interchangeable. What makes the piece memorable is the characters. Lots of writers focus too much on plot and not enough on character. Audiences and readers -- like all of us -- want to spend time with engaging and real people. Characters make your story come alive.

Keep up the pace: While movies demand a vigorous, even relentless pace that isn't as important in books, the idea of moving the story forward with a sense of rhythm is critical. Writing, like music, demands a kind of internal rhythm and pacing to make it work. If you're not feeling the rhythm in your writing, it probably isn't working.

Find (and maintain) the right tone: Tone is a subtle and often elusive quality in any piece of writing. Most writers explore the tone of their work as they go along, rather than fix it at the beginning, which is fine. But in screenwriting, the medium demands a steady, persistent tone for the piece. Audiences have to be reminded -- often again and again -- of the film's tone, whether it is a comedy, drama or action piece. So each scene - or in the case of fiction, each chapter -- has to be measured against a yardstick for tone. Too much? Too little? Over the top? Above all, is it consistent?

Think in pictures: Film is primarily about "moving" pictures, and so screenwriters are forced from the outset to think in pictures. But this is a great discipline for all wordsmiths, who must understand the power of the visual, even if the pictures are drawn in words rather than on video screens. The economy of visual images in conveying ideas and emotions is a powerful tool that screenwriters -- and all writers -- should have in their toolbox.