Saturday, October 24, 2009

Kate Bridges Talks Screenwriting

Using Screenwriting Strategies in Your Novel – by Kate Bridges

It’s great to be here! Thank you to the Prairie Chicks for the invitation.

I’ve been using screenwriting techniques in my novels since the beginning of my published career. Initially, I found the three-act structure of a movie helpful in reducing my novel into manageable chunks of writing.

Now that I’ve completed postgraduate studies in comedy screenwriting, I’ve discovered many more similarities and differences between the two art forms. Here are just three things you might consider when writing your novel, whether it be a romantic comedy, Western, paranormal or thriller.

1.) Movies often cheat in their openings. They disregard chronological order and often start at a high emotional moment in the story, sometimes even the climax, and work their way backward to explain how this moment came to be. “Mission Impossible III” did it, and we could all probably name several others. These movies try to hook the audience by starting with a moment filled with tension and conflict. I’m not saying a novel should start at the climax – but perhaps we can take a cue from this.

Julie Garwood uses this nonlinear technique in one of my favorite Westerns, ONE RED ROSE. Her opening sentence is “He found her in his bed.” Then she backs up in the story and tells us how that moment came to be – the hero returns home for a family reunion unexpectedly in the middle of the night, undresses in the dark...and eventually gets to the funny moment where he unknowingly slides in next to a sleeping warm body....

I am not suggesting that in your novel, you must start at a later point and work your way backward. What I am suggesting is that wherever you start, make the opening sentence and opening paragraph emotional, and hint at conflict.

2.) What’s that you say? Is your dialogue exciting, witty, filled with subtext and hidden meaning? Even if on the surface the dialogue seems mundane, perhaps the body language of the characters is at complete odds to what is being said, thereby making the interaction entertaining. Ask yourself this: If you happened to be walking by your characters while they were having a conversation, would you want to eavesdrop? If no, rewrite it. If yes, good job.

You’ve probably heard the term in screenwriting that dialogue shouldn’t be on-the-nose. This means screenwriters should avoid writing dialogue where characters always say exactly what they think or mean. It’s more interesting if things are said in a different way than straight-on. In novels, too, there should be wiggling and squirming and inability to communicate directly and hidden agendas and sarcasm and sometimes, plain-out lying. Not all the time, but it is entertaining fiction, after all. However, after the hero and heroine have gone through their transformational arc, they will have grown as people and in their ability and desire to communicate with each other.

About endings: In romance novels, we usually like to see some sort of conclusion where the couple has an honest moment where they disclose their feelings. Most of us, as readers, like to see the conflict resolution unfold on the page. In Hollywood, writers are sometimes encouraged not to end it with characters directly saying, “I love you.” (Thereby avoiding on-the-nose dialogue.) The characters may say it instead in their actions, or a funny remark where the audience gets the idea. I heard Carrie Fisher stress this in an interview once about how she writes screenplays. It’s an interesting technique you might want to try in your ending. Or not. Or use in some combination.

3.) Do you button your scenes well? In screenwriting, a button is the final joke or line of a scene that gives the scene a feeling of completion. If you’re good at it, this means ending the scene on a moment of suspense, or a moment of high emotion, or a moment of comedy.

Have you ever tried screenwriting? Do you prefer seeing a movie or novel open chronologically in time, or does it matter?

Post a comment or question today for a chance to win a copy of my upcoming November release!

ALASKAN RENEGADE. When the Skagway town nurse, Victoria Windhaven, sets off on a dangerous medical journey across the Alaskan wilderness, she’s forced to ride with a man from her past - bodyguard Brant MacQuaid. Five years ago in St. Louis, Brant left her sister standing at the altar and Victoria has never forgiven him. They’re accompanied on the trip by a young medical student who has a crush on Victoria, which further complicates the arrangements.

Kate Bridges' first historical romance novel was published in 2002. She grew up in rural parts of Canada, although her home now is the city of Toronto. In her books, she shares her love of wide-open spaces, country sunshine, and the romantic tales of the men and women who tamed the West. Her novels have been studied in over a dozen colleges in their commercial fiction writing courses and translated into nine languages worldwide. Recently, she took up screenwriting, which adds a new twist to her career. Find out more about Kate and her books at


Anita Mae Draper said...

Welcome, Kate. I guess you're wondering where the heck everyone is, eh.

I'm having net probs and just got on - first time since 4 yesterday and don't know how long I'll stay on.

Meanwhile, some of the Chicks are in BC at the Surrey Int'l Writer's Conf.

So I do apologize for the lack of people.

Hopefully our readers will find our way here this dreary Oct Sat.

I'll be back, I hope, with my questions.

Anita Mae Draper said...

Because of my work as an 'extra' or 'backgrounder' in the film industry, I've seen actual TV and movie scripts. Well, not the whole thing of course, but what they call 'the sides' which is only those pages pertaining to the required scene.

I find it fascinating that actors make the scenes come alive with the small bit of info provided them.

So as a screenwriter, you have to know the exact words to convey what you want to the actor as well as the director.

I've often thought I'd like to try to write a screenplay - especially for my favorite shows - but always held back due to fear. I mean, for the most part, they are my fav shows because of the writing. An actor can only carry a show so far. But if the writing isn't there, the show soon fades into obsurity. So, to write an episode particularly for those character's within the allotted time frame is very scary to me.

I'm sending this off now before I lose the 'net.

Deb H said...

hi Kate!

I have some small background in screenwriting from my Masters Degree program and always enjoyed the short, short scripts because I usually ended up animating them. I've always looked at my manuscript writing as a very similar process, so it's nice to get a sort of confirmation from you.

You've also given me some old pointers that I see in a new light. thank you so much for sharing with the Prairie Chicks. I do hope others will be able to pop in. If I think of any questions in particular, I hope to pop back by.

thanks for sharing!

Anita Mae Draper said...

Re the chronological order - my mss always go straight through in order but I don't write them that way. I'll write until I run out of ideas, then I'll switch to the black moment or end. That will usually give me more ideas to go back and continue the 'dreaded middle section'. But I don't like watching or reading those which go back and forth like you mentioned.

Re endings - you reminded me of the 2005 movie Stealth starring Josh Lucas and Jessica Biel. The movie itself only has a couple tender moments, like one heartbreaker where she 'makes a play for him' and he turns her down. Oh, the pain. So you're waiting for the end because you know he really wants her so what's holding him back...and the end comes and they're alone together and they're grinning and you're waiting and they're looking sideways at each other and finally, she says something like, 'Shut up and kiss me, you wuss.' It's not the words I want to hear, but it goes along with their tone in the movie and it's such a satisfying ending that I forgive the writer, you know?

Karyn Good said...

Welcome to the prairies, Kate. So glad to have you with us!

I haven't given screenwriting a try but find the ways screenwriting and novel writing are similiar very interesting. Thanks for sharing your some of your findings with us.

For me, if it's well written it doesn't matter to me if things follow in a chronological order. If like you say, they've pulled me in with intriguing conflict and lots of emotions, I'm a happy camper.

As for dialogue, the first thing I'm going to do is put my 'conversations' to the eavesdropping test. I'm never thought of looking at my dialogue in that light before and I also like the idea of not saying everything but sometimes letting actions speak louder than words. That's something I definitely need to work on.

And I try to button my scenes, but I'm not sure it always works. :)

Hope Chastain said...

Once upon a time, I was targeting film & television in my writing, and I learned a lot from it. Your comments are right on the money, Kate! For me, about the only difference was that with a script, I always wrote a treatment or outline first, so it would fit into the allotted time frame. I haven't done that with my novels, and maybe I should. I usually have a vague notion of where the story is going, but I let the characters lead. Probably if I had to, I could go back to the "synopsis first" style of writing. I remember taking index cards and writing events on them, then shuffling them to see where they would fit the best. Haven't done that in a very long time!

For my current WIP, I know a few things that need to happen in the story, but as I'm writing, I find the characters telling me how things will be. Mom always used to write like this and couldn't understand how I could work from an outline. Now I'm writing a lot more like she does, but in the back of my mind, I think there's still a tiny outline, unwritten.

BTW, I saw about this on the Writing Techniques thread at Thanks for entering me to win the book. It sounds wonderful!

hope_chastain [at] yahoo[dot]com

Donna Alward said...

I look at story structure in TV and movies a lot, Kate, and find books on screenwriting hold a lot of parallels to how I look at construction.

Nice to see you with the chicks. :-)

Kate Bridges said...

Hi everyone!

Thanks for the comments and interesting points you make about screenwriting.

Anita - I'd love to be an extra! Sounds like fun. And it takes courage. You get a real glimpse into the movie process. I'm always amazed, too, what a great actor can do from just a few words on a page. I took acting classes with a friend recently and I never really appreciated actors until I had to step into their shoes. The good ones make it look so easy, like anyone can do it, but not many can, in fact, do it well. I'm a better writer than actor, that's for sure! The class we took was stage plays, so that's entirely different writing again. Most of the plot and characterization takes place through dialogue, rather than moving pictures like a movie.

If you're still interested in writing a script, go for it! Don't tell anyone you're doing it and then the fear sort of disappears because it's just you and the page. At least, that's the technique that used to work for me. Even if the script never sees the light of day, you'll learn a lot by trying to write from a new perspective, and hearing your favorite actor's voice in your ear as you write. Sometimes that helps with novels - if you pick an actor to play the role in your mind, you pick up the nuances of the tone, etc. for his/her dialogue.

BTW - the Surrey Conference sounds fabulous - I'd love to go one day!

Kate Bridges said...

Deb H - Hi! Wow, animation, that's a whole different world and I'm impressed with the talent and skills needed. As for the old pointers, I always enjoy hearing people talking about screenwriting, too, no matter what slant they have on it. It's always interesting to me. Thanks for the comments!

Kate Bridges said...

Anita - everyone's writing process is different and I'm always intrigued to hear when some writers switch back and forth from writing different scenes. I've always been one to write from the beginning to the end. Other scenes may come to me vividly in my mind, but I always hold back writing them until it's their time. LOL - wonder why? Maybe I should do what you do and see what happens.

Re: Stealth, I never saw it but that sounds exactly like the type of ending I was talking about. Sometimes they're enough, skimpy as they are, but sometimes I would really like to see more, like you. And then there's the ending where you're not sure if it was a happy or sad ending - they leave it so open it's hard to interpret. In my mind, I always finish it off as happy! LOL

Kate Bridges said...

Karyn - hi! Thanks for the warm welcome! Glad you found some tips helpful. Before I was published, I read somewhere about putting dialogue to the eavesdropping test, and I've never forgotten it. It was one of the most helpful pieces of advice on writing I've ever gotten. It all comes down to conflict, really, and tension.

Good luck with the buttons! :-)

Kate Bridges said...

Hi Hope! Nice of you to drop by!

That's interesting that you used to write a treatment or outline for your scripts but you don't usually for your novels. I've never tried my hand at a treatment yet, but just a one-sheet outline. That's what I do now for all my novels before I start - just a quick one-page summary and then I write the first 3 chapters. Maybe that might work for you? My editors still require a longer synopsis (ie 8-12 pages) but it depends on the editor you get and how they like to work.

Thanks for letting me know I've been spotted on eHarlequin. I mentioned to them that I'd be here today, blogging about screenwriting, so am happy to see they posted it!

Kate Bridges said...

Hi Donna! Long time no see, LOL! Thanks for the welcome.

I'm like you with structure - it's the first thing that came naturally to me - organizing the novel into a similar 3 act structure, and hitting the turning points.

I get lost in those screenwriting manuals, too! There are so many of them. I just spent my morning in a new-to-me downtown Toronto bookstore in the Performing Arts section, LOL, (I've never seen such a large section) learning what's new in screenwriting. They had a non-fiction book on the gold old days of Second City TV in Toronto, interviewing many of the past stars, and I was fascinated about what they said about the old gang of John Candy and Andrea Martin, etc.. All good, but interesting to hear about backstage stuff.

Anna Patterson said...

I was very interested in this article and felt it would help me right now with my own writing.
Its nice to see the plan within the plan. Its like the ice skaters I used to see when I was a child at the Ice Capades, they make it look easy, but it isn't. Thank you for helping make our writing efforts easier to develop into something beautiful.

Susanne Dietze said...

Thanks for the informative post, Kate. What great pointers: the dialogue tip is one I desperately need. I'll be printing this out.

I have never tried screenwriting. The thought intimidates me! But you've given me food for thought. I have never written a story that is structured out of chronological order, though like Anita I write out of order all of the time. It is an interesting idea to try for my next story. It seems like I've been seeing more of it lately on TV, and the Twilight books, of course, start in a black moment, and then go back to the beginning of the story.

Good food for thought.

I'd love to be entered into the drawing for your book, which sounds wonderful!
srdietze at sbcglobal dot net

Thanks for the heads up, Anita!

Kate Bridges said...

Hi Anna - I'm glad to know you've gotten some helpful tips. That's a good analogy with the ice skaters. Good luck in your writing!

Hi Susanne - dialogue is really fun to read when it's bold and there's a lot of subtext, isn't it? It takes a lot of practice (ie rewrites) to sometimes get things right. Good luck with it and the chronological experimenting. :-)

Good luck to all of you in the draw! Your names are all in.

The Prairie Chicks will be picking the winner - there's still time to enter by leaving a comment.

Niki Turner said...

This was tremendously helpful! I've been thinking about this for a few days, wondering if the way I "hear" and "see" my characters conversing on the little screen in my head is out of whack... I guess not. Thank you for pointing out the similarities between fiction writing and screenwriting.
If it's not too late, toss my name in the hat, please. Your book looks intriguing! Best wishes to you in all your endeavors!
niki716 (at) gmail (dot) com