Screenwriting Techniques for Prose Writers (Guest Post by Script Doctor Lance Thompson)

Cristen Iris

Many disciplines of screenwriting can be applied to prose in all genres, from epic novels to short stories. We’ll discuss a few and how they can improve your writing.

Every Word Earns Its Place

In movies, every second of film costs thousands of dollars to produce. There is no time or money for superfluous words. You don’t spend thousands of dollars to write a word in a novel or short story, but you will be spending the reader’s time. Make every word count. As Elmore Leonard says, “Get rid of the stuff the reader tends to skip over.”

Deadlines Are Your Friends

My screenwriting professor at UCLA, Richard Walter, loved this phrase because screenwriters are always working on deadline. Working against the clock doesn’t dilute the quality, it just increases the output. The same applies to prose writing. If you don’t have a deadline, impose one on yourself. You’ll produce more and feel better about it.

Enter Late, Exit Early

The phrase “cut to the chase” comes from movies. It means skip all the preliminary explanation and set-up and go right to the action. The same principle applies to every scene in your novel. Cut out the preliminaries and get right to the critical action or dialogue. And when the scene reaches its climax, don’t linger–get out.

Theme Comes Last

Screenwriter Scott Frank had the best advice about theme. Write the best story you can. When it’s done, you will see the theme. On the next draft, take out everything that doesn’t support that theme. But never start with the theme. The theme must come from the story. In real life, you don’t start out to learn a lesson. The lesson comes from the experience.

Pitch Makes Perfect

Screenwriters pitch their stories to everyone–producers, directors, investors, actors. And every time a writer pitches her story, she gets a reaction. And those reactions will reveal the strengths and weaknesses of her story. So she’ll adjust it and it will improve. The more often you tell your story, the better it will get. When Alfred Hitchcock worked wtih writers, he would begin every meeting with, “Tell me the story so far.”


Lance Thompson modestly admits to being a writer and script doctor who has written for movies (The Two Jakes), television (Mr. Belvedere) and magazines (Air & Space Smithsonian). If pressed, he will also confess to being an award-winning consultant on over 500 ad campaigns for motion pictures. As an actor, he has appeared on Discovery Investigations’ I Was Murdered, on stage and screen in Boise, and has self-effacingly hosted two Boise television talk shows.

Contact Lance at

Feature photo by Denise Jans on Unsplash

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