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To Write a Better Memoir or Novel, Think Like a Screenwriter, Movie Director, and Cinematographer

Cristen Iris

No matter how good a book is, it must compete against an ever increasing amount of content--other books, film, television and other episodic media often in the form of on-demand streaming, YouTube, podcasts, and more. People are increasingly replacing reading time with other activities.

The 2020 Global50 Publishing Ranking analysts put it this way:

"With an entirely new string of media companies taking hold of storytelling as the center of gravity for winning consumers' attention and time, the likes of Netflix, Amazon, and also Disney and Apple have become head-on competitors to trade publishing."

With so many options easily available at low cost, memoirists and novelists must so capture a readers imagination that the reader stays engaged from page one to The End.

As a professional developmental editor and book doctor, the problem I see again and again is that authors are so focused on their idea that they overlook the finer points that make a book hard to put down.

The best authors are the ones who write with the reader's experience in mind. What follows are lessons I've learned from reading countless manuscripts at all stages of completion, analyzing award-winning and commercially successful books, and studying the film industry. These are things I use to help my clients craft better books.

 

screenplay documentsThink Like a Screenwriter to Write a Better Memoir or Novel

Most people do not gather at the watercooler or bar and discuss the book they read over the weekend. When talking about entertainment, they're more than likely talking about a movie they just saw or a television series they can't stop watching. All of those things start when a screenwriter sits down and types "FADE IN," so it's wise to look at what they're doing to capture so much of our time and attention.

Think like a screenwriter: It's always about structure and pacing.

Screenwriters must move viewers through an entire story arc in a short amount of time, and much research has been done regarding when certain events (often referred to as beats or plot points) need to happen to keep viewers engaged. Another consideration is the emotional range of the story moments. How high do the highs need to be? How low the lows?

Screenwriters are taking viewers on the emotional equivalent of a rollercoaster ride. If they're writing for an audience that wants a gut-twisting thrill ride, they must consider what it will take to scare most viewers and choose a story that's big enough to create that experience. They must fine tune the timing to surprise, delight, and satisfy the viewer.

While they may draw out a scene or beats within a scene--think about the slow ascent coasters with their click, click, click as they move up the rails, pause at the peak, then plunge toward the ground--they do so purposefully, pacing things to build anticipation, not bore.

This is where many aspiring memoirists struggle. They've experienced something traumatic and want to share their emotional journey. Cancer is an answer I often get when I ask aspiring memoirists what their story is about.

The challenge is that many of us have watched a love one suffer and die from a disease or have been diagnosed with something that impacted our lives and from which we've recovered, so the stories often aren't "big" enough to keep readers intellectually and emotionally engaged through 50,ooo-70,000 words.

That's not to say that "small" stories can't be powerful, but these stories tend to fall flat in the hands of all but exceptional storytellers because the author doesn't have the ability to seek and share the nuance of the quiet moments, thus emotionally connecting with readers and moving the story of their internal journey forward in a compelling way.

Think like a screenwriter: Choose the best setting and locations within that setting.

In addition to choosing a story with the right height and breadth to create a memorable experience, screenwriters must set the story in a time and place that creates unique opportunities and constraints for the characters. The setting itself is a character of sorts.

Consider how different the stories told in The Lord of the Rings trilogy would be if they were set in the frozen tundra. And how compelling would Alex "Hitch" Hitchens' story from the movie "Hitch" be if instead of living in NYC he lived in Boise, Idaho?

The overall setting establishes which locations are available and the look and feel of those locations. Scenes in "Hitch" happen in locations throughout New York City. There are far more location options for stories set in NYC versus stories such as "Brokeback Mountain." Location matters for reasons discussed in more detail below.

Memoirists don't have the luxury of manipulating the setting of their stories, but they can consider how their setting (geographical, political, and cultural landscapes) shaped them and, therefore, influenced their story in ways they may never have considered but that their reader's would find fascinating. They can also select memories to share with readers by adding location to their decision-making rubric. If a similar experience played out in two or more locations, the memoirist can select the location best suited for the overall story and with the reader's experience in mind.

Think like a screenwriter: Choose characters.

Every character in a story should serve a purpose because if they don't highlight some compelling aspect of the story and don't influence the other characters in a way that moves the story one step closer to the climax and resolution they're just taking up space.

And characters must never be cardboard cutouts shaped like humans in the story only for the protagonist to talk at. It's easy to spot when an author is pretending to talk to someone in their book but is really directing their comments to the reader. Great media can teach and shape culture, but writing sermons may be a more productive use of their time if the author is more interested in sharing the lesson than the journey.

Even if every character in your story has a purpose, having too many characters complicates and often dilutes the main story. The more characters there are, the more relationships your reader must keep track of.

When working with authors who have too many characters, I recommend that they think like a producer and director. Imagine that you had to pay each of the characters in your book like you would actors on set. (More on this below.) Thinking like that will help you identify the highest-impact storylines and most important characters to keep around.

Even when all the characters in a story are necessary, there are often too many characters in a scene at any given time. This often comes in the form of mentioning that a person was around during an event even though they weren't involved in the action so had no impact in that moment.

My rule of thumb is that if a character isn't involved in a scene, they aren't allowed on the pages of that scene in a book. Uncle Ira may very well have been in the room when you had the argument with your mom about her stealing your first paycheck, but if he wasn't part of it he's gotta go read his newspaper in his dressing room until he's needed. There are exceptions, of course. If Uncle Ira was passive in this scene but used what he saw or heard in a way that influences the story later, his presence in the scene is important.

Screenwriters understand the economics and practical aspects of blocking scenes with many actors and write to suit the story they're trying to tell. And they like all good filmmaking professionals keep the overall story in mind as they craft each scene within it.

Think like a screenwriter: Write scenes.

Scenes are mini stories. They have a beginning, middle, and end that create a compelling narrative arc when organized for effect. A story can have a beginning, middle, and an end but for the purpose of storytelling is not a true scene.

Scenes move the story forward.

James and Noel may have gone to get dinner between getting evicted from their apartment and going to hit up Noel's rich but stingy dad for some cash and a place to crash for a few days until they figure out their next move, but if nothing of note happened at Taco Bob's, that doesn't count as a scene.

Compelling stories are those in which the protagonist faces complications and rising stakes as they pursue a goal. A well-structured story contains sequences of scenes that show this and keep readers in the action.

Think like a screenwriter: Scenes happen in locations.

Some stories have many locations; others have few. But very few commercially successful movies were shot at one location. A full story could take place at a resort for example, but scenes within the movie will likely be set in a hotel room, dining room, hallways, reception area, patio, spa, private beach area, etc. This keeps viewers visually engaged and creates opportunities for characters to interact with one another or be acted on by forces outside their control. Varying  locations keeps readers attention by offering something new and creates opportunities to develop characters and move the story forward.

Think like a screenwriter: Location and context influence behavior.

Consider how people act in different settings. For example, we have different expectations for how people should and will act at a funeral versus church choir practice or at a fast food place versus an expensive restaurant or in their own homes versus the home of a new acquaintance.

We use this knowledge in our daily lives to manipulate the behavior of others, purposefully breaking up with someone in a public place is a common example. If a person knows that their partner doesn't like to draw attention to themselves or hates public displays of emotion, they can use that to their advantage if their goal is to step out of a relationship with as little confrontation as possible.

On the other hand, if they know that their partner is an attention seeker and the goal is to document an outrageous reaction to use against that person in a custody dispute, a public place may be the exact right location to break the news.

I once witnessed a breakup at Cape Disappointment State Park in Washington. The woman arrived after the man who sat waiting on a picnic table with his back to the parking lot. I noticed her as she hop-stepped from the pavement to grass and approached him, her face reflecting the bright day. She chirped a greeting, and his response was immediate and clear.

In a split second, the barometer shifted. The uncharacteristically windless afternoon allowed me to catch snippets of hushed dialog. Within two minutes, the woman turned and without making eye contact with other park visitors who'd witnessed the event, walked directly to her vehicle, got in, started the car, put it in gear and then paused for a span of ten to twenty seconds before driving away within the posted speed limit.

It was obvious that the man had invited the woman to that spot for that reason. The name associated with his choice of public place told me everything I need to know about his character, and watching her exit shocked but dignified told me a lot about who she is and what's important to her. Witnessing a turning point in that woman's life made me feel something. It made me want to follow her to see what happened next.

Even though I witnessed a dramatic moment between a couple that day the result of which was an obvious breakup, I'm left unsatisfied. While I caught some of his side of the conversation it was more tone and cadence than words--smug and aggressive. She appeared passive but not needy. But words contain the juicy bits and often cement meaning.

Screenwriters understand the nuances of dialog and the importance of subtext to paint a complete picture and craft it within a scene to reveal character and move a story forward.

Think like a screenwriter: Craft compelling dialog.

It is the job of actors and directors to translate statements of emotion to actions that reflect emotion and thought. We can easily identify amateur screenwriting in dialog such as "That makes me mad," or "I'm very hurt by what you just said to me." That kind of writing is flat and allows the actor little room to exercise their craft--to show viewers (through facial expressions, shifts in body language, and larger movements such as slipping out of a room without saying a word) how a character is affected by something or someone and what possible ramifications these feelings may have down the line.

I recommend that authors strike every line of dialog that states an emotion and rewrite the section in a way that allows the reader to paint a picture in their minds of that emotion as it's connected to that character under that circumstance. This forces them to think like a director, pulling performances from their cast that allows them to present a compelling story to the audience.

I say craft not write dialog because in my experience excellent dialog develops as a writer refines (revises) the manuscript. I typically recommend that authors address dialog problems after solidifying the structure and fine tuning the character arc.

  • First, remove any dialog you've written for the purpose of communicating backstory to the reader. That's not dialog. That's using characters as puppets. It flattens characters and bores readers.
  • Second, remove dialog that doesn't reveal character or move the story forward. Chit chat isn't dialog. Dialog is verbal action. It shows how characters think, creating personality depth and verbal exchanges that often complicate a character's situation.
  • Third, cut filler words and phrases, and revise each characters' dialog to reflect the words and phrases that character would know and use.

Good dialog is dynamic dialog.

When you think you've got it right, read scenes out loud. Think of a movie you love that's similar to your story:

  • Would the actor that best fits the character you're writing for look and sound right when saying the lines you've written?
  • How would the characters around them react physically and verbally?

Go from there. (More on dialog below.)

Think like a screenwriter: Use words economically.

Most writers, especially first-time authors, use too many words. I cannot over emphasize how critical it is for writers to treat words as if they cost money to put on paper because every word a reader reads costs that reader time and energy.

As Steven Pressfield says in Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t:

"When you understand that nobody wants to read your shit, your mind becomes powerfully concentrated. You begin to understand that writing/reading is, above all, a transaction. The reader donates his time and attention, which are supremely valuable commodities. In return, you the writer must give him something worthy of his gift to you."

While it's hard to make a one-to-one comparison between producing a book and producing a movie, it's helpful to keep the readers time and attention budget in the forefront of your mind. Will your reader determine that the tradeoff between their time and attention and your words is in their favor?

This is not a decision readers make after reading an entire book. Increasingly, this is not a decision movie watchers make after viewing an entire film either. Movie goers in a theater may be artificially compelled to sit through a movie they've lost interest in, but on-demand viewing now mimics the story-consuming experience readers have enjoyed since the advent of publishing.

Good writing is tight writing, and tight writing honors the reader's time, attention, and wallet and reduces DNF (did not finish) rates.

 

indoor film set, actor getting set and people blocking shotsThink Like a Movie Director to Write a Better Memoir or Novel

The roles of movie director, producer, and cinematographer often overlap. For the purpose of this discussion, the director is responsible for managing people and resources to translate a creative vision into a visually compelling story within specific time and financial constraints.

Because they work in a visual medium, it might be more useful to think of directors as storyshowers rather than storytellers. 

Think like a movie dierector: Show, don't tell by blocking scenes.

Novice writers often make the mistake of writing about characters and their thoughts and feelings but neglecting to paint a picture of the characters' surrounding in the reader's mind. The characters may be in a room, but the size and shape of the room, the color of its walls and their condition, décor, and other attributes that make things real and establish mood are missing. It's as if the story is playing out on an empty sound stage. This is often combined with little movement written into the story as if the characters are sitting across from each other on metal folding chairs. This is disorienting and boring, which makes for a frustrating reading experience.

Directors are responsible for using all the tools at their disposal to create unique and memorable experiences for viewers. The best have their own style and voice: Agnès Varda, Stanley Kubrick, Tim Burton, Quentin Tarantino, and Sofia Coppola to name a few. They "block" scenes by placing actors in a setting and choreographing their movements. Directors use movement, props, and lighting to develop subtext and move the story forward.

Novel and memoir writers must help readers see characters' movements and the settings in their minds, things that are baked into scenes in visual storytelling.

Authors such as Mark Z. Danielewski (House of Leaves) who craft "sets" as a means of communicating character's personalities and the tone of the story need not use on-the-nose dialog or paragraph after paragraph of direction to the reader about how they should interpret what the characters are going through. These authors allow setting, dialog, and movement to show the reader everything they need to know.

For example, rather than telling a reader that a character is disorganized, they show it by placing the character in a situation where they're under pressure and cannot find something due to their lack of organization. The author could show that the same character is in a crumbling relationship by layering two problems, the first that they must find some object or face a significant consequence and another by having the character search for this--let's say it's a receipt that they think they must have left in a pants pocket--while fighting with their partner about a long-running issue. Or the underlying issue can be communicated in the subtext rather than stated outright. This scene could be short but descriptive and move the story forward on multiple levels. The scene setting and the way the characters physically and verbally interact shows the story and hints at potential consequences to come, which creates suspense.

As I recommend regarding dialog, test the blocking of your scenes by acting them out as you wrote them. Revise as needed to craft a scene that could be acted out by real people in a way that keeps readers engaged.

Think like a movie dierector: Manage the budget.

Screenplays have fairly rigid page count restrictions. Every word matters. The rule of thumb is 1 page = 1 minute of screen time. Every minute of a film costs money. Depending on the scope of the story, this can be a lot of money. Screenwriters of franchise films must often fit the entire story into 90-120 pages. Book writers have more leeway in this area, but this flexibility creates problems because without constraints they tend to include too much immaterial content.

In addition to what it costs your reader to wade through page after page, each word costs the author and publisher actual money unless the book is only being released digitally. The more pages a book has the higher its print cost. Authors who understand the market know that readers don't pay for pages. They pay for a story experience packaged in a book just like movie goers don't pay by the minute. Theater goers pay the same ticket price regardless of the run time of the movie they choose to see.

House of Leaves mentioned above has a complicated layout, including full-color illustrations. It comes in at over 700 , 7 x 9.25 inch pages (every one of which are exceptionally crafted). I paid $22 for it at my local indie bookstore, just $5.50 more than the average cost of the other 350-450-page, 5.25 x 8-inch, traditionally published novels on my shelves that have standard layouts and require only black ink.

The higher the production cost of a book, the lower the margin. Authors who make every word count by crafting must-read stories honor their readers' investment and establish themselves as worthy of the capital investment they often want a publisher to make.

While directors are responsible for delivering the creative vision, they must do so within the financial constraints set by financers of the project. Authors who think like directors, strike a balance between right and left brain activities. They think like artists, audiences, accountants, marketers, and more. Authors who can think on all these plains at the same time anticipate problems before they happen, maximize the talent they work with, and understand the business of art.

 

cinematographer framing a shotThink Like a Cinematographer to Write a Better Memoir or Novel

One of the most common problems I see when editing memoir and fiction is a lack of attention to detail when it comes to framing characters in a scene and directing the reader's attention to important details. This is closely related to the idea of blocking scenes, but the point of thinking like a cinematographer is to take that idea further to maximize your storytelling.

The goal of thinking like a cinematographer is to bring the experiences of characters within a setting into sharper focus for the reader.

Writers tend to either show the scenes using the equivalent of a wide shot or use what we can think of as close up shots for everything. Too many close-up shots cause reader confusion because the shot is so tight it's hard to understand what's happening in the broader context (such as how one character's behavior impacts another). Wide shots can provide a sense of space and ground a character in place, but too many can bore readers because they lack nuance.

Think like a cinematographer: Select shots for impact.

If you're a fan of professional football, think about how the different camera shots tell different parts of the story that's playing out on the field. There are wide shots and close-ups, moving shots and shots taken with stationary cameras. Some offer the defensive line's perspective while others show the O-line perspective. Some are shot from high angles while others are shot at turf level. Each create a different effect and allow viewers to see things they could never see if they were sitting in the stands.

The shots football fans see from their media room sofas are chosen by the powers that be in the control booth to craft a specific experience for viewers. Films are the same. Books should be the same.

One of my favorite camera shots is the one that shows the end zone pylon. Drama ramps up during replays when suddenly the player's outstretched hand gripping the ball comes into frame and scrapes past the neon marker. If grass or crumb rubber fly up around it all the better.

Let's go back to the rollercoaster example I used earlier. If the goal of a scene is to emphasize a character's fear or provide a sense of excitement, the cinematographer might use a forward-facing camera mounted on the front car of the coaster so the viewer sees what a character sees: the earth beneath them fading away one click at a time and just before the plunge nothing but the open sky above. This perspective creates an entirely different feeling than a shot of the coaster within entire amusement park taken from a helicopter.

In short, a cinematographer controls what the viewer sees and how they see it.

Think like a cinematographer: Show, don't tell by showing character reactions.

Humans interpret the behavior of others based on their experience with other people, a bank of knowledge built over decades. Filmmakers would not be able to tell stories using a visual medium if this shared knowledge didn't exist. They communicate a character's thoughts and feelings by showing us how their circumstances have shaped them and how they react to surprising events and the actions of the people around them. In most cases, they do so by showing changes in behavior and facial expressions.

There is no pop-up box at the bottom of screens that says: "This made Andi angry," or "Meghan's statement hurt Katra." The camera shows this, and filmmakers must trust the audience's ability to interpret the behavior according to an assumed shared knowledge of human emotions and behavior.

Authors who interpret everything for their readers do three things:

  1. They demonstrate insecurity in their storytelling ability.
  2. They insult the reader's intelligent.
  3. They rob readers of an immersive experience.

As you write and revise each scene, ask yourself what the most important thing is for readers to "see" in the scene or shot. For example, which is better to start with: a wide shot such as a room and its contenst (empty, full of people, clean, cluttered, etc.) or a close-up shot of the character's face or a body part such as a tapping finger or foot? You can then write the scene in a way that gives the effect of a panning shot to shift to another character, or adjust your description in a way that serves as zooming in or out.

Keep in mind that the more internal the conflict in your story, the less visible it is. That is, if you use a lot of internal dialog and don't have character interactions and situations that raise the stake and force visible movement, you're making it harder for readers to "see" the story and engage with it in a similar way in which they consume visual storytelling.

Experiment with "wide shots" versus "closeups" and perspective to craft the reader experience you want to create, and choose words that communicate in the most precise and visual way possible.

Think like a cinematographer: Choose the right point of view.

After you consider all your camera options, select the point of view (POV: first person, third person, third person omniscent) that allows you to tell the story the way you want to tell it.

Memoirists use first person, which limits how they can present information. For example, if something happened beyond their first-hand experience, they cannot share details of the event because they didn't witness actions or hear what was said and by whom. Unlike novelists who write in third person omniscent, memoirists cannot tell the reader what another person thought or felt because we can only be in our heads and bodies. Their point of view limits their perspective.

Memoirists are always writing through their eyes. The reader looks through the lens of the memoirist's eyes, but memoirists shouldn't limit readers to the equivalent of looking at the author's reflection in a mirror. Exceptional memoirists allow the reader to see and experience the world around them through a first person POV journey.

All options are on the table for novelists. One of the most important choices a novelist must make is which POV to use. Because of the limitations of first person POV, many novelists chose third person options. Third person POV allows the author to move between scenes that involve the main character and scenes in which the main character doesn't appear.

Writing in third person POV can also make your novel easier to adapt to a screenplay.

 

interior movie theater with smiling movie watchersBook to Film Adaptation

Books are source material for many movies, and many authors have expressed to me an interest in writing a book that may later be turned into a movie.

Unfortunately, most books aren't written in a way that makes film adaptation worth the investment. Screenwriters must translate book content into scenes. To satisfy movie watchers, characters must be compelling and active, there must be movement, and the setting and scene locations must keep the audience engaged by creating a mood and influencing character behavior.

In addition to writing a book that delights readers, if you choose compelling characters and setting; move readers through a well-paced plot and character arc; write in scenes, placing characters in story-driven locations; and craft excellent dialog you make it much easier for film industry pros to estimate production costs, including how much work it will take a screenwriter to translate your vision from book to film.

Cheryl Strayed's Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail is a memoir in which the author is on a journey to overcome her mother's sudden and early death from cancer. There are few characters in the story, and the external conflict is more environmental than interpersonal (which is to say that human interaction on the trail isn't what drives the story forward). It may appear to break many of the rules of thumb highlighted above, but the story is layered and set in a visually spectacular environment. Strayed's depth, the universal themes, and parallel emotional and physical journey on the Pacific Coast Trail made it a prime candidate for film adaptation.

I hope that this rather long post has shown you how thinking like a screenwriter, movie director, and cinematographer will help you write a memoir or novel that keeps readers reading from page one to The End.

 

NOTE: I did not address the importance of thinking like an actor, which can help you incorporate more movement into scenes and write better dialog nor did I talk about the importance of thinking like a film editor, which is akin to developmental and line editing. I will discuss those aspects in detail in follow-up posts.

for more on this and related topics ...

What Your Word Count Tells Me Before I Read Your Manuscript

Screenwriting Techniques for Prose Writers

Ideal Reader vs. Ideal Audience

For an insider's view of a book to movie adaptation, I recommend this multi-faceted interview of Isaac Marion, hybrid author of the Warm Bodies series the first book of which was adapted into a major motion picture. The interview runs from 20:47-1:05:57:

Warm Bodies: How to Follow Up a Bestselling Book (The Self Publishing Show, episode 160)

 

Sources

Global50: The Ranking of the Publishing Industry 2020, pg. 10

Pressfiled, Steven. Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t: And Other Tough-Love Truths to Make You a Better Writer. Black Irish Entertainment, LLC. New York, Los Angeles. 2016. Print. Pg. 5.

Feature Image Photo by Jakob Owens on Unsplash

Screenplay Image by Oil Lynch from Pixabay

Director Photo by Sam Moqadam on Unsplash

Cinematographer Photo by Anastase Maragos on Unsplash

Movie Audience Photo by Krists Luhaers on Unsplash

 

CI Communication Strategies

2021

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