Why Screenwriting can make you better at prose (and vice versa)

A good writer is a versatile one. This is a phrase I come back to again an again. As a writer, it’s my mantra. Writers ought to practice all types of writing under the sun, as each style presents its own challenges. Poetry asks for brevity and concision, the short story asks for focus, novels develop stamina, and writing for the screen will develop your knack for imagery.

How can Screenwriting Help You with Prose?

Screenwriting asks us to write in the present tense. We must set the scene, and focus on action and external dialogue, rather than internal. We look at external cues to drive the story forward. This concentrated focus on the external world corrects one of the most common flaws I see short story writers and novelists make: they write a disproportionate amount of thought to action. Internal dialogue is cool and all, but it’s capital B – boring when it’s all we can give.

Focusing on the external world also challenges our readers to draw their own conclusions, and gives them space to interpret the scene we’ve created. Is it cold out just because you say it is? Or because Jane can see her breath in the air, and even feel ice crystals form in her lungs? Screenwriting forces the audience present in the scene with your character, not listen to her talk about her experience later.

Screenwriting also helps us block out motion. When writing for the screen, we have to think about motions that make sense. How does Jane get from the car to the house? Does it matter if we show that? Can we put any useful information here? Blocking out motions gives us the opportunity to pack meaning into smaller spots of the story that are often taken for granted. A gentle sigh or a furrowed brow during a menial task can give readers vast insight into our character’s thoughts and feelings without having to spell it out for them, leaving the big takeaway under the surface.

What about going from prose to screenwriting?

Practicing prose is incredibly helpful for screenwriters for a number of reasons. First, it helps you understand emotion. It pushes writers to search for the adjectives and emotions that describe our characters. In prose, we have to think about what a character is thinking, and how they convey those emotions in the real world. Prose can also help us get our minds off of action. This happens, then this happens, then this happens. Boom, boom, boom. So what? One huge mistake screenwriters make is focusing too much on the aesthetic from scene-to-scene, and not worrying about what ties the story together.

Writing in prose helps us remember the friggin’ point. What made us write this in the first place, and what holds all these clips of information together to form meaning? If you can’t answer that, put down the camera and get back to the drawing board. It’s too easy to get caught up in the minutiae when you’re in production. But don’t forget that well over half the battle is fought in pre-production.

Whether you prefer page or screen, remember that as a writer you gotta try it all. Writing in different styles is great exercise, and forces you to push your boundaries and get outside of your comfort zone. It’s broccoli and cardio for your brain. Meet people who write in different styles. See what’s worth borrowing and what you might leave behind. Your stories will thank you for it.