Last week I talked about the importance of balancing action and dialogue, using advice from some of Hollywood's best scriptwriters. Be careful about including too much description as well—too much of any one thing, really. Above all, screenwriters know the value of editing—and so should you. Studios expect scripts to be within a certain length, generally 90 to 120 pages. Although some movies today run longer than that, any writer who turns in a 300-page script looks like an amateur. Novelists don’t always have such stringent requirements, but there’s still a valuable lesson here.
“You should always be moving on to the next story point,” Liar, Liar writer Paul Guay says, “so you have almost no time to indulge in character flourishes or slow moments. If something is off-topic it has to go. Screenwriting teaches you to be ruthless.”
Sweet Home Alabama writer Doug Eboch says, “I’ll go back through every line and look for lazy writing, dialogue or description that doesn’t advance the character or plot, and see if there’s a better way to do that.”
As for description, keep it short. “A little detail is good in the beginning,” David Steinberg, author of Slackers, claims, “but readers don’t care what things look like on Page 3, let alone on Page 50. Use description sparingly, and only if it’s really relevant.”
Novelists who focus on action over description are a step closer to making their books page-turners. However, you must remember that you don’t have the luxury of visual aids, as screenwriters do. Make up for the lack of visuals by appealing to all five senses. Just keep the story moving, and use short descriptions to advance the plot, not distract from it.
Novelists have some advantages over screenwriters. Don Hewitt, who adapter Spirited Away with his wife, says, “You’re so sparse when writing a screenplay, but a novel’s fun because you’re able to explain the emotions more clearly, and you can use any voice. You have the freedom that you don’t have in a screenplay.”
Take advantage of that freedom in your manuscripts. But also consider what you can learn from the movie world. Open big, increase the drama in each scene, balance action and dialogue and edit ruthlessly. The resulting story will be stronger and provide imagery on par with the visuals modern audiences are used to seeing in movies. Who knows? It may even increase the chances of your book being made into a movie. Now pass the popcorn.