Friday, August 10, 2012

Strong Starts: The Hollywood Touch

I've been talking about getting your books off to a strong start. Now let’s go to Hollywood for some advice. I had the chance to interview some scriptwriters for a Writer’s Digest article some years ago. I’m adapting and expanding on that article. 

Authors dream of having their books made into movies. But even if your story never hits the big screen, you can make your work better by thinking like a scriptwriter. Apply screenwriting tricks to writing your novel and breathe new life into your work.

Let’s begin at the beginning and look at one important part of a manuscript, the opening. You know how important this is—editors and agents often say they can judge a manuscript on the first few pages. But don’t let the pressure get to you. You can put together an opening that grabs your readers and doesn’t let go.


I missed the connection between screenplays and novels for a long time. But when a middle grade novel just wasn’t connecting with readers, I consulted with my brother, Doug Eboch, who wrote the original screenplay for the film Sweet Home Alabama. After reading my manuscript, he told me, “You need a big opening scene. Think of visuals, color and movement—maybe a big party.”

He has a good point: Begin your novel with action, not background, to grab the reader’s attention. “Start with something big and memorable,” says David Steinberg, who wrote the screenplay for Slackers and co-wrote American Pie 2. “And big isn’t as important as memorable. It doesn’t have to be a big explosion, but start off with something exciting, different, weird—something that makes the reader want to keep going.”

Don Hewitt, who co-wrote the English-language screenplay for the Japanese animated film Spirited Away, agrees. But, he warns, don’t just make up any big scene for the sake of drama. “Start with an event that affects the character,” he says. Ideally, this event is a moment of change, where the character starts on a new path.

Establishing the protagonist’s role in the story is one of the most important functions of an opening, whether in films or novels. Let the reader know the character’s goals. “What does he want? What does he really need?” asks Steinberg. “What’s his external goal? And what’s his internal goal—what’s this person’s flaw, and how is he going to be a better person by the end?”

In addition, Doug says, “An opening scene should establish the genre. For comedy, I try to make a really funny opening.” In one of his screenplays, Quiver, a woman finds Cupid’s bow and arrow. “I open with Cupid to establish that it’s a comedy with a supernatural element.”

If the opening is exciting, funny, sad or scary, the audience expects the entire movie—or book—to be the same. If the opening is boring, the reader assumes the rest is, too. I took my brother’s advice. Now my first chapter has exotic scenery, magic, humor and a huge food fight. And I found a way to work important setup information into all that action.

For more on first chapter challenges and getting off to a fast start, click on the link to “beginnings” in the column to the right. If you’d like more insight into how a Hollywood scriptwriter works, check out my brother’s blog, Let’s Schmooze.

Here are a few more screenwriters’ tips you can put to work in your novel.

Planning: Paul Guay spent three months plotting his screen adaptation of the Piers Anthony novel On a Pale Horse before beginning to write. “I plan the entire thing out scene by scene before I write one word of dialogue or description. I know exactly what my beginning is and what my ending is.”

Character Development: Don Hewitt says, “It’s easy to have things happen to the character. He’s passive. But it’s always best that the action happens because of a choice.” Hewitt tries to base characters on real people. For him, it’s easier to know how they would really react and talk in any given situation.

Setup: David Steinberg notes that a lot of comedy comes from deception, such as a person pretending to be something he isn’t. The longer he has to keep the secret, the more tension he creates. “If you’ve set up the tension, it should be easy to write,” he says. “If you can’t come up with anything, it’s because you haven’t set up the opposing forces.”

Advanced Plotting has tons of advice on building strong plots, including a detailed essay from Doug Eboch on the script writing "turning points" and how to use them. Buy Advanced Plotting for $9.99 in paperback, $4.99 ebook, on Amazon,  B&N or Smashwords.


  1. "Start with an event that affects the character." That's a big one. If the opening event is simply happening - for the bang! - and not TO the character, it can feel lame. Another good post, Chris.

  2. Right, Karen. I recently wrote an article on using scriptwriting "turning points" in novels. My brother, the scriptwriter, explained how many beginners put "something big" at every turning point, not realizing that the event has to relate to the main character and primary plot line!