I am a freelance editor of novels, long-time English teacher (30+ years!), and published multicultural novelist.
We live in a visual society that has to “see it to believe it,” so as writers we need to write as visually as we can. The most successful visual writers out there are screenwriters and playwrights who have skills in writing dialogue and staging scenes as well. Novelists can use their techniques to create novels full of vivid chapters, especially that all-important first chapter.
If you’re like me, you have watched many movies. You know what you like to see and what you don’t. You know what works on the screen and what doesn’t. You know which scenes are effective and which aren’t. You know when dialogue sizzles and when it doesn’t. If we begin to think like playwrights and screenwriters as we write, our readers will be better able to “see what we’re saying.”
The Screenplay Method
Most of my chapters use this “screenplay” method:
- Fade in.
- Pan and then zoom.
- Fade out.
Fade into the scene. Draw in your reader. Pan the scene and then zoom in on your main character so the reader can see what the character sees. That’s the first step to getting the reader to feel what your character feels. Then set your character loose. Action should be the longest portion of your chapter. When the action begins to ebb, fade out of the scene. In other words, roll in, rock ‘n’ roll, and roll out.
Every chapter you write this way will then have rising action and a mini-climax. This will help create constant tension and encourage the reader to turn the page to your next chapter.
A Sample "Screenplay" Outline
When I outline the entire novel, I list a series of little climaxes that eventually end with “the big moment” or main climax of the novel. I also try to outline my first chapter to make it lively, vivid, and short. My hope is that prospective readers will take the time to read that first chapter at a bookstore or online, become ridiculously intrigued, and buy the book. Here is the "screenplay" outline of the first chapter for a novel I’m working on:
- Fade in: Andrew in a blue truck driving on Alabama road during tropical storm
- Pan and Zoom: pan fields, trees; zoom to contents of backseat, bed of truck
- “Action”: lightning hits the church Andrew is looking for; he climbs on roof to repair, meets Reverend Gray, fixes pew inside, meets Elizabeth and son Paul
- Fade out: Elizabeth smiles at Andrew
Though general in nature, this outline does the job and gives my chapter direction.
"Screenplay" to Prose
The first two steps and part of the third look like this in the first draft:
While Tropical Storm Rafael wept two inches of rain a minute on Butler County Road 7 somewhere between Mount Olive and Bethel in southern Alabama, lightning blitzed the sky, thunder grumbled, and rain drummed like chubby fists on the hood of a rusty blue Ford F-150, its driver, Andrew Hunt, realizing he was hopelessly lost. Again. And it wasn’t even 10 AM.
As Andrew’s truck sloshed through the flooded road, water whipped whitecaps on muddy fields on both sides and soaked slash pines, black willows, and slippery elms waved to the ground. He had been searching for a country church near the tiny town of Grace for the past hour. He had yet to find Grace, and his suits on the clothing bar in the back seat swayed restlessly, their somewhat creased pants legs brushing across four large red toolboxes as a flapping electric blue tarp kept some of the rain off his power tools and the portable generator in the truck bed behind him.
“Lord, You really know how to throw down a storm,” Andrew said, wiping some condensation from his window with a red- and black-flannelled sleeve. Where is this place? He tapped the portable GPS taped to the dashboard and connected to the lighter socket. “C’mon, c’mon. Find a gap in the clouds. Tell me where I am.”
A jagged bolt of lightning pierced the sky to his right and split a huge overcup oak, a slim finger of lightning arcing from the glowing tree to a long white building, flames lighting up the roof . . .
After this, the action truly begins.
Imagine Your Audience in a Theater
Imagine your readers are sitting in a theater waiting for a movie or play—your book—to begin. They have their refreshments, and they have found their seats. They examine your cover contents as they might watch those “coming attractions” or read the playbill. The movie projector rolls or the curtains rise . . . on your first page.
Will your first page astound your readers? Will they finish the first chapter and say, “This is going to be good”? Will they remain astonished as they read the rest of your book? If you want resounding “yes” answers to these questions, you must write widescreen, high-definition chapters in Panavision.
A visual and active first chapter that fades in, pans, zooms, and rocks with action will not only get agents and editors hyped into asking for more of your work, but it will also make that book browser hold onto your book all the way to the checkout line.
Anthony C on October 31, 2019:
Thank you for this article as someone who does screenwriting I have been. Looking at how I can incorporate screenwriting techniques into a novel / short story writing once again thank you.
JJ Murray (author) from Roanoke, Virginia on March 16, 2014:
Good luck on that screenplay!
Nadine May from Cape Town, Western Cape, South Africa on March 16, 2014:
It was interesting to read you hub. When i wrote my first novel i did just that. I think in pictures instead of words,. As i wrote how my character appears in the first chapter i saw it from a movie screen point of view. Now i have to learn how to write a movie script on my first novel. thanks
William Leverne Smith from Hollister, MO on October 08, 2013:
I found this hub very useful. I have attempted to do this to some extent, but you said it more succinctly than I had seen before. Thank you. I'll now have an improvement goal to work on. I write family stories in The Homeplace Series of fictional stories in one location in the Southern Missouri Ozarks, spanning 1833 to the present. ;-)