My first foray into creative writing was through screenplays. I always loved movies and thought in moving images, so screenwriting came naturally to me. After about four years of writing roughly ten screenplays, I decided to try shifting to prose. I decided to adapt my best screenplay into a novel. I already had all the plot and characters and world-building done. It should have been easy, right?
Wrong. My first novel was a total mess—though I didn’t realize it at the time. I was a novel-writing newbie. I didn’t know what I didn’t know. It wasn’t until years later, after writing many more short stories and novels, joining a writing group, and learning more about writing (via books, blogs, podcasts, and videos) I was able to see the mistakes I had made. I more or less had to rewrite the entire book. It would contain the same basic story, world, and characters, but the prose—the actual words—or the way I told the story and described the world and characters—needed to change.
The main thing I learned was to stay with the present action in the plot then sprinkle in backstory when needed—and only when absolutely needed. Have the reader begging for backstory, so curious that they want exposition. You can’t just open with a huge info-dump explaining everything about the world and characters. That will become tedious and boring. Only explain things as you see it “on screen” so to speak, or as it happens in the plot. Like the adage goes: “Show don’t tell.”
Of course you can “tell” after you “show” to further explain something, be it a piece of sci-fi technology, details about the setting, or a character’s backstory, etc., but don’t become reliant on telling at the expense of showing. Essentially, write the novel more like a screenplay by following a main narrative “on screen.” Write what you see—the present action—then layer backstory and internal monologue on top of that. Of course, this is a general rule of thumb, and there are plenty of examples of great novels that break that rule. Once you’ve become more experienced you can break that rule too—I have, but at least now I know what I’m doing (or at least I hope so).
The mistake I made when I first switched from writing screenplays to writing novels was thinking I needed to add a lot of backstory and description, taking full advantage of that ability prose provided. Except I went overboard, over-explaining everything and adding way too much detail and internal monolog just for the sake of it.
That’s a mistake particularly in thrillers (which this novel was) where you want to keep the fast-paced action format of a screenplay. Don’t pause to have entire chapters of backstory. Instead, have a sentence or two of backstory between the action. (Or a paragraph/page or two when necessary.) Really, this applies to almost all genres of novels, not just action thrillers. The “action” need not be car chases and shoot-outs. “Action” in a novel is simply what the characters are doing, which could be nothing more than two characters sitting and having a conversation. Non-action would be the narrator stepping out of the present moment in the plot to provide backstory, scene-setting, or character descriptions. You need those things, for sure, but probably not as much as you think you need.
I thought when switching to novels I had to add a whole lot more detail. What I didn’t realize was oftentimes less is more. If you give the reader a few key details, they can fill in the rest with their imagination. In fact, many readers prefer to do that. You don’t want boring expositional info-dumps in novels anymore than you want them in movies. This was something I inherently realized while writing screenplays, but for whatever reason, I thought I had to change in a novel.
Of course you can go too far (or should I say too sparse) and write too much like a screenplay, where you basically just recount what happened without any artistry or craft. That’s a mistake as well. You can and should be more poetic in your language in a novel, but not so much so that you write purple prose, AKA overly flowery language. That was another problem I had with my first attempt at a novel. I thought every sentence had to be poetic, full of alliteration and obscure adjectives and adverbs. But as Stephen King said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
There are moments when you should elevate to more poetic language, especially at dramatic moments in the story, but most of the time you should simply and clearly explain what happened. Clarity is key. If the reader can’t understand what’s happening in a scene because you’re using numerous adverbs, obscure adjectives, and subtextual descriptions, the reader will have no idea what’s going on and naturally start skimming over the passage (or stop reading the book altogether).
The ironic thing about writing my first novel was I should have written it more like the original screenplay—keep the streamlined action-oriented style of movies, but take advantage of the novel format by layering in description within the action. It need not be one or the other. In fact, it’s best when it’s both at the same time. I’m still working on rewriting that first novel of mine, fixing my novice mistakes, but I plan to finish and publish it someday. By then, hopefully, no one will be able to tell it was the first book I ever wrote.