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Five Screenplays That Made Me a Better Novelist

I read a lot of screenplays. Most of them are terrible. But when I find a diamond, the experience is intensely pleasurable—I’m swept along in the story, whipping through the pages, desperate to find out what happened to the characters I’ve fallen in love with. After that first read, I usually deconstruct the script, to figure out how the writer did it. And how I can apply his or her techniques to my next project.

TV and movie scripts are storytelling distilled down to its purest form. You introduce the characters and their problems quickly and efficiently, lay out the stakes and themes right away, and then get that plot moving, ASAP. Movie goers and TV watchers are brutally unforgiving, particularly when it comes to thrillers, which are my genre of choice.

I approached my first novel, The Ascendant, much the way I approach writing a screenplay. I outlined it intensively, scene by scene, and I laid out all the larger themes and stakes on 3×5 cards. I also thought about the following five screenplays and the lessons they taught me about storytelling.

I know, I know, the movie that spawned a thousand horrible imitators. But that first Die Hard script, written by Steven de Souza (with a ton of revisions by Jeb Stuart) is a classic. The set-up is fast, the characters are introduced with a minimum of fuss, and the story never lets up. But the thing I love most about Die Hard is the way de Souza and Stuart introduce a problem early, and then always pay it off later. Case in point: John MacLane hates flying, is told to take his shoes off to reduce stress. Later, stressed about his wife, their impending divorce, he takes his shoes off again, but the bad guy litters glass on the floor to cut up his feet. Set-up, pay off.

A classic bit of series TV. Tony Soprano takes his daughter on a college tour. She asks if he’s in the mafia. He denies it—sort of. Then he sees a mob informant in the witness protection program. And kills the guy! All while touring his daughter through Bates College. The script, written by series creator David Chase and James Manos, Jr., is utterly brilliant. College, family—and choking a guy to death with a razor wire. It’s a lesson in thematic brutality.

reservoir_dogs_ver2RESERVOIR DOGS
Much imitated, never matched. Truth is, I didn’t love Quentin Tarantino’s movie, but I thought his screenplay was amazing. He took every cliché of the thriller genre, turned it on its head, and wrote a weird, angry masterpiece. Reservoir Dogs is a balls to the wall lesson in going with your instincts, and never curbing your tastes to match the conventional point of view. Best example: the riveting torture scene where Michael Madsen hacks Kirk Baltz apart with a knife. Tarantino did not hold back, and it worked.

You’re thinking—WTF? Really, Grey’s Anatomy? Well, in my opinion, Shonda Rhimes wrote a textbook guide on how to intro new characters. Perfect example: We meet Meredith Grey having just had casual sex with Derek Shepherd (Patrick Dempsey). Meredith is humiliated at her own behavior, and we love her for that. Derek is charming, the perfect casual sex partner. And then, two acts later—he’s her boss. In hindsight, it’s obvious, but on first read—a holy crap surprise.

In my opinion, one off the best—maybe the best—broadcast network pilot ever written. Groundbreaking in its brutality and grittiness, the script by David Milch and Steven Bochco throws you headlong, from the very first moment, into the life of these characters in this hard as nails police precinct. Every scene is propulsive in its dialogue and concept. There is no fat in that script. None. And when Andy Sipowicz tells the District Attorney to “Ipsa this, you prissy bitch” while grabbing his crotch—well, I’m hooked for good.