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17 YA Writing Lessons From Screenwriting Class

The most valuable advice I learned about writing (and editing) came from a screenwriting class I took senior year of college. Our professor was fabulous, and this post draws heavily from what I learned in class. (I actually found my old notes from college and adapted this post from them. So a credit to Fordham University’s Screenwriting 1 class is in order.)

1. Come up with a logline.

The logline is a brief statement that sums up the character and action of your story. It’s the one-description you see when you look at a film on Netflix or your TV guide. It’s important to write a logline 1) because it keeps you on track as you write, and 2) you have a one-line pitch about your book if you ever need it. Writing good loglines is an art that I don’t have room to describe here, but there’s lots of great information out there about writing loglines.

As you write, make sure that you’re writing the story that your logline describes. Keep checking to make sure everything you write links back to the story you’re presenting in your logline.

2. Plot out your hero’s journey.

According to our professor (who had worked in development at Disney), the Disney Renaissance of the 1990s happened because Disney started using Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey plot arc in all of their films. Soon after, other Hollywood studios started following the hero’s journey format, because it’s a great way to craft a compelling story that people respond to. Commercial fiction, especially YA, is very similar in structure to film, and if you’re writing YA, you should plot out your book using the hero’s journey.

Here’s a great video that shows the twelve steps of the hero’s journey in five different Disney films. If you’re writing commercial fiction, you should familiarize yourself with the hero’s journey and make sure your hero is hitting all twelve steps. It sounds formulaic, but start paying attention to your favorite Hollywood films and successful YA, and you’ll see that a huge range of stories can be told using the hero’s journey.

3. Write characters that grow, who are likeable—or at least fascinating.

In literary fiction, readers have a high tolerance for despicable characters (just think of how many people, me included, have read and enjoyed Jonathan Franzen’s books.) But in film and in commercial fiction, we want awesome heroes who we can root for.

As a reader, I tend to gravitate toward stories with heroes who I respect, who are interesting, who I’d want to be friends with, or who I sympathize with and want to follow on a journey. Our screenwriting professor warned us not to write unlikable characters, and I’d second that warning. Your hero shouldn’t be too perfect, but you don’t want your readers to be rooting against her, either.

4. Keep the action going. Keep the stakes high.

Always think about what the stakes are for each of the characters. The higher the stakes, the more exciting the story is. If the stakes are low, the reader might wonder why she should care about what happens next. And you don’t want that!

5. Your story must be clear and believable.

If your story or characters are not believable, they seem false and you break the suspension of disbelief. Keep us believing in whatever world you build.

6. Give flat characters more dimension by adding opposite traits.

If you make your good characters too perfect or your bad characters too evil, they’ll seem like stock characters. Stock characters don’t feel real, so readers will struggle to care about them. You can make characters feel more real by giving them unexpected flaws or strengths.

7. Don’t use pop-culture references. It dates your material.

What if you read a book today that was full of references to Paris Hilton, Xanga, or flip phones? You’d probably guess it was written in the early 2000s, and you’d probably roll your eyes or chuckle at the antiquated book. You want your writing to age well. So if you mention a phone, just say “phone,” not “iPhone” or “Samsung Galaxy” (which are state-of-the-art for now, but who knows when they’ll be rendered obsolete?).

8. Show, don’t tell.

Backstory dumping is boring. Exposition is boring. Avoid exposition by 1) externalizing backstory as visuals or actions, 2) externalizing backstory using dialogue.

As a caveat to this: beware using flashbacks. They may seem like a great way to show backstory instead of telling it, but flashbacks pull the reader out of the present, disrupt the action, and can be a distraction. Whenever possible, tell the story in chronological order.

9. Pay attention to proportion.

If scenes are too long, condense them by locating the most interesting and important plot points. Keep the interesting parts and delete the rest. Also, jump into a scene as late as possible. Setup and exposition is boring. Readers are smart and can figure out what’s going on. Don’t over-explain. Just give us the good parts!

10. Avoid melodrama and create subtext by avoiding on-the-nose dialogue. 

Especially if you’re writing YA, your characters shouldn’t be too self-aware. I always cringe when teen characters seem too emotionally intelligent and therapized (there’s not much room to grow if your character already knows everything about herself—and remember, the story is boring if your character doesn’t grow or change.) The other pitfall is creating cheesy melodrama by writing dialogue that’s too obvious or not the way real people talk. Avoid obvious, melodramatic dialogue.

11. Your protagonist should be the center of your story.

If other characters are hijacking the story, you can fix it by 1) making the protagonist more active, 2) giving the protagonist more goals, 3) not letting your protagonist be passive.

When writing a novel, it can be helpful to imagine that you’re writing a screenplay. The biggest star would want the best role (the role of the protagonist) and you can bet that the moment they saw the script, they’d count how many lines they had and how good those lines were. Give your hero the best lines and the most lines, because the protagonist is the active, central character in the story. Try to imagine whether your dream movie star would read the script and say, “Oh, that character is too weak and boring and everyone else gets to do all the fun stuff, I don’t want to play her.” To make your hero better, give her bigger and better lines and actions.

12. Differentiate the way characters speak

Make sure all of your characters don’t sound the same (especially if you’re writing a story in multiple first-person perspectives). Here are a few things to keep in mind as you write dialogue:

♦ characters’ cadence (using words such as “um” and “like”)
♦ characters’ vocabulary
♦ modifiers the characters use (a different character would use “very” versus “exorbitantly,” for example)
♦ characters’ favorite words (“wow,” or “whatnot,” et cetera)

13. Use subtext.

Subtext reveals the characters and pushes the story forward. If you’re finding your dialogue too obvious, add subtext.

Text is what’s on the surface. Subtext lies beneath the text—it’s what they’re implying or not saying. And remember that there should be tension in every line of dialogue.

14. Create rules for your character—and follow them.

If your character is motivated by the sanctity of human life, for example, then it would be out of character for her to kill—or try to kill—someone. Readers will be upset if you betray your characters. Of course, characters are allowed to (and should) change, but make sure that their growth makes sense and is believable.

15. Create the rules of your own mythology—and follow them.

Nothing’s more frustrating that a sci-fi or fantasy book with terrible worldbuilding, and nothing’s more wonderful that a book with a world so awesome or real that you want to live there. Make sure you follow all of the rules you set for your world, especially if it’s complex. Also, try to think of simple and elegant ways to reveal the world, so you aren’t falling back on boring exposition.

16. Start the action off from page 1.

Here are some tips for keeping your writing lean and action-packed:

♦ Have tension in every line.
♦ Plant a mystery—make the audience desperate to know the answer.
♦ Avoid clutter.
♦ Make it easy to identify and remember the protagonist.
♦ We should know the protagonist’s problem right away (by page 5 in a script, so within the first chapter or so).

17. Create tension.

Here are some tips for creating tension:

♦ Don’t have characters discuss their plans. (If we know every detail of their plans, we care less about where the story’s going.)
♦ Keep the audience guessing and worrying.
♦ Delay resolution as long as possible. Once things are resolved, your story is over. (And for romances, make sure to resolve the romance after resolving the other plot threads. We’re most on the edge of our seats about the romance.)

If you want to write YA but haven’t taken a screenwriting class, I’d highly recommend at least doing some research and learning what makes a great commercial film—that’s also what makes great YA.

Have you taken a screenwriting class? What were your takeaways? Do you think you’d take a screenwriting class?

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Christine Barcellona

Editor / I blog and edit for Swoon Reads, plus I'm the editor for our paperback line, Square Fish. Find …

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