Cross Training with Fiction

In the sports world, athletes don’t just focus on the skills needed to master their own sport. They often practice skills needed in other activities because these additional exercises improve their skills needed for their own sport. That’s why you see boxers jumping rope to improve stamina and footwork coordination. Jumping rope won\’t help a boxer in the ring, but developing the muscles and endurance from jumping rope will.

So if you’re interested in writing screenplays, study novels as well. One major difference between noels and screenplays is that novels can immerse the reader in a total sensory image of sight, sound, touch, smell and taste, but screenplays can only rely on sight and sound. That’s why translating novels into movies can be so difficult because some novels take place more in the characters’ minds and emotions. Read any Ray Bradbury story and see the movies made from them to see how poorly most movies translate Ray Bradbury’s fiction into a visual medium.

Besides noticing the difference in how novels can tell a story through a character’s mind, thoughts, and senses, and how a screenplay relies on sight and sound, look at how novels alternate chapters between characters.

In a screenplay, you want your main character actively involved in the story at all times with occasionally instances where he or she doesn’t appear. Yet in a novel it’s common for up to half of the chapters to focus on other characters. What makes novels richer is that when they focus on other characters, these other characters seem real because they’re busy pursuing goals of their own that are indirectly related to the hero.

What causes a flat, dull, and boring screenplay is when it focuses solely on the hero and completely ignores the secondary characters. A novel can almost never focus completely on the hero and ignore secondary characters. Instead, novels often have short chapters where secondary characters reveal their dreams, goals, and desires. This helps make the novel richer and more emotionally engaging.

That’s exactly why screenplays need to focus on multiple, related goals for the secondary characters. In “The Hunger Games,” the hero is Katniss, but we also see glimpses of secondary character’s goals such as Peeta trying to protect Katniss and the Game Master trying to make the games interesting by forcing Katniss to suffer more.

The more your secondary characters seem to have a life of their own, the more interesting your overall story will be.

“Maleficent” is mediocre because it focuses solely on the hero. “Die Hard” is far more interesting because practically every secondary character has a goal and changes during the course of the story from the black police officer who can finally draw his gun and overcome his reluctance after accidentally shooting a kid, to the limousine driver who changes from a complete novice to more confident after he rams a terrorist trying to escape.

In “Star Wars,” you can see all the goals of the secondary characters from Princess Leia trying to hep the rebels to Hans Solo trying to just get money. Now watch a bad movie like “Clash of the Titans” or “Hercules” and you’ll see secondary characters who have no goals of their own and seem to only exist solely to help the hero with no motivation of their own.

You don’t want sock puppets appearing in your story for no reason. You want fully fleshed out characters who feel like they could be heroes in their own story. The more every secondary character feels real, he more emotionally engaging your overall story will be. If each secondary character’s goal is related to the hero’s goal, that simply strengthens the overall story even more.

Watch a bad movie and most of the time it fails because the secondary characters are treated like sock puppets that exist just to take up space. Watch a great movie and you’ll see how secondary characters always feel real, alive, and interesting.

Read novels and you’ll see how many chapters focus solely on secondary characters, which gives the overall story its richness. Now make sure your secondary characters are lifelike in your screenplay and you’ll go a long way towards creating a better movie.

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