Screenwriting Techniques and the Novel

First posted on Bob and Jack’s Writing Blog on January 26, 2012.

In my previous post on Bob and Jack’s blog (see Guest Writers), I wrote about the early stages of my novel The Wedding Bell. This post is about my journey as an apprentice toward the later stages of writing a novel.

Before turning to fiction writing, I was a full-time software developer with a bachelor of science in computers. Once I began writing, I renounced all my project-development training in order to be a real writer, one that lets the book reveal itself to her as she listens to those voices in her head. I knew what I wanted that book to be about, I had a laptop, so I began writing. I goaded every character and prop in my story to do the work I wanted it to do. I thought that I was letting the creative part of me blossom, when, in fact, I was writing myself into every scene, and plastering myself over every prop. I was listening to voices, but they were all me. And so I wandered for a few years, until I came to embrace the obvious: writing is a lot like object-oriented computer programming. Yes, I know how that sounds!

It took years for me to absorb the knowledge that became second nature when I was writing software. For the last year, I have been studying the books that Bob and Jack think essential for a writer: from structural anthropology to rhetoric, all discussed here on their blog. I renounced the pledge I had made in countless writing classes to just write the book and trust that it will sort itself out, eventually. Outlining ceased to be a dirty word. Spending time knowing each of my characters, their parents, the view from the window of their favorite room, the buckles on their shoes, was not optional anymore. Writing about writing, thinking about ritual and myth, became part of the routine. Just as in software, even though you know the story you want to tell, you can’t tell it until you design your classes of objects. And even when you know the entities that populate your world, their behavior when put together is not always predictable, as any developer who had chased a code defect for days can tell you.

During the last ten months, I developed my characters and anchored my objects and put them to work in dozens of scenes. At a recent writing practice, Jack told me that I have enough material to give the CUT-TO technique a try.

CUT-TO is a powerful tool that Bob and Jack borrowed from screenwriting. The writer imagines the book as a movie, and writes down a quick cut from one scene to the next, highlighting the objects in the scenes, the transformation of those objects between the scenes, and the hooks that transfer the suspense from one scene to another. The writer works on this exercise from memory, without any props to stir the story in the desired direction.

In computer programming, this technique is called pseudocode, an informal script of the high-level behavior of the algorithm.

After writing for months to the setting, and to the description of characters, and to the dialogue, and to the action, this cut-to exercise forced me to go big-picture again. All those objects and all those characters that had been around, though slightly misplaced, snapped at attention, lined up like beads on a necklace. I went home and wrote two more sessions that afternoon. When I was done, I had a bell-shaped inkwell sitting on a table next to a crystal bell, and I had black ink spilling on the floor like blood from a wound, and I had ink seeping into the lines of girl’s hand—and the palm of that hand looked like the scar on the main antagonist’s chest. Before my eyes, objects were morphing and people were changing in ways that I had not set them up to. It was though the voices had taken over, but this time they were not mine.

Here is the beginning of that writing practice session. I followed the format Jack used for the cut-to he wrote for his novel BLOOD (

CUT-TO for the beginning of ACT II

1. Act II opens in a scene called Crossing the Jagged Pass. Betrothed Princess Meda and King Duras’s wedding entourage cross the Jagged Pass. Duras tells Meda to leave a lock of hair as an offering to Mount Clopot. The earthquake happens when Meda is alone on the path. First Councilor Oroles comes to the rescue, not Duras. Plot track on the incompatibility between Meda and Duras. Objects (on their own plot tracks): blade, hair, blood, gates. Also: snow/white—tar/black cauldron. Hook to: the arrival scene.

2. Cut to: Meda arrives at the Castle of the Lakes. Prince Getas, Duras’s younger brother, falls in love with her. Objects: red trunk, short hair, cloak, fire, stairwell. Hook to: the wedding.

3. Cut to: Meda spends a week in the underground sacred chambers of the Temple of Concord in rituals of purification and integration into her new country and life. Objects: water, fire, white tunic, darkness, smoke. Hook to: the wedding

4. Cut to: Duras, Oroles, and Zyraxes the Wise (the old councilor and priest to Duras’s late father) watch over the sacrifice of a white ox for offerings to the gods. Zyraxes reads the entrails—all good. Objects: white skin/white clothes, blade, blood, white linen towel, silver. Hook to: the wedding.

5. Cut to: Duras arrives at the Temple in a white litter and walks alone through the garden among the statues of his ancestors. Objects: white cloak, stone tablet with the peace treaty, oak statues, ash urns. Hook to: the wedding.

6. Cut to: The high-priestess watches over the dressing and adorning of the bride. The metal is silver, not the most cherished in Meda’s home country. Objects: silver, white robes, hair, silver and sapphire crown. Hook to: the wedding.

7. Cut to: Meda and Duras get married under the marble statue of the Great Mother Goddess. Zyraxes, the high-priestess, Prince Getas, Oroles are all present. The cartographer interrupts the ceremony with a mournful prophecy that the union would not bring the peace Duras had hoped for. Meda is crowned Queen of Tarnia. Objects: red string to tie the wrists, red wine, white statue of the goddess, crown, blade, silver, white wedding robes, white ox’s skin, fat & bones. Hook to: the banquet.

4 thoughts on “Screenwriting Techniques and the Novel

  1. Leaving the first comment on your blog. :D
    Yupii I won the prestigious FPULCRAB award “The First Person in the Universe to Leave a Comment on Roxana Arama Blog”.

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