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Using Screenplay Techniques For Novel Writing, by Sarah Alderson

teen girl reading William Tell

When I write a novel I always picture it like a movie playing in my head. I probably watched far too much TV as a kid, but I’m glad I did because I learned a lot about writing conventions –about character, dialogue, suspense, story arcs and pacing – from watching films and TV shows.

More recently I’ve been writing screenplays (after writing eight novel manuscripts) and have been amazed by how some of the hard and fast rules for screenwriting work the same for novel writing. The best book I’ve read on screenwriting is Save The Cat! by Blake Snyder and I encourage everyone to grab a copy and read it because a lot of what he says is valuable to anyone trying to write a novel.

There are hundreds of ideas in the book but the key ones for me, and which I’ve also come across in books on creative writing, are as follows:

Save the Cat!

Snyder talks about the importance of having a Save the cat moment in a film. What he means is that your hero HAS to do something that immediately makes you like them and he or she has to do it in the first chapter. Otherwise you end up with a book/film that fails to engage the reader / viewer and leaves them indifferent to the fate of your characters…disaster!

I’ve read plenty of books which fail, precisely because I don’t care about the central character – because they never saved the cat. Think about all the books you’ve hated and now think about whether you liked the main character. There’s usually a link.

State the Theme

Like every film, every book needs to have a theme, and that theme doesn’t need to be obviously stated but it should be there nonetheless. The theme of Fated is whether or not we have choice in life. You don’t need to provide an obvious answer but you should be clear what your theme is and invite your reader to contemplate it.


It’s really important that an event occurs in your book early on that turns everything on its head – that forces your hero to reassess everything and take action. That might sound really obvious, but lots of writers spend an age on fluffy description and developing characters and forget the plot part entirely. Bring in that catalyst and let it be the perfect catalyst for your particular character; it must challenge them and help them grow.

All is lost moment

Like every film, I think every book needs a moment where it looks like everything is lost, and so does Snyder. All great movies include this moment, where the hero is about to give up, is at their lowest ebb. I write thrillers so it’s a no brainer that my books also include this all is lost moment. It’s the point in Hunting Lila where (SPOILER) they get captured by Demos and his crew. It’s the point in Fated where Evie discovers who Lucas really is. The all is lost moment allows for a big finale come back scene and gives your readers an emotional roller coaster ride.

Even if you don’t write thrillers, it might not be a bad idea to study screenwriting techniques. It’s sure to help you think more creatively about how to develop and structure your plot.


Sarah Alderson bio page

Hunting LilaLosing LilaFatedSave the Cat!: The Last Book on Screenwriting You'll Ever NeedSave the Cat! Strikes Back: More Trouble for Screenwriters to Get Into ... & Out OfSave the Cat! Goes to the Movies: The Screenwriter's Guide to Every Story Ever ToldScreenwriting: The Sequence Approach

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Love the “Save the Cat” idea – have never thought about this in these terms before. Am now mentally going through my current work to see if Bailey has indeed saved the cat! Thanks for this.

    August 18, 2012

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