The new book is now officially 'in' and I am waiting for the copy edits to come through. However, there is no rest for the wicked and I am already pondering the various plotlines and characters for my next novel. As a writing exercise - and to give my brain a bit of a break in between books - I spent ten days or so watching roms coms/chick flicks to see if I could pick up any writing tips. Yes I know, I know, I write novels, not screenplays, but I reckon it is always useful for any writer to try and see how the guys in other genres do things - and I think I learned a few valuable lessons.
Lesson One: Make sure your screenplay has a really strong central hook.
Basically, this means your story has an original, inventive and easily graspable idea at its centre. For example, The Wedding Date starring Deborah Messing works on the basic premise that a girl hires a male escort to accompany her to a wedding where her ex is the best man - and then falls in love with him. Simple, concise, compelling and with loads of comic potential. Or how about PS I Love You, where the heroine's husband dies, but she receives a series of letters from him helping her rebuild her life. Having a brilliant central concept makes sense from both an artistic and a marketing point of view: a strong starting point should automatically set up tonnes of conflict and suggest storylines which will help carry your plot through to the end PLUS (and don't under estimate this one!) it will make the story easy to pitch and sell. In Hollywood, you would be expected to come up with a 'log line' which sums up the story in one sentence. Also useful for novelists wanting to pitch to agents and publishers - give it a try!
Lesson Two: Give yourself a smart, funny, vulnerable but ultimately feisty heroine with whom your audience will identify and root for all the way through.
This is vital for both screenplays and novels. You wouldn't want to read a book where you couldn't stand the central character or thought she was a bit of a wimp. We read/go to movies to be entertained, but we also go to see a bit of ourselves reflected in the central character and you need to have one you and your audience can look up to. Sure, give your heroine flaws; of course she needs to have a vulnerable, human side to her - but ultimately give her the personality and intelligence she needs to triumph against all the odds and you'll have a winner on your hands.
Lesson Three: Make sure that your plot and character arcs are as strong as your initial idea.
There is nothing more disappointing than a book or movie which has a superb initial concept and then fails to deliver. The disappointment stays with you for ages (I still feel let down by Men in Black even now. Sigh) Sadly, Letters to Juliet affected me in a similar way. The idea of the wall in Verona where people still write letters to Shakespeare's most famous heroine - and receive an answer - was stunning. And I also liked the idea that the love story chosen for the plot involved an older woman (I'm all for mixing it up age-wise!) but the actual plot was so predictable and pedestrian that I felt cheated. Eleven out of ten for the initial idea and the first half an hour of the movie, three out of ten thereafter. Don't do this!!
Movies are a very useful tool for the novelist looking to hone their craft: a film must achieve everything a good novel needs to on the plot/character/structural front - but it has to do it in an hour and a half (which is why that strong central idea is essential). So go on - get out the DVDs and have an afternoon on the sofa. After all, it's all in the name of work!