The dwindling market for original screenplays in Hollywood has left aspiring screenwriters looking to the literary market to find an audience for their stories. But the process of adapting from a screenplay into a novel presents unique storytelling issues that have yet to be formally addressed.

This blog is the product of a year-long partnership between Jon James Miller, an award-winning screenwriter, and Charlotte Cook, publisher at KOMENAR Publishing, to develop one of Jon's award-winning scripts into a publishable novel.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Final Cut: How Film Editing Made Me A Novelist (Jon)

One of the first things I learned in film school was parallel film editing. Two strips of film on which you have an A-story and a B-story (or, an action shot and a reaction shot). For instance, on the first strip you have an image of a Pilgrim raising, aiming and firing his rifle. On the second strip of film, you have a pheasant flying through the air, then dropping to the ground dead. Intercutting these two strips of film creates an action (Pilgrim shooting) and a reaction (Pheasant getting shot and dropping out of the sky). A very simple story, but a story nonetheless. The technique is so common, that the film audience has taken it for granted. Only when a filmmaker doesn’t follow the rules, will the illusion of the hunting scene be broken. Virtually every modern narrative film employs this editing technique to create a story.

My screenplay “Garbo’s Last Stand” has an A-story and a B-story, which I’ve written about in previous blogs. Seth is in the present, telling James about when he (Seth) met Garbo on an ocean liner 70 years in the past. If I were the Director shooting the scene in Seth’s apartment and only had one camera, my first camera set-up might be shooting Seth talking (action) first, then pivoting the camera and shooting all of James’s listening (reaction) shots. Later, in the editing bay I would edit these two strips of film together to create the illusion that Seth and James are having a conversation in real or continuous time. If I speak film language fluently and flawlessly, the audience will be unaware that the two men were shot at different times. In film terms, the audience’s suspension-of-disbelief will remain intact.

When I set about adapting “Garbo’s Last Stand”, the screenplay to the novel, I unconsciously employed my film editing instincts and knowledge of basic film language to translate my story. Other than switching what was originally the A for the B story, I chose to tell my novel in an alternating first-person narrative by chapter: A Seth (action) chapter, followed by a James (reaction) chapter, and so on. I had adopted a film-editor mentality to adapt my screenplay and construct a compelling story structure for the novel. What I would only realize much later, is that the diegesis, or, story-world, in film is intrinsically different from the diegesis in narrative fiction. Characters are, after all, not strips of film and can’t be edited together in the same way to tell a story in a novel. But film language and novel writing, in many ways, have a lot of commonalities. And characters in a scene, especially in a dual first-person narrative, record moments much like a film camera does.


Director Stanley Kubrick said: "I love editing. I think I like it more than any other phase of film making. If I wanted to be frivolous, I might say that everything that precedes editing is merely a way of producing film to edit."

I never imagined my education as a filmmaker would have such an impact on my foray into novel writing. I knew only what it meant to be a Director of a film. So, I viewed myself as the Director and my two, first-person narrators as highly-specialized cameras recording the story. Cameras could record all the external action, as well as notice and record the inner disturbances of the being they personified. But each character has different sensitivities and internal measuring devices.

As a director, I could put characters in a situation and watch how they responded based on their prior experiences, upbringing, relationships – everything I knew about them before they came to the scene at hand. If I let them respond and record those internal and external responses, I knew that the “film” they produced could later be edited together into a compelling story using my foundation in the language of film. Even then, the results would surprise me. Thinking of my story as a film and how a film is produced gave me, the newbie novelist, a point of reference with which to move forward. I would follow this path I knew and see how far it took me.


As the Director of my film, it is up to me to interpret what the screenwriter’s intentions are on the page of the script. And, if these cues aren’t on the page, as is the case more times than not, I could use the script as a departure point in creating the story-world the characters will inhabit and where the story will actually unfold over time. But I’m adapting my own screenplay. So I knew exactly what my intentions were on the page. The words themselves became mnemonic devices, or placemarks, for remembering the emotional context of the characters and the story at any given point.

A screenplay, however, is like a good demi-glace. It’s been reduced down to essentials. I knew I had to reconstitute the story with all the ingredients necessary to make a wonderful soup of characters, setting, tension, plot, etc. And dialogue, my strength as a screenwriter, needs to be animated to give it life. Dialogue with attitude is the all-important spice to the soup. Without attitude, everything would be bland. No one would enjoy the meal. I’d be wasting the readers time as well as my own.


To writers, a first draft means you want to get the story down, then see what you’ve got. The same is true for Directors and Principal Photography. The advantage a writer has over a director is that film is expensive, or at least used to be, whereas paper and ink are not (or at least not used to be). But with the mind movie I was producing, I could afford to let my two characters – as elaborate cameras – record their brains out. Fitted with a special filter (their own biases, attitude, agenda), they could “burn” as much mental celluloid as they wanted.

This is, however, where a lot of writers and directors get into trouble. If they let characters run the show, filming will never stop. At some point, the director of his own mental movie has to yell, “CUT!” and move on to the editing (or rewriting) phase. Letting your characters run amok is an ugly waste of time and can ruin an otherwise worthy production. Writers and directors must enforce their authority over the story and make everything about the story. Staying on story, recording true action scenes (scenes that move the main character’s arc forward) is the single most important responsibility of a writer/director in this phase of production. And it will pay off with major benefits later.


A lot of writers hate rewriting and revising, but I love it. When you begin to refine and polish, you bring out the beauty of a well-constructed story and let it sing with the same rhythms and cadence to the reader. I loved editing in film school, too. The rigors of principal photography behind you, you sat down in a dark room with a flatbed editing bay and started reviewing the raw footage. Editing my first novel was the same experience.

The first draft of a novel is the same as a big bin of film strips, full of hidden treasures that become more than the sum of their individual parts once assembled. A movie and a novel have so much in common in this way. And parallel film editing was the key to my initial approach.

Daniel Arijon writes in Grammar Of The Film Language: “The task of relating two story lines, or two characters, or two events, or a larger number of story lines, characters and events, is assigned to parallel film editing. These types of parallel film editing could be defined as follows:

  1. The lines of interaction are close together, in the same space.
  2. The lines of interaction are far apart, in different places, and only a common motivation provides the link.

Interrelating two story lines in a parallel pattern gives them a mutual dependence, since the

average film viewer has been conditioned to expect such a response from this combination.”

Action and reaction shots – the building blocks of the cinematic language. The juxtaposition of images to create contrast and therefore drama. I knew these elements back in Film School, but it took me years and years of study to understand what modern movie watchers know by instinct. They know when a movie works, because it captivates them and makes them keep watching and wondering what’s going to happen next. A Director knows when to cut a scene, trim it down to the shortest amount of frames to increase the tension and drama by not overstaying his/her welcome. Now, I’ve learned the same is true in a novel. Getting in and out of scenes before they wear on the reader’s patience is paramount to effective storytelling.

Of course, many techniques the film maker employs don’t translate to words, and vice versa. But as the director/writer, your main job is to get the story out as succinctly as possible. Weighting scenes through the eyes of your main character is the same for film or novels. Whether you’re splicing together a POV (POINT OF VIEW) shot with a reaction shot in film, or, your PON (POINT OF NARRATION) Pilgrim is feeling how proud he is after shooting that pheasant with which to feed his hungry family – images or words – it’s the combination of elements brings about the story. The combination and the steady hands of the writer/director make the audience/reader confident and secure in the momentum of the story.

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