I was honored to be asked to write a WordCraft column for the Book Review section of the Wall Street Journal.
Here is the article, which appeared on March 16, 2013:
Readers want fiction to plunge them into a fully imagined world, one that not only enthralls but also convinces in its scale and defining details.
In my novel "The Chalice," I try to oblige by propelling the main character—Joanna Stafford, a former Dominican novice—through the Reformation-torn England of 1538. Readers learn about the sound of a rippling ship's sail, the look of a stand-alone wooden confessional, the feel of an aristocrat's cloth-of-silver gown. Atmospherics matter a lot: "A chalky white mist hung above the street, obscuring the buildings beyond the glazier's shop. It was as if a cloud had descended to earth. The stench of the shambles—the smell of rotting fish—encircled us."
Where did I learn to focus on the most vivid details of a scene? In screenwriting class. Screenplays are widely perceived as minimalist pieces of writing, bereft of the flair and texture of prose. But that's not true. A fine script includes complex characterization, flavorful dialogue and evocative action—all greatly distilled. It's boxed French cognac to a novelist's bottle of Merlot.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner and Dashiell Hammett infused their film scripts with novelistic craft. Now, as more and more writers churn out both scripts and novels, the influence goes the other way.
"Show, don't tell" is an admonition in fiction class but an imperative for screenwriters, who are limited to dialogue and action. And then there's pacing. Producers frown on screenplays of more than 120 pages, which forces a ruthlessness that many novelists would recoil from. Derek Haas, whose script credits include "3:10 to Yuma," is also the author of novels like "The Right Hand." His novelistic style, he says, owes a lot to screenwriting: "Keep it tight, keep those pages turning, delete the extraneous."
Novelists must choose between first-person and third-person point of view (unless they're Jay McInerney). In screenplays, first person doesn't even exist. Moreover, some of the most important movies of our time, such as "The Godfather" and "The Silence of the Lambs," take point of view to the extreme, leaping around in a series of tightly controlled crosscuts.
Such intercutting between scenes, settings and points of view is "something I've found effective, especially in creating tension" in fiction, says David Levien, co-screenwriter of "Ocean's Thirteen" and author of such acclaimed novels as "City of the Sun."
A screenwriter must make characters come alive quickly. Without the space to list age, height, weight and coloring, screenwriters aim for one original, defining detail. I found myself doing the same in my novels, even though I had plenty of room to play. My introduction of Jane Boleyn in "The Chalice": "Her skin was alabaster white; gleaming, yes, but devoid of any depth to its glow, like an egg kept overlong in a cupboard."
Every screenwriter pushes for a taut fusion of imagery and words. Consider this description from the playful action/exploitation film "Machete" (2010), co-written by Roberto and Álvaro Rodriguez:
[EXTERIOR.] PARKLANE COUNTRY CLUB HOSPITAL—DAY
It's modern, tranquil, soft jazz, sharp contrast to county. Sartana walks down the hallway, high heels clip-clopping.
"In poetry, you use words as images to evoke a feeling," Álvaro Rodriguez says. "Journalism teaches you a 'just the facts, ma'am' approach to writing. [Both] lend themselves to screenwriting. And then, much of that technique carries over into fiction."—Ms. Bilyeau's second novel, "The Chalice," was published in March. She is the executive editor of DuJour magazine.
A version of this article appeared March 16, 2013, on page C12 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Hollywood's Gifts to The Novel.