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4 Things Science Writers Can Learn from Screenwriters

[Image by Ozzy Delaney via Flickr & Creative Commons]

Movies. They’re the stuff of fiction, and scientists love to make fun of those darn Hollywood writers. (The Core, anyone?)  How dare they abuse and twist the science to hit a plot point? 

Journalism is supposed to be an emphatic move away from fiction. But I’d argue that the screenwriting–the “craft” of writing movie scripts–has a lot of lessons to teach science journalists. 

I know because I use tricks and rules of thumb teen-aged and college-aged aspiring screenwriter-me picked up in my science writing every day.

Several science writers have pointed out the parallels between science writing and screenwriting. Ben Lillie–best known as the co-creator of Story Collider–suggests Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!  series in the chapter of Science Blogging: The Essential Guide on narrative storytelling.  MIT SciWrite prof Tom Levenson is always joking that he talks about magazine feature writing with a “TV writing accent”. (He does; he talks about loglines and “the fractal nature of feature storytelling”, which is far more obvious in screenwriting than print writing.) And most science writing grad school programs include at least one unit on scripting and making documentaries. 

But I think that screenwriting has more to offer science writing than just a means of structuring story arcs. The techniques screenwriters use to develop characters, set up scenes, and deliver exposition can all be imported quite easily. Here are just 4 of the first screenwriting wisdom-nuggets that come to mind:

1. Screenwriting teaches you how to write as part of a team.

Our first assignment in my first actual sitting-around-a-table-with-fellow-humans screenwriting class–during sophomore year of college–was to write a page-long scene that told a story with zero dialogue.

I had written an utterly forgettable scene about a love triangle and a soccer game. In one bit of direction (the paragraphs in between dialogue), I had two soccer players running after the ball, one on the bad guys’ team baring down, and our heroine running after the ball “with the same fierce glint in her eye.”

“Um…I don’t know how I would direct that,” one of my classmates said. A senior, a film major who actually went around making movies, as opposed to armchair-dissecting every Joss Whedon plot point.

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