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.

I didn’t know what he meant.

“I mean, it’s a cool phrase and it shows her character, but how do you make sure there’s literally a glint in her eye when filming?

How do you tell an actor to make sure there’s a glint in her eye as she hits her mark? She can’t control that. Maybe you could fix it with lighting.  But the lighting department would have a hard time running backwards ahead of the actors to make sure the light hit her eye at just the right angle for making  glint.  

Maybe you could add the glint in post.

But what does a glint even look like?

Would adding the glint tell the audience anything they couldn’t discern from a determined expression on the actor’s face?

I had made the most basic mistake in the screenwriting playbook: I wrote prose, not a paragraph of direction.  Screenwriters don’t write to their audiences directly; instead, they write extremely detailed outlines that provide enough instructions and inspiration to a team of filmmakers. In movies, there is no stream of consciousness monologue that can fill in key exposition. The writer has to describe objects and actions that can be seen or heard; you have to write in terms of sets and scenes that can be executed by the rest of the team. 

In journalism, it’s the same story but different. The facts in your story need to be the sort that fact checkers can check. Art and graphics teams need to be able to look at your story and get ideas for accompanying graphics.  You’ll get bonus points if you come in with your own ideas for potential infographics and side bars that help flesh out your story. And editors need your story in a format that they can easily edit and plug into the outlet’s page or web layout software.

In journalism, you ignore the team-aspect at your own peril. But screenwriting forces you to practice writing with team projects in mind. At first, it’s tough, but after a while, writing with other members of the creative team in mind becomes second nature.

In my screenwriting class, we repeated that “write a one page, no dialogue scene that tells a story” assignment once a week for over a month.  And I am forever grateful…

2. Screenwriting forces you to be an empirical story teller.

Novels can relate verbal exposition their readers directly via words. Screenplays can’t.  One of my all-time favorite resources for screenwriting is Terry Rossio’s Wordplay columns, and the one that covers learning to write in screenplay style gives a great example of a scene where as novelist could impart a lot of exposition really quickly but the screenplay version falls flat.

(Rossio, by the way is one half of the screeenwriting duo “Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio” who wrote the first Pirates of the Caribbean, Shrek, The Road to El Dorado, and Aladdin. They were also consultants on the scripts for several more cornerstone films of 90s kids’ coming-of-age journey.  Read the Wordplay columns; learn their ways.)

Screenwriting teaches you to imply bits of exposition just with simple visual reminders.

It also forces you to prioritize which bits of exposition need to be explicitly said, and which bits can be left for the super-fans to argue about on the internet.  (In science writing, our Internet super-fan analogues are the scientists on bioRXiv, Twitter, and all the other sites.  They can work out all the details to their hearts’ content, but we have to make sure the main feature actually gets a wide release…Otherwise our stories will remain confined to little-trafficked corners of the interweb.)

That tends to be one of the hardest parts for people who are transitioning from studying science into science writing. Science is all about caveats and details, and yeah, when you’re trying to predict drug side effects, those details are super-important.  However, when you overwhelm someone with too many concepts at once, they tend to not just forget the details but the main point, too. 

Don’t do that. Keep your science explanations direct but vivid.

Another upside to telling stories via sounds and images is that recordable events are easiest for fact checkers to verify.


3. Screenwriting is good for your repertoire of one-syllable words.

The English language has a startling number of useful one syllable words, and academic writing trains students not to use them.  Bad, bad academia! 

Avoiding one syllable words might be handy when you’re trying to convince the NIH how smart you are, but if your goal is to write relatable prose, one-syllable words are your friends.  Most of them are nowhere near the 1000 most-frequently-used words, but people immediately understand a shockingly large number of one-syllable words. 

Scrape, glare, blame, splash, squeal, peel, fold, flip, crash, mash, blend, trade, switch, swap, dodge, charge, zip, zap, cough, creak, groan, spit, snip,  and sneeze all fail XKCD’s “Simple Word Test”, but most people on the street would know  all those words. (In most English-speaking countries, anyway.) 

If there’s a scene were a patient spits up some phlegm, they could spit up a glob, a blob, a clump, a wad, a gob, a splotch,  a bleb, or a ball of phlegm.  It could land on the floor or hit the ground, possibly with a splat!  

In a screenplay, you write a scene that goes like this:

Annie sits in the waiting room alone. Suddenly, she doubles over and coughs and coughs. And coughs again. 

A ball of phlegm splats onto the tiled floor. 

Annie groans and leans toward the end table She grabs a Kleenex and bends to mop up the phlegm. 

Footsteps interrupt her.

            MIKEY (OFF-SCREEN): 
       Are you okay, Annie? 

Annie looks up and rolls her eyes.

Admittedly, that’s a pretty crappy scene, but it tells you a lot: Annie is sick, but she’s still the sort of person who tries to clean up after herself.  And “Smooth Criminal” jokes aside, the eye roll tells us that she’s not exactly pleased to hear from Mikey.

I wrote it to make two points:

(1) Adjectives and nouns that sound and feel like the things they describe–like splat–can be turned into verbs pretty easily.

(2) Simple descriptions of how your characters react to stuff and to each other can create a lot of story.

When you’re writing an 110-page script, you can only have a character glare, shrug, glance, or roll their eyes so many times before it starts to get repetitive.  You learn to value those highly-specific but still super-succinct verbs and nouns that every other style of writing tends to take for granted. 

When you’re explaining science to non-scientists, those one-syllable words can and will save your skin. Not everyone imagines pictures in their head when they read, but a lot of people do. Plus vivid and specific words let you imply visual and tactile cues without bogging down the plot-forward readers in florid prose.

4. Screenwriting forces you to get better at taking–and more importantly–giving notes.

“Notes” in screenwriting doesn’t refer to lecture notes you scribble in your notebook. Instead, “notes” are the feedback on your writing that tells you what’s working, what’s not working, and what you need to fix.

Screenwriting class pretty much always involves a barrage of notes.

Newbie writers tend to get defensive at note-taking time and see it as a moment for other writers to tear your writing down. But in screenwriting, you quickly realize the truth: Notes are supposed to give you more jumping off points for the re-write.

I‘ve had a handful of classmates in various writing classes over the years who tend to perceive notes as attempts to back them into corners--and who, unfortunately, try to return the favor–but a good note does the opposite; it gives you a handhold or a toehold that you can use to back-flip out of the corner. 

One of the most valuable bits of wisdom in the whole Save the Cat! series is the “Here’s a bad way to do this…” where a writer giving notes points to a problem area in the script and says, “Ok, this is a problem. Here’s a crappy idea for how you might fix it…” 

Newbie writers tend to hesitate to do this, because they only want to present their best ideas. But if you give notes without ever proposing a bad way to do this, all you end up doing is reminding your classmates of how trapped they are. That’s not helpful.

Since screenwriting as a form grew out of Hollywood-culture, which involves quite a lot of teams sitting around tables brainstorming whacky ideas, it tends to teach you not to be sensitive or shy.

That’s a useful counterbalance to science’s secrecy and emphasis on un-impeachable brilliance.


What Screenwriting Can’t Teach Science Writing

At the end of the day, screenwriting is still fiction. Practicing it can help you learn to describe observable actions and reactions, but it’s no substitute for reporting in the field. 

While Hollywood screenwriters have the luxury of making stuff up to hit the next plot point, we don’t. Learning how to go out into the world and find moments that can be translated into scenes is a skill unto itself, as is gathering the facts needed to set those scenes up.

They’re skills I’m still learning.

But I’m glad I started learning how to tell stories through images early.



There aren’t many screenwriters in science communication. But screeenwriting has a lot to teach us.

Also, read Save the Cat! and The Wordplay columns. Just ’cause.


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