An Interview with Owen Egerton
Owen is the author of Everyone Says That at the End of the World, How Best to Avoid Dying, and The Book of Harold, the Illegitimate Son of God, which was optioned by Warner Bros. Television. As a screenwriter Owen has worked for Fox, Warner Bros., and Disney, writing scripts for Owen Wilson, Bill Hader, and Amy Poehler. Voted Best Local Author by the Austin Chronicle, Owen is also one of the talents behind the award-winning Master Pancake Theater at the Alamo Drafthouse Theatre.
Owen’s class, “A Screenwriter’s Tips for Novelists: Action, Character, and Three-Act Structure,” will focus on how to use the devices of screenwriting on your novel. For details, visit the event’s page here.
In what ways do you find screenwriting and novel writing similar? What do you think is the biggest difference?
Owen Egerton: There’s plenty the two have in common: the necessity of intriguing characters, crisis action, and the wild gap between what a character expects and the reality they face. Both need, I feel, arcs and change – or the missed possibiltiy of change. In the end both are attempting to carry the reader on an emotionally intriguing journey.
But there are some major differences. First, a screenplay is not a finished product – it is the blueprint. It is essential to the final product, but a film has many elements mixing in the pot. Screenwriting also has a more structured format — especially the Hollywood work I do. Novels can flow, take wild turns off the map. Films, for the most part, keep to the highway.
The most apparent difference between screenwriting and novels is scope. Films are external, novels are internal. Screenplays are stories told with image, action, and dialogue. Novels use thought, memory (not just flashbacks, but the strange dream-logic connections of memory). Of course, there are exceptions. Some film makers, like Fellini and Terrance Malick, work with more thought and dream logic in their films. And quite a few novels concentrate on the external action. But overall I feel novels have the ability to explore the inner world of a character more intimately.
All this could be changing as how we watch films changes. Traditionally films were experienced in a crowd. We enjoy laughing aloud together, screaming together. It’s a communal event, while reading a novel is more often a private, solitary practice. But with the popularity of iPads and tablets, more and more people are watching films in isolation. Could this lead to more intimate films attempting some of the point-of-view experiments and internal exploration more common to novels?
Action is an essential element of a well-written screenplay, but it’s much more difficult to capture moments of action in prose writing. With experience in both fields, how do you tackle writing scenes that don’t have the visual advantage of film, but are just as impactful?
OE: So true- how to have breakneck speed and jaw dropping action with words. First, let your sentence match action thinking. If I’m writing a car wreck, my sentence will be short, blunt. I’ll avoid words like “suddenly” and instead allow the sentence to be sudden, fast to the verb. The way our mind thinks in those high adrenaline moments. I’ll dip into the emotional relationship of a character in those action moments, but not for long. In moments of action we are not self-reflective. We act – often surprisingly. There’s an urge to fill action scene in prose with adverbs. I don’t. You have to trust the imagination of your reader. They’ll add their own fear, heat, spark. A writer’s job is not to imagine the reader’s emotions, it’s to fuel those emotions. Don’t inform them they are burning, just let them feel the flames.
Are there are films of film genres you find particularly inspirational to your fiction?
OE: I love a good horror flick! Romero’s zombie movies thrill me as do the old classic Universal horror films from the 1930’s. I love the exaggerated wonder of those worlds, the pressure cooker impact on characters and story, the twisted humor, the never ending presence of death and how it brings a character’s true nature to the surface. I don’t really write horror novels. But I love to get home from a day of writing, get the kids to bed, pour a scotch and put on a horror flick.
You’re not only a writer, you’re a performer as well. How does this inform your writing style, or your approach to teaching about writing?
OE: I read my work out loud quite a bit. I’m reading this aloud as I type. Which is awkward since I’m at Once Over Coffee. I also find performing allows me a good sense of rhythm. A bad start can ruin an otherwise excellent performance, a false step can bore or lose a crowd, the same ideas apply for film. The beat, beat, payoff of a joke on stage rings true in suspense or tension in a screenplay or novel.
I also tend to pour it all out in a show. I don’t hold back very well. I go kind of nuts and allow myself to be surprised. I feel the same way about writing. I feel very honored and humbled that someone comes to watch a show I’m doing or reads a book I’ve written – there’s no end of other excellent options. So I feel I owe it to them to bring some fire to the stage, page, or screen.
I also feel you have to play – deep play. We forget how essential play is to the creative process. Play can be a wonderfully serious venture. We play in music, in games, in love making – that exploration, the understanding that failure is part of the process, that willingness to risk and discover, that thrill thrill thrill.
As a sneak peek into your upcoming class, can you share a tip for writers wanting to enrich their fiction or screenwriting?
OE: Discussing action and tight dialogue will be a blast, but I think I’m most excited to discuss structure. Screenwriting finds much of its energy and narrative power in structure and arc. I love examining some of these structures in popular and iconic films and working to incorporate similar techniques in our novel writing. I’ve found that keeping the screenwriting skills in mind as I tackle a novel helps channel the passion and power of the narrative.
Pre-registration for Owen’s class is closed. To see if there is room for late registrations, please call the WLT office at 512-499-8914.