Screenwriting Versus Novel-Writing

Don’t we all wanna be this asshole? Look how in the zone he is!

Throughout my blog posts, I often use examples from novels, TV shows, and movies. Some of the resources I cite for aspiring authors are actually screenwriting guides. Yet this website is supposed to be offering advice on writing books, not screenplays or teleplays. So why do I use non-book examples?

A couple reasons: 1) readers are more likely to be familiar with a TV show or movie than a book, mostly due to volume and pop culture saturation—there are a lot fewer TV shows and movies than books (a total of thousands vs millions), and TV shows and movies are easier to consume than a book, hence more people share a common understanding of something they’ve seen over something they’ve read; 2) TV shows, movies, and books are very similar with their story beats.

However, a screenplay and a novel are not the same. Something that works on the page will not always work on the screen, and vice versa.

So what’s the difference between screenwriting and novel-writing, and why is it important? Let me lay it out for you!

Similarities:

  • Basics of storytelling (narrative structure, plot points, meaningful choices, etc.)

The storytelling basics I describe throughout this blog have been around for literally thousands of years, or ever since the first cavemen told the first stories. How those stories are told, and what the focus of those stories are, changes over time, though. Ancient stories focused a lot on morality tales and creation myths, for instance, while modern stories focus more on a protagonist’s internal journey…by that I mean the need is a fairly new concept, though when I say “new” I mean at least since Shakespearian times.

As far as the history of storytelling medium goes, it all began with cave drawings. Cave drawings moved aside for oral storytelling, oral storytelling was replaced by stage plays, universal literacy and the printing press enable the novel to supersede plays, then movies came along, then TV, then video games/interactive entertainment, then the internet and streaming content, and now here we are. I suppose one day soon we’ll have stories directly beamed into our brains, and that’ll be a whole new thing.

I don’t have a degree in literature or English, so I can’t go super-deep into literary theory and all that jazz (everything I know is info I’ve absorbed from self-study; I actually have a master’s degree in aerospace engineering, for what it’s worth). But I can say a story is a story no matter what medium it’s told in. Though new novels are cranked out all the time, for better or worse it’s the screenplay medium of storytelling most people are familiar with.

  • Character arcs

A character goes through something in pursuit of what they want, and either they change or don’t change along the way. Characters who don’t change are frankly pretty boring, so in those cases the people or the world changes around them. Like storytelling basics, character arcs are universal across mediums.

  • Dialogue efficiency

You’ve probably been lectured at some point about the importance of making your dialogue realistic. But here’s the thing—realistic dialogue is terrible. If you’ve ever read a transcript of a conversation, you’ll see it’s packed with fillers like “um’s” and “huh’s,” it’s repetitive, it’s grammatically incorrect, it’s stilted, people often talk over each other, and it’s filled with pointless chitchat.

If you don’t believe me, try this: find a video of a police interrogation on YouTube (there are tons, just search for “true crime”), and write down everything everyone says, word-for-word. Then read it back to yourself. It’ll be painful. Then pull up a movie or TV show with a police interrogation, ala The Usual Suspects or Blue Bloods or whatever. Notice the difference.

What they really mean is your dialogue needs to be believable. Something that’s believable is not necessarily realistic, and vice versa. Good dialogue conveys the essence of speech; specifically, it cuts out the useless stuff and goes straight to the meat, or the purpose of the dialogue. This is why (in good manuscripts) characters never talk about the weather if it’s not important to the plot or characterization, even though in real life people talk about the weather all the time. Not coincidentally, this is also why bathrooms are exciting places in fiction. In real life, people spend a lot of time in the bathroom, but it’s usually pretty boring. In fiction, if someone’s going to the bathroom, it means some shit’s about to go down in there (pun intended!). This is true of both novels and screenplays.

I should probably write a whole post on just dialogue, since this is often something a lot of writers get stuck on…I’ll add it to my TBW pile (“to be written”).

  • Themes & subtext

Another subgroup of storytelling basics, themes and subtext refers to what’s going on when you read between the lines, or what people mean even if they don’t say it. Nailing the subtext of a story and rolling it into the theme is what elevates a story from good to great, or great to classic. Both novels and screenplays have themes and subtext, and both use it in the same way.

  • Scene structure

In an earlier blog post, I went into excruciating detail about how to write a scene. The process is the same for all fiction, whether written or filmed.

  • Genre tropes are generally the same

I wrote extensively about genre tropes in an earlier blog post, too. They’re generally the same for both movies and novels. Case in point—when the hero of the new Star Wars movies was revealed to be a woman, a small but vocal cadre of science fiction fans lost their shit—a male hero is the default, goddammit! A plucky female sidekick (Leia) was copacetic; a female lead was beyond the pale. To a lot of people (i.e. assholes), that’s a universal trope that Star Wars violated. Sexism and misogyny crosses all cultural mediums.

There are some exceptions, however. Romance novel tropes don’t always cross over well into movies and TV due to the fact many romances aren’t coherent stories; ditto for literary fiction. This is why many big-screen adaptions of popular literary novels like The Goldfinch and Where’d You Go, Bernadette end up bombing at the box office. Stuff that works on the page won’t work on the screen if there’s a trope mismatch.

Differences:

  • Books rely on the written word medium; screenplays must be translated into the video & audio medium

Books are composed of words that one must read (with some exceptions that usually still include words to read, like graphic novels and children’s books). This means the reader is expected to use their imagination to fill in the details of the world, for better or worse. If I write that a character walks into their living room and finds a pig on the couch, every reader will imagine a different pig, a different couch, a different living room, etc. Sometimes this ambiguity is what the writer is going for; sometimes it’s not. But it’s always there when you describe an image with words.

Words also let a reader get deep into a character’s head; you know what they’re thinking and feeling even if they don’t say or do anything.

Novels can also flesh out details about people, places, and motivations that would be difficult or impossible to dramatize in a movie or TV show. My favorite example is when Humbert Humbert, the anti-hero of Lolita, describes his mother’s death with the simple phrase, “Picnic, lightning.” In the context of the book, the description has a ton of subtext, but you don’t get any of that in the movie.

Words can also describe events or images that might be impossible to create on a screen, though that’s becoming less and less the case with CGI tech.

Screenplays, on the other hand, start out as words on a page and then become exclusively images and sounds on a screen. In a movie, if a character walks into their living room and sees a pig on a couch, you know exactly what everything looks like. There’s no ambiguity about the details. However, the reality might not be as good as someone’s imagination.

The look a character gives another can speak volumes in a fraction of a second about their thoughts and feelings, which might take pages to describe in a book. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all. But the tradeoff is you don’t know what anyone is thinking or feeling unless they show it somehow—if it doesn’t happen on the screen, it doesn’t exist.

  • Books can meander & experiment; screenplays must be tight

So I go on and on about the “rules” of writing, but the truth is this: in a novel you can break the rules at any time if you know what you’re doing…and even if you don’t. Hell, your novel doesn’t even need to tell a coherent story—most literary fiction doesn’t! You can get away with writing a one-paragraph chapter, or even a one-sentence chapter, if you can somehow justify it. Your book can be as short or as long as you like, though there is a standard range which is still pretty wide (60K – 90K words or so). Books are cheap and plentiful, so publishers can afford to take chances.

Also, since books tell much longer stories and go into greater detail than a movie (though TV tells long stories, too), readers are fairly forgiving of a book’s flaws…depending on the flaw, but this is generally true.

Movies and TV shows, on the other hand, have very tight standards. Movies are two hours long and TV shows are 30 minutes or one hour long, give or take a few minutes. Screenplay formatting is standardized and never changes (with some very rare exceptions – Mad Max: Fury Road is one). Movies and TV shows are also extremely expensive and labor intensive, so making just one—especially a movie—is a major endeavor. As such, producers are a lot less willing to take risks on screenplays that deviate in any way from the norm…with the exception of an artsy-fartsy passion project from a well-known director, ala a Terrence Malick joint. This is why studios only buy a fraction of available screenplays, and of those only a fraction get produced. As such, screenplays must tell a full, coherent story in the time given, with few to no (obvious) flaws.

The fact Hollywood still cranks out shitty movies tells you how hard this is—those shitty movies came from the best of the best screenplays!

  • Both literary & Hollywood worlds have gatekeepers, but Hollywood is ~1,000 times worse

I’ll be brutally honest here—there’s something a little bit ridiculous about people offering their services to help others write screenplays. If you’re a Joe Schmo who wants to try your hand at writing and selling a screenplay, and you don’t have any connections to Hollywood, you will get nowhere, period.

Having connections in the literary world will help you immensely if you want to traditionally publish a novel, but it’s not mandatory. You can still find an agent via cold-querying, and that agent will find you a publisher to buy and publish your book. It’s still super hard, but not impossible.

Selling a screenplay via cold-querying (i.e. a spec-script), on the other hand, is nearly impossible. Hollywood is very incestuous—everybody is somebody’s good friend or daughter or son or cousin or wife or mistress or whatever. If you’re not in the circle, no one’s going to look at your screenplay no matter how good it is.

So if you’re trying to break into Hollywood by writing a killer script for a movie or a TV show you just know will be a hit…it’s not going to happen, sorry. Go to film school, join the Writers Guild of America, make some connections, then write that screenplay. Otherwise you’re wasting your time.

  • What’s hot and what’s not is different for books, TV, & movies—though one can influence the other, usually books -> TV/movies

Superheroes are hot right now…at the movies. They’re dead on the page. Domestic thrillers are also hot right now…on the bookshelves. A few have had a decent run on the screen—mainly on TV, and mainly as adaptions of bestselling novels—but they’re lukewarm at best off the page (…though the recent success of Knives Out might be the start of a trend).

People who enjoy reading and people who enjoy movies and TV shows don’t completely overlap, so what’s hot and what’s not differs for those two demographics. In my previous post about genres, I list the hot and dead literary genres. It’s easy enough to turn on the television or scroll through Netflix to see what genres are hot and cold for screenplays.

A massively bestselling book will almost certainly become a movie no matter the genre, but don’t mistake that for a hot movie or TV trend. 50 Shades of Grey might’ve done gangbusters at the box office, but erotic romantic thrillers are definitely not in vogue in Hollywood. Vice versa for superhero stories outside comic books. You get the picture.

The moral of the story is this: movies and TV shows can teach you a lot about the basics of storytelling, especially character development and narrative structure. …You still need to read books though, if you wanna write an actual book; watching a bunch of movies is not an adequate substitute. If it were, everybody would be writing bestsellers right now.

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