27 August 2012

The Screenplay vs. The Novel

Continuing my writing series, I first talked about my process then tackled inspiration. Now I'm taking you down the more technical road to explain the differences between a screenplay and a novel (and there are many).  This may come as a shock, but writing a novel is different from writing a screenplay as they're two completely opposing mediums. Who knew??

All forms of art begin the same way: an idea. Depending on the interpretation, one idea elicits boundless results in many forms. Give ten painters one subject and no painting will resemble another. Give ten screenwriters one idea, one "logline" as its known in the Industry, and suddenly you'll have ten different films from which to choose.

After the "Idea" phase, the novel and the screenplay move in separate directions. Being an artistic medium made up entirely of paper and ink, a good book requires endless descriptions of people, places, things, smells, sounds, and emotions. Ever read Tolkien? Authors create entire worlds filled with cities made up of classes and communities full of diverse characters human or otherwise doing and saying interesting things. These stimulating visuals surround a story enriched by themes, philosophies, and conflicts hopefully felt in some degree by the reader to create connection. A novel IS the medium whereas a script is the blueprint of the medium of film.

Like the plans for a building laid out by an architect, a screenplay has parameters in which it must remain, the main two being time and structure. Most films are ninety minutes to two hours with exceptions like Disney animated features coming in around eighty minutes and large scale epics like Lord of the Rings reaching the three hour mark. Novice screenwriters will want to whittle FINAL drafts down to around ninety minutes. Conciseness is key in filmmaking as Time. Is. Money.

As for structure, if a script lacks proper structure and grammar, a Reader will throw it out. Period. Some executives make exceptions toward grammar if the story and characters are unbelievable. In terms of structure, each scene requires a scene heading, descriptions are short, dialogue is written with the character's name in all caps and his/her words centered underneath. Page numbers are in the top right corner, use black Courier font, a script must have a title page, and there are absolutely no pictures or gimmicks: let the film speak for itself.

Visual, present tense, action-filled writing is the only acceptable style for scripts. If a writer can't SHOW it then whatever "It" is needs to go; no subjectivity or emotions. Unless a screenwriter can show a character's feelings that part is left to directors and actors. For example, "Seeing his friend's grave made Aaron sad" is unacceptable and amateur. Something like "As Aaron reaches the top of the hill, a small gravestone reading "Dan Smith: Loyal Son, Brother, and Friend" comes into view. Approaching the stone, Aaron drops to his knees, pounds his fists into the ground, and sobs."

For fun (as I believe writing should ALWAYS BE FUN-- take that Hollywood!!), I stylize my writing when describing people (and places) as it keeps me on my toes. Instead of introducing a character as "JAMIE, 27, blond, tall, and heavy-set wearing skinny jeans and a T-shirt..." I would write "JAMIE, a long-legged 27 year old whose curvaceous frame remains stylish at any size with a perpetual smirk plastered on her perfectly made-up face..."

Dialogue is a whole other matter that will be saved for a future post.

Furthermore, the position of a Novelist is solitary work. You can lock yourself away in a remote cabin somewhere in the north woods with nothing but you and your computer, and write until your fingers fall off. Your publisher will send you notes for revisions. Writing the initial screenplay might require a Screenwriter to lock himself away until he finishes the first few drafts, but once the script moves into the hands of agents and producers, kiss any power you had over your work goodbye (unless you're Charlie Kauffman, Quentin Tarantino, or Aaron Sorkin). Everyone gets a say in the revisions, from financiers to producers to the director to the actors-- even other screenwriters may be brought in to rewrite the script. In fact, unless the writer is also producing and directing (and most of the time this spells disaster *cough* M. Night Shyamalan *cough*), he is last in the filmmaking chain of command.

Yet, the writing process and basics remain the same for novels and screenplays. Both need intriguing stories with compelling conflict; both require dimensional characters who elicit emotional reactions from readers. Every writer dreads the blank screen and blinking cursor, experiences Block, and thinks everything he writes is shit and he should have been a doctor like his parents always wanted. No work is ever complete and always needs further polish, though, as someone who grew up drawing and singing, this attitude is adopted by artists in any form.

So why do I write? Am I masochistic or utterly vain? I write because I have something to say and writing is the best way for me to do it.


  1. Very interesting to read about these differences. I never knew that, so I am learning a lot. So what are you working on right now?

    1. At the moment I'm working on finding a job :)

      Otherwise I've recently finished an online writing portfolio that I need to go back and adjust. Projects in the development stage are a supernatural horror script titled "The Dressmaker's Daughter"-- I'm currently re-editing the outline-- as well as re-editing a few short stories I wrote in college and researching my first JAFF book (though I have 2 different books I want to write).

      I recently had an idea for a TV sitcom/series (haven't decided) that would be a buddy comedy between 2 women: one is a self-involved, clueless yet oddly lovable actress who avoids reality at all costs and the other is a straight-laced office worker with oodles of common sense trying to work up the corporate ranks but who really wants to do something creative (not sure yet). Ideas are the easy part, execution is what's hard.

  2. Love your creative personality. Great ideas ;) Good luck with your job search! ;)

  3. Ironically, I just learned about this from one of my coworkers who write screen plays. It's an insane process, I know I'm not capable of so if you're ever in need of someone to read/give feedback, let me know :) I'd totally be down for it!