Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Screenplay v. Novel Writing

With SXSW upon us here in Austin, the film scene is going crazy. Directors, actors, writers--they're all here this spring break and rarin' to go. I thought it would be nice in honor of that to repost this fabulous piece about the difference between screenplay and novel writing. This was written by Steve Metze.---Mary Ann

As someone with an MFA in Film and Video production, I’ve written a few screenplays in my time. Only optioned one, and any movies made from them I made myself, but still. I’ve also written my fair share of novels, with about the same amount of success, although I do feel my craft has improved consistently with every word I’ve written.
Having hammered out both, I wanted to take a moment to compare and contrast the two in case you were debating writing one or the other.

First, some basics.

Novels are long, screenplays are short. Novels tend to be in the past tense, screenplays in the present. Novels have some leeway for structure, although generally lean towards something with three to five Acts and a hook of some sort at the end of each chapter. For screenplays the structure is much more rigid, with painful scrutiny placed on pacing. Novels have many niche markets, while screenplays always seem to be aiming for that PG-13 audience.

Now let’s dig a little deeper.

With a novel, you are the creative overseer. An editor might make suggestions, but they won’t go in and re-write the entire ending with a new flashy location or three times the stakes. When you’re done writing a novel, you own it. Your style drips from every page. Your ideas, your characters, your detailed descriptions, they remain, all yours.

In a screenplay, you are, at best, writing a suggestion for others to go by. You’re creating a blueprint from which hundreds of others will tear off pieces and then rework those bits in their own image. If you want something that stands out as yours, screenplays probably aren’t the way to go.

As far as money goes, don’t be fooled. Novels actually published will make more money than most screenplays sold, and certainly more than those optioned. I’ve known many screenplays to option for as little as a dollar while a hopeful director holds onto to someone else’s work and shops it around looking for financing. A screenplay “hit” can sell for six figures, but then that’s it, the money stops. A novel “hit” can go well beyond that, and the money is open ended. Assuming you sell more than any advance you might have gotten, sales will drop down to a trickle and slowly fade rather than having a hard stop after a single lump payment. In addition, there are thousands of books published every year, and only hundreds of movies made.

But as a writer, someone who loves the act and craft of writing, they really are different animals. Novels can be internal or external stories, with action optional. They tend to focus more on characters and the true details of their lives. Screenplays can only suggest actions that suggest internal thoughts and feelings – you can’t even write what the character is thinking to help out the actor. The characters can show it or say it, but with very few exceptions (and then usually only in an opening or closing voice over) the omniscient point of view is right out. As far as descriptions go, you get a few lines to sum up the setting, and then it becomes someone else’s job to give that location or character life. This is not to say that screenwriting is easy, or that there aren’t opportunities to write creative character-driven works you can be proud of. In both cases clever dialogue goes a long way, but in a novel, the dialogue doesn’t have to be the primary form of transmitting information about thoughts and feelings.

So, bottom line, you’ll end up writing what you wanted to write, but my final piece of advice to you is pick one and stick with it, or at the very least don’t try to hop back and forth between the two. They are both skills, and both crafts, and even though they both tell a story, they use completely different languages to do it. Find out which one you’re best at, and focus on it. When you’ve had a real “hit” and can quit your day job, then you can dabble in the other…



  1. I stumbled upon your post when I was in dilemma. Novel or screenplay? I`m still in indecisive. I cannot decide. :(

  2. I've been writing for about 25 years....and have novels and screenplays as well as nonfiction books and articles. Your point about novels and money is exactly true. But more importantly (to the beginner writer) you have control! When you write a novel there are so much in terms of self publishing...however when you write a screenplay there is no guarantee it will ever get produced. It falls out of your control. Great article!