Novels vs Screenplays

FlyingLettersI recently added my two-cents to a discussion about screenwriting and was compelled to talk about it a bit more.  This particular writer had posed a question about why screenplays had to be a certain length because he felt that his story lost something and might be confusing if everything he wanted was not included.  If you’ve written longer prose the switch to screenwriting can be a difficult transition.  Screenwriting is not like novel writing.  A novel can sometimes be upwards of a thousand pages, where a screenplay, especially for new writers in the field, should never exceed 120 (1 page roughly equals 1 minute of screen time).  Yes, there are exceptions to this rule — Gandhi, Malcolm X, Braveheart, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, to name a few — but they’re all historical, epic, so I can imagine if you have one of those in your arsenal, the page count rule will not apply.  But good luck selling that right out of the gate.*  Historical usually equals costly, and a “first time” writer will be hard pressed to sell something like that without a track record.  Now, again, there are always exceptions, so if you have an amazing story, go for it!  If it’s that good, someone will take notice.  *A disclaimer: I am not an expert.  I am a writer new to the world of Hollywood.  I have just started to make my rounds in the industry, have read a lot, and am partially regurgitating what I’ve learned so far.  Please take my ramblings as just that, ramblings.  I am only trying to impart the lessons of those who have come before.  I feel it’s important to know the terrain before heading out into it.

A screenplay is a blueprint for the film.  There are two mottos by which a screenwriter lives (there are more, I’m sure, but these are the big ones) — show don’t tell & write only what can be seen.   Not all the details need to be included.  If the screenplay is based on a novel many details can be excluded simply because there is source material to refer to.  Novels can spend entire chapters setting up characters, locations, and the premise, where a screenplay is supposed to have all that within the first 10 pages.  Novels can delve into a character’s inner dialogue, but in screenplays, unless it can be shown, you can’t do it.  And from the things I’ve read, most industry professionals don’t care for voice overs which could be considered a quick fix for faulty storytelling.*  *Again, refer to the above disclaimer.

I understand this particular writer’s frustration, but where I find screenwriting liberating, as it is formulaic and has rules (which of course are meant to be broken), to others it might be too restrictive.  For writers interested in exploring screenwriting, I would encourage you to find a screenplay of a movie you like and compare the two.  Even better if it was based on a novel as you can see how different all three can be.  Here is a site that lists where to find mostly free downloadable screenplays.

To be continued…I have a few more “pearls of wisdom” to impart.  Oh, yea.

Wishing you the best of luck in your writing endeavors!


2 thoughts on “Novels vs Screenplays

  1. Pingback: Screenplay vs Novel Writing: Why Not Both? | A. R. Urena

  2. Pingback: Is writing a novel a learned skill? | The End of Time

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