Novels vs Screenplays Pt. 2

FlyingLettersSo continuing on…I recently added my own insight into a discussion regarding the nature of screenplays.  A writer was finding it difficult to follow the screenplay formula and not leave the reader confused.  Screenplays involve a lot of blank page, little description, and subtext to limit dialogue…a whole, action packed story, all in under 120 pages.  As I stated in the previous post, 1 page of screenplay roughly equals 1 minute of screen time.  So, those romantic comedies that are always around the 1 1/2 hr mark are about 90 pages.  Again, there are exceptions to the rules.  That’s why the phrase “rules are meant to be broken” is so well loved among screenwriters.  But, you have to learn them first.

When I started writing, I tried writing longer stories.  What I found inhibiting was the attention to details.  Where does the story fall among all those descriptions and idle moments.  When I was introduced to screenwriting, that it was it for me.  Don’t misunderstand, I love to read.  Getting lost in a book is a great way to spend time.  But, as a writer, I find I’m more effective in screenwriting.  Since I began screenwriting, I tried my hand at transferring one of my ideas to novel form, and it took great pains to switch the brain to that mode.  But here’s something I learned along the way.  Because I had to expand the story, I learned more about my characters, their thoughts, their feelings, and the plot became more involved which in turn caused me to rewrite the screenplay.  The two worked better together, in this case.  (This may need to be another topic of discussion.)

So here are a few things to keep in mind if you’re writing a screenplay:

1) Description should be bare minimum.  Only those things that add to the character should be mentioned.  The director and casting agents will decide on who gets cast in your roles, so don’t over-describe what they look like.  Same goes for clothing.  A few references to add to the character are useful, but can be eluded to easily without spending a lot of time on it.  If your character works in the fashion industry, most readers will have some understanding of what type of looks are involved in that world.  And you only have to mention it once when you first introduce your character.  I have an “angsty” teenager in one of my scripts and I just mentioned that she wore all black.  That’s it.  Our imaginations can conjure up an image without going into great detail.  Sometimes locations will be altered, for multiple reasons, so don’t waste time with a lot of description here either.  But let’s say your character randomly quotes movie lines, then perhaps you can write that they have old movie posters around their apartment.  But don’t tell us what color the walls are.  If your characters go to a country house in England, again, we can pretty much imagine that.

On the flip side, if your story takes place in an “alien” world (and by alien, I mean anything out of the ordinary.  It could be a secret military base, or a parallel world), then yes, you may need to describe things a little more in detail, but try not to go over the top, because Hollywood readers (from what I’ve heard) will sometimes just skim over long blocks of description because it takes away from the flow.

2) The same is true of dialogue.  Screenplay dialogue does not always mimic real life conversations.  You can leave out traditional conversation fillers like “hello”, “how are you”, “have a good day”, etc., again, unless it’s adding to the subtext.  Maybe we’re meeting the villain for the first time and he’s unusually cordial and it makes everyone uneasy.  Or a couple has just had a fight, so their conversation is a little stilted as they try to get past the tension.  There’s a phrase to remember in writing, “Enter (the scene) late, Leave (the scene) early”.  Think about it as if you were attending a party.  You get there an hour after it’s started.  You don’t know what happened before you arrived, so some of the conversations you overhear are just strange.  When you leave, the same thing can be said.  The last line of dialogue you hear uttered may leave you questioning what just happened.  Not everything needs an explanation.  Maybe it’s foreshadowing.  Maybe we just learned how other people view our character.

3) Try to conserve words.  If you can use one word instead of two and achieve the same intent, do it.  120 pages isn’t a lot.

4) Lastly, over describing action is unnecessary as well.  I remember reading once that in the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, there was an elaborate fight sequence that was written only as “They fight”.  As writers we see the entire sequence in our heads, but leaving out some of the details does not necessarily mean it will weaken your story.  Obviously, you can write a little more than that, such as, “a fight that ensued through every room” or “an intense fight that seemed to last hours”.  A film involves so many more people, all with specific skills, and it is this knowledge that allows you to just tell the story.

This was a long one…goodness.  I hope it was helpful!  If you have any questions, feel free to send me a message.

Best of luck and have a good weekend!


2 thoughts on “Novels vs Screenplays Pt. 2

  1. You should leave Hello, How are you, Have a good day out of most dialogue in novels, too.
    Billy Wilder says about writing with Raymond Chandler, that Chandler had some good writing points and additions to the script, but that he did not take the medium seriously. [The Paris Review Interviews, vol. 1, 2006.]
    It is a medium which should convey only action on the screen, or if props or details are used in the movie they are put in as close to the action as possible.


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