Screenwriters and Novelists – what’s the difference?

I’m definitely one of those authors who would love to see my books on screen.

popcornI even write for cinematic locations and shots because I have a visual mind, but I do know that writing a screenplay is a totally different experience than writing a novel.  Today, screenwriter turned novelist D.A. Serra talks about the differences in the way novels and screenplays are constructed. 

I have been known to say that reading a script happens with the eyes, and reading a book happens with the ears.

What I mean by this is, when someone is reading a screenplay, they must visualize as they read, actually view the work in their mind’s eye, in real time, if they want to experience the author’s intent.

When reading a novel, and almost everything else, most of us hear the words in our heads.  Aren’t you hearing mine right now? There are so many differences in the way one writes for these two dissimilar mediums.  Each has pros and cons, each has value, and there are some important elements that they share, and much to learn from each other.

All writers, regardless of medium, are storytellers: people with something to say and the talent to get it down on paper.

While they may be telling their story for vastly different reasons, and diverse audiences, still, there will be a story.  It will have a plot progression, character development, location, conflict or quest, and follow a journey of some kind.  This is the same for storytelling throughout the ages, from the oral tradition, on down to cyberspace — writers tell tales, evoke emotion, and communicate in a way that examines our world and investigates us as individuals.

For screenwriters, attention to dialogue is considerably more critical to success than it is for narrative writing.

While accepting that location and setting carry some of the story’s information, and can most surely be a fundamental element in creating tone, the vast majority of the writer’s story, in film and television, is communicated in dialogue.

There are no long sequences where a writer is afforded the luxury of wandering around inside a character’s head while they consider choices, or feelings, or review a memory. With the rare exception, a story must be relayed through conversation – the whole story.

Significant challenge lies in relaying that information, especially past information, in dialogue, without it sounding like little paragraphs of exposition.  Everyone watching a film or television show recognizes when this happens, and collectively roll their eyes.  It is most obviously noticed when one character spends time telling another character something that character would already know: “By the way, Mom, I was born in Teaneck, and spent the first seventeen years there.”  Yeah…Mom knows this.

When I teach screenwriting, this is a moment where I usually recommend tension to keep the audience engaged while transferring the information:

“Mom, this crap has been going on since I was seventeen years old.”

“You’re not seriously still angry about Teaneck?”

“Who wouldn’t be angry about being born in Teaneck?”

So, while the novelist can ramble on in lovely prose about life in Teaneck the screenwriter has little time, and many constraints, and must hit-n-run with emotion and information.

For both screen and novels, dialogue must be authentic: consistent with the vocabulary, phrasing, ethnicity, education level, and immediate situation, of the character.  Complicated and beguiling characters are pivotal for all story telling, regardless of medium.

What screenwriters miss is the satisfaction of exquisite sentences with lyrical language and the time to luxuriate in inspired languorous passages (too much alliteration — also unnecessary for the screen).  In a script, there is no call for, or appreciation of, a metaphor that makes the reader gasp, or recall a memory, or that puts a fist in one’s throat.

Screenwriters envy novelists their freedom: the loose or non-existent restrictions as to form, structure, and length.

Novelists envy the screenwriter’s fulfillment as their creations actually walk and talk.  Screenwriters write in a box with rigid sides.  In some ways, more like writing poetry, in that a sonnet or sestina has its own unyielding box.  (Poets everywhere just gasped and felt insulted – don’t do that – writers are writers, how about we ditch the intellectual hierarchy, celebrate our similarities, and pull each other up? Great writers work in all forms.)

I’ve spoken to some novelists at writers’ conferences who envy the screenwriter’s reach – a great television show or successful film may grab an entire nation at the same moment in time. It can drive the national conversation. It can change social memes.  It is a powerful phenomenon and considerably rare in the book world.  I’ve also been told that some novelists are jealous of the collaborative camaraderie with other creative people (directors, actors, set design) which can be a true joy, and some even long for the economic benefits of screenwriting, which can be much more favorable to dental appointments and new shoes.

Are some films and some television shows garbage writing?  Yes.  Are some novels garbage writing?  Yes. But both can be great.  Be great.

Have you tried screenwriting? Do you have any tips or experiences to share? Please do leave a comment below.

About the Author

deborah serraD.A. Serra was a screenwriter for twenty years and recognized by the Writer’s Guild for her long term continuous employment. She has written ten TV movies, four feature films, and numerous TV episodes including two years as a staff writer for NBC.  She worked for top producers, directors, and actors.  She has taught writing at the University of California, San Diego, Wofford College and at writers’ conferences nationwide.  Serra has now turned her attention to novels, and she was honored as a recent recipient of the prestigious Hawthornden Literary Fellowship, and as a semi-finalist for the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Award given by the Faulkner Society in New Orleans, LA.

Just Released:  PRIMAL by D.A. Serra

What if the worst happens and you are not a policeman, or a spy with weapons training and an iron heart?  In this gritty crime thriller a family vacation takes a vicious turn when a fishing camp is invaded by four armed men.  With nothing except her brains, her will, and the element of surprise on her side, Alison must kill or watch her family

Available from Amazon and on Kindle, Nook, iPad w/Kindle App

Photo: Flickr CC Popcorn by JaneAnDD

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  1. Najela says

    This is great to read. I find myself wavering between writing graphic novels (which is a whole different beast from screenwriting, but with the same principals) and writing prose novels. My brain tends to think visually, so for me writing a graphic novel just makes more sense for the way my brain works. I still think it would be in my best interests to write a prose novel too, just so I can diversify my skills. Thanks for this post and showing the differences and similarities of both.

    • says

      Hi, Najela,
      Yes, I agree it is important to diversify. It is complicated to make a living as a writer and the more tools in your box the better. I’ve been called a Stem Cell writer by my friends because I have written on assignment in every genre and category: drama, comedy, children, true story, horror, adaptation, romantic comedy so by all means diversify — good for the brain — good for the pocketbook.

  2. says

    I’ve written three screenplays before turning to novels. It’s totally a different world, though in both case I tend to write by images, but it’s true that writing a novel gives you more freedom. Moreover getting a screenplay to be actually used in a film is quite difficult, so chances are that what you’ve written never reaches the public. On the other hand the fixed structure of a screenplay makes things a bit easier while creating. You already have a guide, you must follow it. It can take much more time then writing a novel, actually, but you feel less “alone”, while doing it.

    • says

      Hi, Carla,
      It is true for me that sometimes the fixed structure of a screenplay makes things a bit “easier” and other times it’s like trying to keep sand in a sieve. So much depends on the requirements of the actual story, don’t you think? I did a TV movie for CBS called Man With Three Wives, that had basically three different plotlines running simultaneously and I almost lost my mind trying to get all of that story into two hours!

    • says

      Hi, Ilana,
      Thank you for joining in. Screenwriting does involved a lot more meetings and discussions than novel writing ever does – as you might imagine there are pros and cons to that. It does definitely make the writers’ day less lonely.

  3. says

    I’m in the interesting position of having written both novels and screenplays. Novels came first, and one of them was even optioned for film and got to the point where a screenplay was written (not by me — they went with a professional). I later wrote my own adaptation of that book, and it got a fair amount of buzz/industry accolades, but no option. (Quite typical; even celebrity projects frequently languish in what’s known as “development hell.”)

    Even though those projects never panned out, I found the act of writing screenplays enormously helpful from a craft perspective. I write very introspective literary fiction, and being forced to limit myself to visual information and action (no character thoughts) was enormously useful in terms of plotting, and imbued my later fiction writing with a lot of energy. Some of the screenwriting how-to books are helpful in this respect too; I actually had a professor in my MFA program assign a group of us (all novelists) Syd Field’s STORY as part of our semester. It’s a great book for learning three-act structure.

    • says

      Yes, Jenn, true, there are a number of good screenwriting books that will help with structure, physical format, and pitfalls. It is true that those elements need to be perfect to be taken seriously in the screen world. I have read scripts for a small film finance company and I understand the desire to get through the pile. Everyone is looking for a reason to say “no”. That is the way of the business so the more a writer understands what is conventional, and then can write something fresh within those parameters, the better.

      I do believe writing screenplays is very helpful for crafting concise, character specific, dialogue and every novelist could benefit from writing one or two.

  4. says

    Interesting stuff….for me the biggest ‘difference’ between screenwriting and novelists is the focus on story structure. It’s no coincidence that the foremost books on story structure are written from a screenwriting perspective….I’m thinking about Story (Robert McKee), The Writer’s Journey (Chris Vogler), Anatomy of A Story (John Truby), Save the Cat (Blake Synder) and to a lesser extent Screenplay (Sid Field), Stealing Fire From the Gods (James Bonnet) and the ‘Dramatica’ theory of story.

    Equally instructive is the fact that the top two ‘fiction writing’ books on story structure (Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell and Story Engineering by Larry Brooks) are both based on developing and adapting the three act structure that Syd Field popularized in Screenplay.

    That to the me is the biggest difference between screenwriters and fiction writers – screenwriters (as a generalization) have a much better grasp of story structure and are much more likely to be planners/outliners.

    I don’t have the exact quotes to hand – but I remember William Goldman being asked about the screenwriting process and saying something along the lines of: “Finding the structure to hang the story on is the most important part of the process.”

    Contast that with Stephen King, who says in “On Writing” that he starts out with an idea or a character or a situation and writes to discover what’s going to happen.

    Worlds apart. I’ve read a ton of author and screenwriter interviews – I’ve never heard a screenwriter say they wrote a screenplay in a manner that fiction writers would call seat of the pants. And I’ve not heard many fiction writers talking about outlining and structure for their stories in the way that’s commonplace in screenwriting.

    There’s a ton that fiction writers can learn from screenwriters. (The other big lesson is that built into the screenwriting model is the fact that if you make a sale giving up your copyright is a given…and you can sell your script and be fired on Day 1. Man, that must blow.)

  5. says

    Hi, J.J., yes, my blood pressure just shot up. The absolute worst moment in screenwriting is that moment they send you that really cute one-page statement a writer must sign saying they are NOT the author of the work, thereby giving up copyright to the studio, network, or producer. It always sent me stomping around the office. It is upsetting to the very core and the core emotional reason why, after twenty years, I stepped away: to control and own my work.

    • says

      Ha ha – I love reading William Goldman’s stuff and I remember him talking about ‘getting notes’ from a dentist on the Marathon Man script. Man, that guy is funny to read, but also very educational.

      I don’t blame you on stepping away….i’d hate to see my story changed because some hot shot actor came in and wanted a car chase to prove how cool he was.

  6. says

    This is a lovely article. My boyfriend is writing his first script for a movie and I’m writing my first book. So I guess we very much compliment each other, ha!

  7. says

    Great post and agree on the dialogue as a driver in scripts. I wrote my 1st script when I was 17.Still have it and my brother still quotes from it :) I love screenwriting,now the next step is getting them out there again. Thanks for sharing.

    • says

      Hi, Amber,
      If it has been a while since you read your screenplay make sure you read through it slowly, before you send it out: sometimes even a couple of years can leave a reference, or a piece of dialogue, or a song choice, that has become inappropriate. Then, try some of the first script contests. I think Final Draft (the software formatting king) has one, and screenplay magazine too.
      Good luck.

  8. Beverley Burrows says

    I feel so confused :o(

    I have been working on writing novels for the last couple of years, and thought that my method of creating the story in my head (each scene plays out in my head like a movie) was just a lucky way of seeing what I want my readers to experience, should I ever be fortunate enough to get published.

    I have been wondering about the mechanics of screenplays for some time now, and was ignorant enough to assume that tv/movies were all born firstly as “books” – either short stories, novels, or written serials.

    My curiosity came from the amount of dialogue my writing contains. The pages of my manuscript always seem to look messy because of the sheer volume of conversation my characters are involved in. I use Scrivener, and there is an option for writing screenplays when setting up a new project, but I am worried about attempting one. I think it is because I have had my heart set on writing novels (Crime/Horror) thinking that if they were ever published, and one was picked up as good enough to be made into a film, it would be a bonus.

    I have looked online for information regarding the two types of writing, and have seen an abundance of courses available on the subjects of writing both novels and screenplays, but I don’t know which ones to trust? I’m convinced that all of the information needed to develop both styles of writing must be available either in book form or via the numerous websites that cover both subjects.

    I really need to make my writing work as I am practically housebound due to an illness which may progressively worsen in time, but as long as I can use at least one finger to type, or can dictate my work, I’ll still manage.

    I would be so grateful for any guidance you could give to me.

    • says

      Hello, Beverley,

      Don’t fret. It’s easier than you think. Novels are an auditory delivery method of story: you hear the words in your head while you’re reading, right? Screenplays are visual and are meant to have the story watched. The vast majority 90% of a story in a screenplay is said out loud – in dialogue — which it sounds like you’re good at and inclined to do. Go with your inclination.
      Everyone in Hollywood uses a formatting software called Final Draft. You can buy it online and it will guide you. It’s not expensive and relatively easy to learn. If you’ve learned Scrivener you and can learn Final Draft. Proper formatting is much more important in screenplays since timing is critical: if you’re writing an hour episodic it had better be an hour long. We figure a minute a page; consequently, most feature film screenplays run between 105 – 120 pages, about two hours, see? (Of course, there are always exceptions, but never try to be the exception in the beginning. It’s better to show you know the professional standards.) So how the dialogue and action lines lay-out on the page is really important, since it speaks to the correct timing for the show. And there is absolutely a right way to do it.
      Online there are plenty of places to view professional past scripts – pick any one of them, take a look at a couple, and you will see the correct format on the page. Then, use Final Draft to start your own script. It is best and quicker to learn by looking at a few published screenplays than to read any of the overly dense books on the market.
      I hope this is helpful. Good luck. You will do great.
      Deborah Serra


  1. […] What’s The Difference Between Screenwriters and Novelists? This is a guest post over at Joanna Penn’s fabulous ‘The Creative Penn’ website.  And it talks about ‘differences’ between screenwriters and novelists.  This is something that I have a particular interest in due to the writing process I’m experimenting with in the first of my upcoming series The Kingston Chronicles.  Stay tuned for more thoughts on what fiction writers can take from screenwriters. […]

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