OLD POST ALERT! This is an older post and although you might find some useful tips, any technical or publishing information is likely to be out of date. Please click on Start Here on the menu bar above to find links to my most useful articles, videos and podcast. Thanks and happy writing! – Joanna Penn
I'm definitely one of those authors who would love to see my books on screen.
I 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
D.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