Over the last few years, I've been going to screenwriting seminars and even wrote a couple of draft screenplays myself. It's been amazingly useful because it helps you focus on engaging the viewer.
I absolutely believe that studying screenwriting can help with writing novels, and in today's article, B. O'Malley from Screenplay Readers explains why.
It might be a too-obvious point to make, but writing a novel and writing a screenplay are two very different endeavors. One is 50,000+ words of prose, and the other is a 100-page blueprint for a motion picture.
One is the established common “currency” of fiction — a portable stack of bound paper containing a rich assortment of thoughts all arranged in the form of a narrative and 100% intended for public consumption.
The other is a proprietary document, fastened often by just two brass brads, and handed out privately to the approximately 200 people working on a particular feature film, with the sole purpose of communicating to each department on that film (actors, special effects, production design) what exactly they need to create, or bring to the table, in order to make that film a reality.
With such a disparity between the two media, novel and screenplay, it might seem odd to a novelist to suggest that writing a screenplay can actually help improve her writing in general, and her novel specifically, but allow me to share a few key points as to how I feel screenwriting does exactly that, and then some.
Learning Screenwriting Forces You to Write Economically
One axiom every first-year screenwriting student learns, and every production executive adheres to in general, is that every page of a script, loosely speaking, equates to one minute of screen time. Most feature films are between 90 and 120 minutes, which means that most scripts need to be between 90 and 120 pages.
But In a novel, the author has virtually unlimited page space and word count to render her story. For example:
Jennifer ran through the hissing hospital doors, her face frozen with worry. Was this the call she’d feared all her life? Was her father’s disease finally taking him away? Mid-terms, rent, her job at the steak house — all of it melted away. All she could see now was her father leaving her.
She spotted him by the drinking fountain. He was lost in his tears. Red-faced. Hopeless. The IV tree next to him shook with every heaving sob. Jennifer forced herself to stop running. She walked across the long waiting room, each step lifting an anvil with her ankle, each breath painful and stilted. This was it. This was the end of her father’s life.
She looked down at him. He noticed her. He forced a smile.
“Dad. It’s okay. We’ve prepared for this,” she said. She summoned up what little faux bravery she was capable of and touched his shoulder. “You’re strong.”
In a screenplay, a writer is far more limited. And even more limited by the screenplay’s visually-oriented format, which eats up a lot of line space on centering character names and dialogue and things like that. Here’s the same scene, rendered in screenplay format, compressed down to the absolute essentials:
INT. HOSPITAL — DAY
JENNIFER (25) – a college student in jogging pants no makeup — runs in. She finds LARRY (40) — distinguished and wild-eyed — crying into his hands.
Dad. It’s okay. We’ve prepared for this. You’re strong.
Larry looks up at her, sobbing.
Note that while the line spacing may seem similar, the word count is approximately 45 words, as opposed to the prose version clocking in at ~150 words.
The limited page count enforces brevity. As a result, the writer is forced to pack more description and emotion into fewer words.
A helpful analogy might be gunpowder vs. firecracker. Think of a novel is a pile of gunpowder. When lit, it burns, it flashes, it’s hot, and it’s wonderful.
But a screenplay is all that gunpowder packed into a much tighter space. So when it pops, it burns, flashes, and it’s hot and wonderful, but it all takes place in such a short span of time that it also makes an explosion.
A novel can be read over a week. A film is typically consumed in less than 2 hours. Condensing the words, the emotions — all of it — is essential for a screenplay to be an effective blueprint for a film.
Screenwriting Limits You to Sound and Picture
As such, screenplays only write within those two senses — what we can see and what we can hear.
The result is a wildly different reading experience, to be sure. Without the interior monologue of a character, or the thoughts of the omniscient third-person, the screenplay finds itself much less equipped than a novel to transmit thoughts into the reader’s mind via words on the page.
But adopting that sort of discipline can be quite effective in keeping your prose — your novel’s chapters — more kinetic and more readily visualized.
Philip Roth (The Human Stain, American Pastoral) is known for his dense, “interior” prose. He typically takes the audience to places we don’t necessarily have to have described to us in order for us to see. He’s the exception. Most novelists over-describe their scenes, telling us not only what we see and hear, but often what we smell, taste — it’s too much.
By writing a screenplay and learning how to force your writing into the visual or sonic only, a writer gets into the habit of forcing herself to distinguish between what’s essential to write about and describe, and what might just be taking up space on her page.
Limit Your Budget, Quite Possibly Boost Your Creativity
“The enemy of art is the absence of limitations.” — Orson Welles
When one thinks “Hollywood motion picture,” one probably doesn’t think “low budget.” Thor, Wonder Woman, Avengers, Star Wars — the typical Hollywood picture they’re producing these days doesn’t appear to be an exercise in budgetary restraint.
But, believe it or not, even the typical big, bloated Hollywood picture has an absolute ceiling when it comes to budget.
A novel, on the other hand, has no such constraint. Go ahead. Write your characters on Earth, then pop them over to an alternate reality, then plop them down into Victorian England, then have them meet God at the center of the galaxy. Ink on a page is cheap.
But on a film, every scene you write — every beat, every line of dialogue — needs to be shootable. And if it’s shootable, it’s going to require money to shoot.
Writing a screenplay, no matter how fantastic, or how many crazy locations or green screen trickery it demands, keeps the writer in a frame of mind where she knows that everything she writes must be shootable, and, as such, comes with an expense somewhere down the line.
Those limitations have the potential to inspire new solutions, which, in turn, could inspire a whole new creative approach for your novel, or maybe just get you out of a rut you may be in with a particular chapter or story beat.
At the very least, after writing your novel without limitation, and being so accustomed to the ability to put anything you want on the page, the act of writing with limitation for a chapter pass or two might just give you a much-needed respite, and allow you to re-energize before you pick up the “unlimited” pen once again.
Curiously, though I’m a huge proponent of every novelist learning the craft of screenwriting for the benefits I’ve enumerated above, I find that moving in the opposite direction — honing your screenwriting skills by learning the craft of the novelist — is often a much tougher row to hoe.
I say this because I’ve run the script coverage company Screenplay Readers since 1999, and my team and I have read over 13,000 scripts. In that time, and across that huge number of screenplays, it’s been impossible to not see patterns and to not get a feel for what are the most common poor approaches to the craft that new screenwriters make.
At the top of that list? Writing a screenplay with too much prose.
That is, treating the screenplay as if it were a novel, jam-packed with intimate detail, descriptions of the characters’ thoughts (things we can’t see or hear in a film without some sort of “device”), and an abundance of non-linearity (which can work great for a novel, but requires a lot of heavy lifting for a screenplay.)
I say this so that you’re aware of these extremely common pitfalls that novelists make when approaching the screenwriting craft for the first time.
Coming from the prose world, it may take you a few passes to pare a scene down to its bare essentials, while maintaining its emotional impact and its literary color, but keep at it. Screenwriting, just like writing a novel, takes practice.
One other note: when jumping into the screenwriting world, don’t get hung up on the what a script is supposed to look like (other than the general content-not-form limitations I’ve mentioned previously). There are a dozen different formats and they’re all pretty much acceptable, and you’ll get a feel for that all later. Look at a few scripts to see what they look like, then get screenwriting software, free or otherwise, and the just get to writing.
And if you end up liking screenwriting, great! If you don’t, that’s great too. Either way, extract what you can from the skillset — brevity, budget, page space, emotional impact — and see if you can apply them to your novel, or your writing in general. I’m betting that what helped me as a writer will help you as well.
Have you considered adapting one of your novels into a screenplay? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
B. O'Malley started his film career in 1994, reading and covering scripts for the literary agency Media Artists Group. He's written and directed several features, including the Fangoria favorite, Bleak Future, as well as Audie & The Wolf, and Minimum Wage.
In 1997, he went to work as a script reader and script coordinator for legendary B-movie maverick Roger Corman (Little Shop of Horrors, Death Race 2000, Rock and Roll High School), then in 1999 assembled a team of top-notch script readers and filmmakers to launch the script coverage service SCREENPLAY READERS.
[Piano image courtesy James Zwadio and Unsplash]