Image: Matthew Loffhagen
It doesn’t take a genius to see the differences between a novel and a screenplay. They look different on the page, what with the screenplay’s centered text, block-capital names, and bracketed direction. Not only that, but screenplays tend to be far thinner on the page count, too. You can roll one up pretty easily and use it to play ‘fetch’ with your dog. Try that with War and Peace and you’ll end up with a sore arm and a flat pooch.
Aside from the superficial differences, it can be tricky to nail exactly what makes these two forms of writing all that different, and that trickiness can lead to an unhealthy blurring between two distinct art forms. It’s not that drawing inspiration from your favorite films and TV shows is a bad thing, but you need to be wary of the warning signs that you’re taking too many cues from a visual medium. Cues that could have a detrimental effect on the quality of your novel.
So, what are these cues, and why should you worry if you find them in your book?
1. You have too many ‘dialogue-heavy’ scenes
Writing a novel with little or no dialogue would be a significant challenge, but it’s far more easily achievable than trying to do the same in a screenplay. Even in the era of silent movies, dialogue intertitles were used to fill in the blanks for audience members and sustain their interest.
Movies were nicknamed the ‘talkies’ for a reason. Once recording sound and picture together was made possible, dialogue quickly began to carry the same weight as action did. This is because, unlike novelists, screenwriters don’t have an easy way to express a character’s inner thoughts and feelings, so everything must be physically or verbally manifested, instead. This can all-too-easily lead to the pervasive screenplay problem of characters delivering clunky exposition to one another.Novelists have tricks that don’t work on the screen – be sure to embrace them.Click To Tweet
As a novelist, you have far more tools at your disposal to side-step this issue. That is, of course, if you choose to use them. Film critics’ skewering of the cinematic adaptations of Dan Brown’s novels, in which characters run around picturesque European cities shouting the plot at each other, are unfortunately completely faithful to the source material. As well as running the risk of insulting your reader’s intelligence, too much dialogue in a novel can also just be plain boring for them to slog through.
It’s not that dialogue isn’t important to a novel. In fact, when it’s done well, it can be the thing that ignites a story and brings a character to life. It’s just that, while it’s crucial for the plot progression of a screenplay, it’s but one of many options for prose writers. One of those options is inner-monologue, and speaking of which…
2. You’re not using enough inner-monologue
This problem usually comes as a direct result of a novel being over-saturated by dialogue. Inner-monologue (otherwise known as inner voice or stream of consciousness) is important to use because people in real life don’t normally voice how they really feel or what they really think. As I said earlier, visual mediums – even the most realistic – have to make certain concessions on this front in order for the audience to get to know a character or move the story along. If you become too influenced by this, you’re being influenced by an inherent weakness of screenwriting rather than making full use of an inherent strength of prose.
Successful-screenwriter-turned-successful-novelist Doug Richardson mused on this big difference when reflecting on his own career transition in 2012.
There are practical differences between writing books and screenplays. For one, screenplays are full of rules. Such as your script should be limited to around 115 pages of action and dialogue only. … Writing a novel though, allowed me space to let the words and thoughts breathe. … Unless your character is John McClane crawling through an air-conditioning duct, don’t have your character talk to himself or herself, unless it’s as the story’s narrator. Movie stars would rather eat glue.
But as a novelist, I get to play armchair shrink. I describe the voice between the characters’ ears, rifle through their emotions, perform psychoanalysis, and even prescribe my make-believe remedies.
– Doug Richardson, The Big Difference: From Screenwriter to Novelist
If you’re concerned about this, go through your manuscript and see how many lines of dialogue can be easily replaced by lines of inner-monologue instead, and whether those changes make those scenes more interesting.
3. You’re not setting the scene enough
Scene-setting and mood-building isn’t the screenwriter’s job. They can rely on production designers, set builders, cinematographers, and directors to take care of all that. Novelists? Not so lucky. Unless you’ve farmed out every aspect of your novel’s writing to a team of ghostwriters, you’re going to have to do all the heavy lifting in terms of crafting the world around your characters.Visual media shows off settings and characters by default – prose has to work a bit harder.Click To Tweet
You don’t always have to dive into Dickensian levels of micro-detail, you just have to do enough to make sure your reader knows where they are, what the atmosphere is like, and how they – and your characters – feel about being in this particular place.
4. You’re rushing through your story
There’s a big difference between a story that’s action-packed and fast-paced and one that seems like it’s in a hurry to be somewhere else. Again, Doug Richardson sheds some light on this problem.
As I set aside film and television projects to squeeze back into my novelist’s headspace, I find myself stumbling over the same obstacle that’s faced me with every transition into book mode. And that’s getting over my own screenwriter’s DNA. It’s burned into me that good screenwriting demands efficiency. A blast of images. A smattering of clever dialogue. Grab the reader by the lapels and move it, move it, move it. Not bad advice for any writer. But when it comes to writing novels, too much top spin doesn’t necessarily make for compelling craft. After I’ve finished the first draft of a novel and begin my revisions, my initial annoyance is how spare the first fifty pages are, lacking in everything but – no surprise here – action and dialogue.
– Doug Richardson, The Big Difference: From Screenwriter to Novelist
An average screenplay is usually only 110-120 pages long, with scant license to push higher. Why? Budgets. Every minute of film made is money coming out of a studio’s pocket. As a novelist free from these financial burdens, you have much more flexibility and space to work with, so make sure you’re making full use of it.Writers have an infinite budget. Take advantage of your medium.Click To Tweet
5. Your novel fits too tightly into one genre
As well as the many restrictions I’ve already mentioned, the film and TV industry is more likely to finance a screenplay that fits into one particular genre – and it’s a rigid fit, at that. Normally, there’s only enough leeway for one extra genre element in a commercially viable screenplay, which is how sub-genres like rom-coms and dramedies are established. Being too ‘in genre’ isn’t an inherently bad thing, but it runs the risk of stale predictability.
As a novelist, you have the creative freedom to cross into multiple genres and sub-genres, or even ignore genre completely. So why not take advantage of that? It’s highly unlikely that films as genre-warpingly unique as A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Pride and Prejudice and Zombies could have existed had they not first been tried, tested, and welcomed as novels.
6. You’re not reading enough books
As painfully obvious as this advice may seem, it’s worth mentioning. Obviously, the best way to learn how to do something is by finding out how others do it. If you’re consuming films and TV shows at the expense of the written word then you’re bound to be unconsciously more influenced by the former than the latter.
I think most non-fiction writers write for the movies. Their books are treatments. Don’t tell me The Social Network was a book.
Fellow panel-member Andre Dubus III (author of House of Sand and Fog) concurred with him, in part.
I think that too many young writers today are being inspired to write stories because they have watched a lot of films, they have not read a lot of books.
7. You’re writing stage directions, not story
In How To Improve Your Writing By Cutting Eight Words, we talked about the plague that is ‘forward’/’backward’. These words crop up when an author wants to give exacting physical directions to their characters – “he punched forward” – but they’re not the only example of inappropriate stage direction. With visual media, you’re trying to dazzle the viewer with absorbing action that’s shot, lit, and acted just right. With prose, your reader handles all this, and your efforts to communicate the exact visual they should be picturing only takes away from their own ideal direction.The reader is your director. Let them do their job. Click To Tweet
Is your book dotted with description of exactly how something happened, or moments that would look great, but read as overwrought? This is the pull of visual media, and you should beware it at all costs (especially in fight scenes).
Same species, different animal
There are a lot of fantastically written films and TV shows out there that will spark your imagination, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But while screenwriters and novelists share a common ancestor, the gap between them is bigger than you’d think. They obviously both draw from the same skill pool, but the ways they draw from and use what’s in that pool are very different.
Follow the way of the screenplay and you’ll end up with an okay book that has some glaring problems. Utilize the unique opportunities inherent to prose writing, however, and you’ll be in a position to write something that delves deeper and sustains longer than any visual media that cares to compete against it.
Want to defend cinematic writing, or point out other aspects of screenplay craft that influence prose writers for the worse? Get in touch via the comments. Or, for more ways to improve your prose writing, check out How To Improve Your Writing By Cutting Eight Words and Four Secrets That Will Turn You Into An Objective Editor.