The Novelist and the Screenplay

screenplay It would be interesting to know how many novelists have tried their hand at writing a screenplay. Whether adapting a book or starting from scratch, a screenplay is a good way to strengthen writing. But wait, you say, novels are about words. Screenplays are about pictures. Actually, both are foremost about stories. They simply approach the story from very different perspectives. Learning the screenplay perspective can make you a better storyteller.

I am a fan of words. I like to knit them into warm phrases, string them together like elegant pearls (knit one, pearl two). The novelist has to write words that create a picture in the reader’s mind. The screenwriter has to transform the idea of specific pictures into words. That exercise, which reverses the process in effect, is a valuable tool for the novelist–especially for the writer who struggles with story and pace.

What is so different about a screenplay? It has action. It has dialog. It follows a story. All true, but where the novel has general guidelines for format, length and structure, the screenplay is a tightly structured, largely inflexible, standardized, length-restricted production tool. All that rigid structure forces the writer to focus on the visual story. Even the dialog has to be handled differently–more attention to how it sounds than how it reads.

Screenplays are an exercise in precision and concision. Each page of a screenplay is estimated to represent one minute of screen time. The target length for a screenplay is around 100 to 110 pages, roughly an hour and forty or fifty minutes. A 350 page novel has to be transformed into a document one-third its length and perhaps one half the number of words. “A travesty!” says the novelist. “A revelation,” say I. Remember, we are not replacing the book, we are re-imagining the story, thinking in sounds and pictures, leaving parts of the story to the comprehension of the viewer rather than the exposition of the writer.

The point is not at all to begin writing novels like screenplays. That would never do. The point is to have in mind the principles that govern a screenplay as you craft your novel. Writing “screenplay” dialog will improve your novel dialog, make it more realistic. Leaving out unnecessary passages will help pace your novel. Allowing the readers of your novel to draw conclusions rather than spelling everything out for them will draw them into your story. If there is one thing that is paramount to a screenplay, it is the crafting of the story. It’s not about changing the story, it’s about learning how to strengthen it.

If you write, and if you read to improve your writing craft, I would recommend picking up a good book or two on screenwriting. Even if you never actually end up writing a screenplay, what you will learn about story structure, dialog and action will be of great value. You can also find screenplays for well-known movies on the internet. Pick a few you recognize and read them.

The novelist and the screenplay–It is not unlike a chef in a kitchen. He knows all the right ways to prepare food and can create a good meal, but when he leaves the kitchen and takes a stroll through the restaurant, he sees the meal from another perspective. He smells the food in a new environment. He can evaluate the portions, the presentation and how well the courses go together. He can then take that experience back into the kitchen and let it guide his culinary creation. Voila!


 Some books on screenwriting:

Essentials of Screenwriting – Richard Walter

Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434 – Lew Hunter

Aristotle’s Poetics for Screenwriters… – Michael Tierno


4 Comments on “The Novelist and the Screenplay”

  1. Dutch, nice post. I have written both screenplays and novels, and I really like your point about modeling screenplay dialogue to improve your novel. Screenplay dialogue should always move the story forward—that’s why it’s there. When it doesn’t, it usually gets cut. I wish more novelists understood that principle. Elmore Leonard is a great example of someone who gets it.

    • Dutch says:

      Thanks, Steven. I agree with your assessment of Mr. Leonard whose rules for writing include a related admonition to leave out the parts people tend to skip. I appreciate your comments.

  2. […] The Novelist and the Screenplay ( […]

  3. […] G. Vanderpool presents The Novelist and the Screenplay posted at SmudgedButLegible, saying, “I just finished a draft screenplay of my first novel […]

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