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. Read the rest of this entry »