War of the Words: Scripts vs. Novels

Antique_typewriter As I began my new screenwriting gig, a memory struck me.

Years ago at a book signing, a fan asked a respected mystery author to compare the challenges of writing a novel to that of writing a screenplay.  At the mention of the word "screenplay" the author’s face went sour. 

For him, there was NO comparison.  While novels were full of complexity and style, a screenplay was merely "an outline."

I shrunk in my seat.

You see, one of my favorite courses in college had been Screenwriting.  From it, I not only leaned proper screenplay formatting, but I also took away a nuts-and-bolts understanding of story structure and an economy of language that still influences my writing today.  Valuable skills in my book. 

Yet here was this author, a man I admired, telling me the craft was second rate.

He wasn’t alone in his sentiments.  Months later, I attended another reading where another famous author was asked essentially the same question.  His answer was almost identical.  Novel writing is real writing.  Screenwriting is outlining.

While I would’ve never said so out loud, that line of thinking strikes me as narrow-minded, perhaps even insecure.

Screenwriting is not a lesser form of literature.  In fact, it presents many challenges the novelist doesn’t face.  As Richard Walter puts it in his book Screenwriting: The Art, Craft, and Business of Film and Television Writing

"The limitations of sight and sound require that a screenwriter never write what a character "thinks," "realizes," "recalls," or "remembers"… This requirement to present such information visually is one reason that the screenplay, contrary to popular misconception, represents a more demanding form of writing than the novel."

More demanding than a novel?  Maybe not.  But the challenges of writing a screenplay–a good screenplay–shouldn’t be understated.

Of course, all this is just one man’s opinion.

What do you think Murderati readers?  (I’m looking at you Alex!) 

Is a screenplay easier to write than a finely crafted novel?  Of course the politically correct answer would be that they’re different art forms with different demands.  But is there anyone out there willing to go on a ledge and side with one over the other?  What makes a screenplay easier to write?  What makes a novel easier?    

14 thoughts on “War of the Words: Scripts vs. Novels

  1. pari

    Gosh, Mike, I haven’t written a screenplay yet, but I’ve sure read several. Since I’m kind of a metaphor junkie — and often write in 1st person — I’d think the different mindset would be an incredible challege.

    But, just like any good literature, you can tell an effective screenplay from one that is drivel.

    I’d encourage anyone who hasn’t . . . to read some. You can find many online.

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  2. billie

    I’ve written 3 screenplays and found it incredibly difficult, although in some ways a compelling challenge.

    For me, screenwriting is like making a detailed almost architectural sketch – quite stunning when it’s done well – and novel writing is like painting a landscape.

    I think the only way I could fully enjoy screenwriting is if I was also the director – so I could take the very important screenplay skeleton and give it muscle and flesh and movement visually.

    Not likely in my case that Hollywood will pay money for my screenplays and then hand over the director reins… 🙂 but clearly a good screenplay is its own art, and I have a number of them I’ve bought and read to learn from.

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  3. Dave White

    I’ve never tried to write a movie script, but I wrote a comic book script once and sent it into DC. It was a difficult switch in perspective, thinking a little more visually, but with less words. It didn’t feel like I was really immersed in the story. It was tough.

    But I’m interested to see what Mr. MacLean comes up with.

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  4. Naomi

    I’m incredibly inexperienced when it comes to writing scripts–having really written only one a few months ago! (And it was only 15 pages/minutes.) But what I appreciated was how you had to fully develop the characters and their motivations underneath the few lines of dialogues and action. And how difficult it is to really interject humor–I’m not talking about witty repartee but true humor in how the script moves. The musicality of the script seems so important. Novel and short story writing have a rhythm to it as well, but the script really needs a sharply defined beat to it.

    You work in isolation on a novel for so long without knowing if it makes any sense at all. But you can workshop a script sooner and get feedback earlier. So I’d say that some aspects of script writing may be a little easier. But to write a good script? That’s another issue altogether.

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  5. Mike MacLean

    Pari,

    I like the limitations of scriptwriting. No, you can’t write in first person, and you have to write in present tense. But sometimes being put in a box sparks creativity.

    Billie,

    “For me, screenwriting is like making a detailed almost architectural sketch – quite stunning when it’s done well – and novel writing is like painting a landscape.”

    I like this a lot.

    Dave,

    Are you a comic book nerd too? Do you mean to tell me all this time we could’ve been talking comics?

    Naomi,

    Thanks for taking the time to drop in. And one more time, congrats on the Edgar. Very, very cool news.

    I think you hit the mark with your comment—you have to develop a character’s motivations solely through dialogue and action. This can be a challenge. But it call also be very freeing. Writing a story, it’s far too easy to spell everything out for your audience.

    Of course, I’m no expert. I wrote a couple scripts in my early twenties that will NEVER see the light of day, and I’ve dabbled with a few short film scripts. I have confidence I can pull off a pretty good piece of work, but who knows?

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  6. Louise Ure

    I wrote a book (The Fault Tree) with a blind protagonist, and told her story from a first person point of view. I couldn’t describe anything except by the sense of touch, or taste, or smell, or hearing. I hope never to write a blind protagonist again.

    Screenwriting feels the same way to me. Very limiting in terms of which storytelling tools you can use. And in my book, that makes it much, much harder than telling a story in a novel.

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  7. Bill Peschel

    Haven’t written one, but I read McKee’s “Story” and loved it, so that shouldn’t stop me from talking like an expert.

    The preparation is the same for both. You have to know your story, have to know your characters, and have to reach your reader (whether editor, publisher, bookbuyer or producer).

    A script seems to be tougher to write in the same way that a sonnet is tougher to write than free verse. Each scene needs to build on the previous scene, and because your audience is “captive” — they can’t walk out and return later to pick up the narrative thread — they have to be engaged nearly all the time. You only have so much time to tell your story, so you don’t have near as much flexibility, and you don’t have certain techniques (interior monologues, for example) that novelists have. You must rely on dialogue to tell your story, leaving the director to come up with the visual and stylistic cues to lend depth.

    As if that wasn’t enough fun, you get to work knowing … knowing that the odds are way against you ever seeing your work on the screen. After all, you can always post your novel online.

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  8. wawan-eko-yulianto

    Michael,In my opinion, writing a script is a bit more difficult. Nowadays, more writers, at least in my country Indonesia, write stories with minimum dialogs. It’s because writing narrative is easier (we are free to write in any way we like) than writing dialogs (in which familiarity with the dialect of people in a certain place, in order to make the dialogs sound smooth and real). And, in accord with the product, script writing needs a special care because the writer has to consider the number of character, place, setting, etc, which in turn deal with the funds during the movie/drama production. As for novel/narrative writing, the writer is as a as a God to create as many characters, places, settings as possible, as long as they are coherent.Btw, this is the first time I visit this blog. It’s a cool blog.Regards,wawan

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  9. toni mcgee causey

    Having done an MFA in Screenwriting and worked in that business for a while before I then swiched to prose… screenwriting is much more confining. I’m not sure which is more difficult, since each form has its challenges, but since you really cannot dip into the interiority of the characters and must rely on exterior actions and description lines (kept to a minimum) to show everything, it’s like juggling 17 balls with one hand tied behind your back. (And then someone is going to ask, ‘why does it have to be balls? Can’t it be flaming toothbrushes? because that’s new! and diferent! and yet… would cash in on the big hit, Toothy Delight, from last year!)

    I am eager to see Rob and Alex’s opinions on this.

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  10. Robert Gregory Browne

    I’ll be frank. In some ways, I find screenwriting a piece of cake compared to novels. But that’s mostly because I tend to think very visually, spent many, many years training myself to write in pictures rather than words — PLUS the damn things are a helluva lot shorter than novels.

    Ask me to write a screenplay and I’ll whip one out in about a third of the time it takes me to write a novel.

    Writings novels, however, is a much more satisfying way to expend my creative energy. Novels are MINE. After the first draft, screenplays belong to someone else.

    If you’re coming from the novel world to the world of screenwriting, you’re bound to be intimidated by the task. There are so many restrictions, things about characterization and dialog and pace that require a specific understanding of the craft that it can be quite daunting to the uninitiated.

    But when it all boils down to it, there are more similarities between screenplays and novels than not. We still have to stretch the same muscles — and that’s often a difficult thing to do no matter what we’re writing.

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  11. Alex Sokoloff

    I’m with Rob – writing a screenplay is a piece of cake compared to writing a novel.

    I think the reason people think it’s so difficult to write scripts is that we all KNOW kind of what a novel is, because that’s what we read, and have read practically ever since we could read, and we have an inherent understanding of the form. We’ve all read hundreds, most of us thousands, of novels, and very few people have read even a handful of screenplays. So that form seems alien.

    That’s why working as a reader, or story analyst, is hands down the most common path to becoming a pro screenwriter. You need to read those hundreds of screenplays to assimilate the form.

    Of course, it’s a lot easier to write a bad novel than a good screenplay. But it’s also a hell of a lot easier to write a bad screenplay than a bad novel.

    (Sorry I’ve been so absent this week – Romantic Times was wild and CONSTANT. I’ll make a full report if I ever recover.)

    Reply

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