The Differences Between Writing a Screenplay & a Novel

The art of writing these two very different genres is often mixed together. There are many times I read novels that feel like screenplays or vice versa. So today, I want to go through the biggest differences between the two types of writing and certain mix-ups writers fall into when writing these categories.

Description/Dialogue

The first most blaring difference between the two is that which they emphasize: description versus dialogue.

In screenwriting, everything is about the dialogue. Descriptions should be kept to necessary content without embellishment, probably only about thirty percent or less of the actual manuscript. Description is there only to give cues to the director and cast about what should be happening around the dialogue.

Dialogue is in the center. Without it, what are the actors to say? Saying this, there are some famous screenwriters who use a lot of descriptions, but most of these are also directing the films so they are with the film at every step of the way. It is, in a sense, their vision. However, for most screenwriters, focus on dialogue. I always say one of the best ways to write dialogue is by reading it out loud. After all, dialogue is meant to be spoken.

On the other hand, novels are more evenly distributed between descriptions and dialogue. In fact, they probably lean more towards long descriptions. One of the things I have found about new writers is that they mix screenwriting into a novel. Perhaps it is because most of us watch more films than we read books, because we often make dialogue more important in our mind than description. Thus, so many first drafts I read are mostly dialogue with much less description than is needed.

Length

Let’s get to the length of things. One page of a screenplay is usually likened to one minute of a film. With this in mind, one might safely assume that a screenplay would be about ninety to one hundred and twenty pages, whereas books are at least three times that long.

But do not think just because screenplays are shorter that they are easier to write. In fact, often because every word has to be so tightly written in screenplays (as in short stories), it presents a more difficult time for some writers, especially ones like me who love long descriptions and incoherent dialogue.

However, you may find screenwriting liberating if you find in your books that you focus a lot on dialogue and hate writing a lot of descriptions. Every writer is different.

Complete/Stage

One thing every writer needs to realize is where the process of writing a novel and a screenplay fall. That is, the complete and incomplete.

In novels, it is you as a writer who has the final say in everything. While perhaps there is the rare instance of a publisher refusing to publish a book unless the author changes something, in most cases the entirety of the process is done by the writer. They are the ones who come up with the ideas, develop character, write, re-write, and then publish the completed work.

In screenplays, however, an author is just the beginning of a very long and complex process. A screenwriter may start the work, but it needs to be okayed by the producer and moved onto the director, who merely uses the script as a tool to create a movie. Often times, screenplays are more of guidelines as directors and actors make frequent changes or improv as they see fit. Thus, the screenplay is only one small part of a larger completed work.

Inside/Outside

One of the things I notice in books versus screenplays is that an author can get more in the heads of characters in novels, whereas in screenplays we are seeing things from the outside.

In screenplays, you are limited in what you can show by what you see/hear. For example, you might have a narrator (perhaps the protagonist) showing what is going inside the head of the main character, or a voice-over. Or you might have soliloquies (or solitary monologues) of certain characters thinking out loud. However, that is about all you can do to get inside character’s heads.

In novels, there are many different choices of whose perspectives you see from. You can jump from character from character. You can show what is happening in each character’s head at the same time, or you can remain in one character’s head for the entirety. It is up to you. With novels, there are more options in perspective.

Writing Prompts

So, now you know the basic differences between a novel and a screenplay. Now, take one scene from any book/story you are writing. It can be any genre or type of writing. Write it as a scene you might stumble upon in a book and a scene from a screenplay.

If you find you enjoy writing screenplays better than books, try writing several types of short screenplays. Write the same script for a story, but one without dialogue (just description) and the other one with dialogue. It was show you are different a script can be.

For more info on how to write screenplays, I suggest you check out Linda J. Cowgill’s Writing Short Films. It was the book my screenplay teacher back in college recommended and I found it useful. It has both information of format and many other sources you can check out.

Best wishes on your life full of adventure,

Madame Writer

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