Screenwriting vs Prose

As a writer who finds himself at home in both forms, I’m often asked what it’s like transitioning between the two.

Personally, I love it.  They’re both very different, and switching from one to the other is like taking a break, but without the lost productivity.  And my number one goal?  Be prolific.  So if nothing else, it helps me accomplish that.

But before I get ahead of myself, let me outline the fundamental differences between the two.  As most people are familiar with prose (you’re reading prose right now!), I’ll just speak to how screenwriting differs.

In prose, the writing is the finished product. In a screenplay, the movie is it’s final form.  So there’s no thoughts, no emotions, no asides–just action and dialogue. In a script, you’re only writing what will be SEEN or HEARD by the eventual audience.  And guess what?  No description either.  You want your lead in a blue dress?  Oh well.  UNLESS it directly influences the plot, but if you just envisioned her that way–too bad.  Why?  Because at this point you’re doing someone else’s job.  A movie is a collaboration.  There’s someone whose entire job is picking out what color dress your lead will be in.

The result leaves you the bare minimum of words with which to tell the story.  But that’s expected, because there’s one other very important job as a screenwriter: you dictate the pacing.  The general rule, is that one page in a script is equal to one minute of film time.  So much hinges on this (budget, blah blah blah) that a minute goes by quicker than you think.

So in a nutshell:  Writing a novel, your goal is to completely immerse your reader into your story, by whatever means possible.  There are almost no rules.  Writing a screenplay, your goal is to not get in the way of everyone else on the project, so they can immerse the audience into your story.  And there are lots of rules (I’m not going to touch on formatting), but they can be broken if you know what you’re doing and have a good reason.

Now to cover the initial question: what’s it like to switch?  It makes my writing, in both forms, that much richer.  I’ve learned to make my words count, to use subtext, to let a moment speak for itself.

As an exercise, I re-wrote a story that was originally a short script, The Tunnel, as a short story.  You can read the script here and the short story here.

Want more on the differences?  Check out the next post in the series, Scripts vs Novels.

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11 thoughts on “Screenwriting vs Prose

  1. Fantastic food for thought! I’ve never given thought to the fact that when I am reading a screenplay that my mind is seamlessly filling in the blanks on details like clothes and surrounding background fillers. This post gave me a lot to think about. Kudos to you and a great post!

  2. How funny . . . I proofed screenplays back in the day. People have no idea. I hate writing dialog and have the greatest respect for screenwriters. Its a tough gig.

    Very informative and well-written post. Good luck with the blog and I hope you get what you need from it.

  3. It is really interesting to see the two differences between the mediums. There is more room for editorializing in the short-story, which gives a fuller quality to the story. However, with just the dialog of the script, there is far more suspense and irony. But, the transition of scenes, which is based upon consciousness, has a little more play in the story. Very interesting to see the two together like that.

  4. Hi, my name is Haejin, and I found this site just today. I am an amateur writer, and fantasy thrillers and fantasy dramas are my favourite genres. I want to write screenplays in Korean and novels in English (English is my second language, so I’m glad to have my big brother to co-write this, because he writes far better than I do), so I need to learn and try and fail and try again to figure out how to write for different audience and in different format. Your blog seems to be tremendously helpful. I’ll look around a bit more! Thanks 🙂

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