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.