Shifting Gears: From Scripts to Novels

~ By Deb McIntyre

After many years of writing spec scripts for TV and feature films (with just enough success to keep the carrot dangling in front of my nose),  I was getting restless. Scripts are a rigid format and I had all these ideas that just wouldn’t work as movies….but maybe could be novels?

So I decided to participate in National Novel Writing Month, just for a change and a challenge.  I pulled a story from the Idea File and, starting at 12:01 AM on November 1st, I wrote like the wind.

What a rush! Just spilling out all the words I could think of into a story, without agonizing over script format or page count or budget or castability or special effects!  Multiple POVs! past tense! Internal thoughts! Wheee!

Since then, I alternate between script and novel projects.  I find that switching back and forth between the two mediums gives me a fresh appreciation for each.

“Show don’t tell”

That familiar command is taken even more literally in screenwriting, because a screenwriter is supposed to write only what can be SEEN or HEARD on screen.

Quick, name the authors of your top 5 favorite books! Jane Austen, JRR Tolkein, Marian Keyes, Jennifer Crusie, Robin Hobb…..

Now name the writers of your top 5 favorite movies or TV shows!

Um…well, Aaron Sorkin, and Joss Whedon and that guy who wrote DUE SOUTH and the new James Bond movie and uh….hmmm….

The difference? The author creates the novel. The screenwriter does not create the movie.

An author writes a novel destined to be a book (hopefully, ultimately) — for an audience to READ.

A screenwriter writes a script which functions as a blueprint for hundreds of people — directors, actors, cinematographers, grips, gaffers (and let’s not forget the Best Boy!) to use to turn into a movie (hopefully, ultimately) — for an audience to SEE and HEAR.

No touch, taste, or smell.

In a script, the heroine can lean over to lick the Rocky Road ice cream off the hero’s…um, lips.

Both the screenwriter and the novelist can describe what the heroine is doing, and how the hero is reacting.

But, unlike the novelist, the screenwriter does not have the luxury of describing what the hero is feeling, or what the heroine is thinking, during this action. The screenwriter can’t detail how cold and sticky the ice cream is, how their hearts are pounding, or even how the heroine blushes or the sweat beads up on the brow of the hero.  (Yes, technically that could be seen on-screen,  but it can’t be ‘acted.’)

When I shift from a writing a script to a novel, it’s incredibly liberating — once I remind myself that, Yes, I can and in fact I should use all 5 senses to describe a scene.

Then I go overboard and overwrite — overindulging on that Rocky Road, so to speak, and after the writing binge I have to do an editing purge, which is never as much fun.

But all these years visualizing a story as if it were on screen means I do the same thing when I write a novel, which is very useful.

In novels as in scripts, I also, always, “dream cast” my characters, which can be very inspiring (although many of my heroes tend to look an awful lot like Hugh Jackman).

Talk the Talk

There’s a lot of focus on dialogue in screenplays (what with talking being one of those things that can be heard), and a lot of emphasis on making dialogue “authentic.”

It took me a while to learn that authentic is a little different than realistic.

If you write exactly the way people really speak, it would be as long-winded and boring as…..well, real life.

But scripting forced me to listen and strive to capture the essence of how people really speak, and then to convey that in as few words as possible in a script.

That’s just as important in novels — maybe even more so when you’re using interior monologue.  The voice of heroine might sound one way when she talks to her boss, her best friend, her lover — but her internal voice will probably sound very different.  It’s all got to be “authentic.”

Less is more.

When I first started writing scripts, I thought, like many people “Oh, this will be easy — look how short they are! look at all that white space!”

Well, it’s harder to write less than more. At least it is for me [look at this blog post!]

Screenwriters do about the same amount of work creating a story for a feature film script as for a 400-page novel, and must present it in a more restrictive format.

A script is like sculpting — the writer starts with something like this:

…and has to chip away and hone and pare the words to present something more like this:

That’s not just gratuitous Renaissance eye-candy, that’s a visual metaphor for the ideal script:  a taut, compelling story, with fascinating characters, witty dialogue, dynamic action, a vivid setting — all in about 100 pages. Including all that white space.

A novel offers much more freedom to play with words, and I write my initial drafts NaNo style — free drafting, just throwing the words down.

But when it’s time to edit, I’ve learned to cut, cut, cut — get rid of bloat, trim the flab.

Just like with scripts.

After all these years, it still hurts, but doesn’t bleed as much. 🙂

Deb McIntyre is a native New Yorker who lives in San Francisco, which is close enough to Hollywood to commute for the occasional pitch.  She’s been a Paramount Participating Writer and scripted everything from feature specs to video games (Mech Warrior-3). Her novel, Dances with Cougars, is a finalist in the 2010 Get Your Stiletto in the Door contest, Women’s Fiction category.

4 thoughts on “Shifting Gears: From Scripts to Novels”

  1. Pingback: This Week in Chick Lit

  2. Fantastic article. Sorry I missed it’s debut.
    I’m going to print it out and study it.
    One reason it particularly interests me is because I used to fancy I could write PLAYS. No, not screen plays — I mean stage scripts.
    Of course, I’ve only dabbled, but in college (and earlier) I studied a lot of what’s loosely called “drama” — going back to Shakespeare and up through ‘She stoops to conquer’ [? forgot the author ? ] … all the way to Neil Simon. And I loved what ‘lines’ could do.
    That’s probably why my novel manuscripts are dialog ‘heavy’.
    Anyway, thanks for this post.

  3. I’m so inspired! I have this great idea for a script–Best Boy meets Best Girl. . . . Thanks for this comparison of screenwriting vs. novel writing. Happy writing of all kinds!

  4. What a great post! Especially the novel creation vs. movie blueprint comparison. A novelist may wonder how readers will interpret her work, but a screenwriter has even less control on the finished product. Thanks for giving us a peek into another fascinating world of writing.

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