Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Write Wednesday: Writing for the Screen vs. Writing Novels


I greet you in French because it's a happy word.  Just say it.  You can't help but smile.  :)

Today I'm going to be writing about some big differences in various types of writing -- writing for the silver screen and small screen or writing novels (or novellas, short stories...stories that will stay on the page).

I'm trying to figure out what my strengths are as a writer.  I read a lot, watch a lot of good TV and movies, and honestly, I'm not sure which type of writing I'm best suited for (my preference?  Spend time in a writing room with other writers and write for TV -- but that's just because I love TV and community so much, not because I enjoy writing screenplays more than writing novels).

Even if I decide I'm going to try both before making a decision (that might end up changing, who knows?  Suzanne Collins wrote episodes of Nickelodeon's Little Bear before writing The Hunger Games trilogy), it might all boil down to which way is more fun for me to write.

Because at the end of the day, all I want to do is tell stories...with other people.  Granted, if I wrote novels, I'd have Beta readers, an editor, an agent, fans, etc. (hopefully!)  So both have one thing in common: an audience.

But the nitty-gritty, boil-it-down-to-its-smallest-components, technical side of things is vastly different.

1.  Writing a screenplay involves more technical work (at the start up) than a novel.  You need to know the format, the correct vocabulary, and the basic setup of screenplay pages.  This scared me for a long time until I took part in a ScriptFrenzy and wrote a few TV episodes.  It takes some getting used to and requires a different sort of thinking (what's the day/time/place?  Is there a voiceover?  Which characters are in this scene?) than writing for novels -- less description, more action.  Bare is a word I would use to describe screenplays.  Tolkien could never write a script. 

Novels have a different set up -- but you still have to know your stuff when it comes to writing stories this way.  Do you know how to format paragraphs?  End chapters (with something that keeps the reader reading)?  Structure a novel (beginning, middle, climax, end is one way...)?

Either way requires study, dedication/determination, and lots of practice.

2.  Writing a screenplay also involves putting more trust into the team you're working with -- after all, if someone buys your script, unless you come with it as a package deal (sometimes as the director), they're going to do their own thing with it, even hire another writer to 'doctor' it (Joss Whedon doctored Toy Story, among other movies).  If you want this story told, you're going to have to rely on the actors to bring out the emotion behind your words, the director and produces to share your vision, and the crew to make sure it looks good. 

Lots more people are involved (usually -- unless you're doing short films/indie movies/a web series).  It's tempting to put emotion (or description of it) in the screenplay, but you can't.  You have to state the character's name and put the emotion into the economy of words or in the situation without forcing the character to be a certain way.  It sometimes comes down to being concise and crystal clear in your intentions from the beginning.

With a novel, your agent or editor may suggest changes, but you have more power than a screenwriter (from what I understand) at this point.  You may not have a say in the cover or if there's a page for dedications, but your words, once finalized with the editor, will stay the same -- forever.  There won't be anyone to interpret them but the readers.

3.  Less words in screenplays than novels.  People are happy reading 800 page tomes (Order of the Phoenix, anyone?), but sit them down for five hours and they'll fall asleep in the middle.  Writing film or TV is all about cramming emotion and action into the fewest words possible that are still coherent for the viewer.  (Usually 80-120 pages)

With novels, the usual range is 70-90k which can be up to 300-350 pages.  That's a chunk more than a screenplay, which does allow for more time in the descriptions, character development/backstory, and the plot pacing (which is why some novels tend to drag in the middle).

I think those are the main differences -- have I left anything else (big) out?

If you write, which do you prefer?  Would you ever try a screenplay?

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