What’s the Difference between Writing a Novel and a Screenplay?

While many novels are turned into screenplays or stage scripts, each writing format requires a different skill set. If you’ve wondered about the relationship between novels and their movie versions – read on!

How Does a Novel Get Turned into a Script?

There are several ways this happens. Sometimes, the book’s author will be involved in transforming their novel into the screenplay; other times, once the movie rights are sold, a scriptwriter will get involved.

Sometimes scriptwriters contact authors to write the script. Sometimes, a film production company will contact the author and use their in-house scriptwriters. Other times, the author will dream of seeing their book in film and reach out to film producers.

Novels and Screenplays Create Scenes in Different Ways

You often hear people who have read a book and then seen the movie version comment that the book was ‘so much better than the movie’. This verdict can be due to that person’s own imagination. Here’s why.

For a movie, there’s little imagination involved. The viewers see exactly what the director, set designer, and producer want them to see. They hear the words written by the scriptwriter, spoken by the actors.

For a book, they read the characters’ dialogue, but they interpret the description of the scene by way of their own imagination. The reader does most of the work in visualizing the characters and settings in their head. The better their imagination, the more vivid those images will be. It can be hard for a movie to compete with that!

Novels typically portray the inner thoughts of the main character. In a screenplay, these thoughts will need to be represented by other means for the viewer to understand what the character may be feeling or thinking. Therefore, the screenwriter will need to write scenes that depict the way the character acts, rather than just writing the character’s thoughts for the reader as in a novel.

By contrast, a novel needs to depict with words what a film can convey with images. The novelist thus uses more descriptive passages, making books longer than screenplays.

The Question of Wordcount

Because a screenplay doesn’t need to depict these ‘mental images’, a screenplay page count will typically average between 90 to 120 pages —approximately one page per minute of screen time. If you’re used to writing novels, you may find that your first draft might be longer, but you’ll edit it down as you work towards your final shooting script. Novels, on the other hand, are typically hundreds of pages long.

Newbie screenwriters sometimes use voice-over as an easy way to sneak in information: telling instead of showing. The cliché, ‘a picture tells 1000 words’ is even more applicable to film than still images. Show what’s happening instead of telling the viewer; otherwise, you’ll quickly lose your audience’s attention.

‘Will My Book Make a Good Movie?’

When converting a book to a screenplay, the order of the story in the book is not always the order in the movie. Sometimes the film will start with a memory or back story – this would be one way of replacing words or voice-over of a character to portray what they may be feeling or thinking, for example.

Books need drastic trimming to be turned into screenplays – if the character isn’t an integral part of the story, it often gets cut.

Adapting a novel to a screenplay creates a fine balance of developing a new story from an original one, all while respecting the author, the reader, and the film audience. Not all screenplays originate from novels, of course. But bear in mind that the style of writing is completely different for novels and screenplays.

Depending on whether you see yourself as an author of a best-selling novel, or a scriptwriter of the next blockbuster, the Writers College has a course for you.

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