Ever wonder about the difference between a novel and a screenplay?
I was a novelist before I tried my hand at screenwriting, and it was only a happy accident that led me to change direction. In 2009 the BBC optioned the rights to my first book ‘Cityboy’ with a view to turning it into a TV series and whilst I thought it was a catastrophe when their option lapsed a few years later, if it hadn’t I’d have never got into film-making. That’s because, with the confidence that only unbridled naivety can engender, I decided that I’d cut out the middleman and simply write the Cityboy screenplay myself.
So, I bought ‘Screenwriting for Dummies’ and the latest version of Final Draft and opened up my trusty laptop. Within hours it became quite clear that I was flailing in the dark. I realized that I needed to learn a whole new skill set and that, of course, is why I immediately signed up to one of Raindance’s amazing screenwriting courses!
There are actually quite a few similarities between successful novel-writing and effective screenwriting – both involve telling a compelling story with believable and interesting characters, an exciting plot and realistic dialogue that respectively keep the reader turning pages and the viewer glued to the screen. Both media thrive when they are original, innovative and lacking in tiresome clichés and both eschew implausible ‘Deus Ex Machina’ developments and tedious over-used tropes. Novels and screenplays also often utilize the three-act structure and generally benefit when the writer chooses to ‘show not tell’ and ‘arrive at the party late and leave early’. The time-old (but perhaps old-fashioned) story of a likeable/relatable hero who reluctantly leaves his comfort zone to go on a seemingly impossible mission to overcome a vicious antagonist can work just as well in both formats.
However, that’s pretty much where the similarities end. A screenplay is a short (100-140 page), pacey and almost entirely visual way of telling a story. For example, whilst a novelist has the freedom to spend sixteen pages describing exactly what’s frustrating ‘Mildred’, a screenwriter does not. A screenwriter could use a convoluted voiceover to explain precisely what’s going on in a character’s head, but it’s frowned upon (as is ‘on the nose’ dialogue that is sometimes used to perform the same function). Subsequently, the screenwriter will instead simply state something as concise as ‘Mildred clenches her fist in anger’! Likewise, the long tangents and multiple sub-plots that are common in literary novels have no place in a ninety-minute film, especially as attention spans become ever shorter. Generally, if a scene doesn’t move the main plot forward or efficiently enlighten us about a major character’s motivations it should be binned.
Successful screenplays also generally stick to a more restrictive formula than novels whose content is only limited by the writer’s imagination and the rules of grammar (and sometimes not even those!) Blake Snyder’s screenwriting guide ‘Save The Cat’ receives a lot of flak for its formulaic advice but so many great films have an ‘inciting incident’ at around page ten and two ‘plot points’ (that dramatically change the story’s direction) around page 35 and 75 that only the most arrogant rookie would choose to ignore his words completely. Likewise, scenes should generally not be longer than six pages, uninterrupted dialogue not much longer than eight lines and the ending/resolution should always be ‘inevitable but not predictable’. Indeed, you can bet that even non-conformist screenwriters like Tarantino, who seem to abhor such formulas, have an intimate knowledge of the ‘rules’ they choose to break.
Let’s also not forget about budget. If you have the misfortune not to be Aaron Sorkin it’s unlikely that you’ll be writing a multi-million-pound movie and that means your screenplay should contain as few actors, locations, explosions, car chases and dinosaurs as possible. I genuinely believe that such budget limitations force the scriptwriter to use his imagination and that they make his or her job all the more vital – as only a brilliant low budget script has any chance of attracting a decent director or known actors and without them you will struggle to attract finance. Obviously, I like to think that’s why my recently completed half million-pound film ‘Trick or Treat’ managed to secure great actors like Frances Barber, Jason Flemyng, Craig Kelly and Shaun Parkes!
One other similarity between a novelist and a screenwriter that I should also mention is that both need to be unbelievably persistent and capable of dealing with almost constant rejection. Despite years of trying, Cityboy never got made (though I still hope that one day it will be) and nor did my next three speculative scripts. It was only my fifth screenplay, for ‘Trick or Treat,’ that came good. Frankly, neither the thin-skinned nor the uncommitted should even consider pursuing either career path.
I may be just a tiny bit biased, but I believe that the screenwriter is the most under-appreciated component of any successful movie project with the director and lead actors generally getting all the glory. However, I absolutely love screenwriting, so despite the lack of accolades this is what I’ll keep doing… and besides my teeth are just a bit too wonky to play the lead!
Geraint Anderson is pleased to announce that since he wrote this article his movie ‘Trick or Treat’ has won the award for best feature film at The Marbella International Film Festival and that Evolutionary Films have secured a cinema release (Vue & Odeon) on 25th October (pre-order tickets here)