The Novel vs. The Screenplay: A Practical Guide for Talented Writers

by James Bonnet

This bonus article can be appreciated by all writers and filmmakers but will be of special interest to writer-storymakers who are trying to decide where to best invest their creative energies and talents – the novel or the screenplay. I’ll begin with some general observations concerning the novelist and the filmwright, a film’s primary creative artist, and then I’ll describe the similarities and critical differences between the novel and the screenplay. 
 
The novelist creates and describes everything that appears in the novel – the plot, the characters, their thoughts and emotions, their actions, the costumes, the atmosphere, the environments, etc. Many of the early filmmakers were like novelists in that they were the filmwrights who had the responsibility for creating everything that would become part of the film. But they couldn’t do everything themselves, so they had to hire others to do the costumes, design and build the sets, act the parts, operate the camera (i.e. create the visual images,) direct the action, write the scripts, create the special effects, and so on – all things which novelists would do on their own. 
 
So the large and small production companies or studios were built around the filmwrights. Charlie Chaplain, Irving Thalberg, Steven Spielberg, and Walt Disney, among others are filmwrights. All of the other disciplines, including the writers and directors, come to them for approval. Today what we know of as the screenwriter became one of the many functions that served the interests and needs of the primary creative artist, the filmwright, the one who was really making the creative decisions. 
 
The way I see it, the filmwright and the novelist are equivalent and have similar creative experiences, except that the novelist is a one man or woman band doing everything themselves, while the filmwright delegates many responsibilities to others, is generally more sociable, and can handle a great deal more stress.
 
Looked at realistically, a screenplay is one major facet of a multi-faceted, collaborative artistic endeavor which is governed by someone else and contains lots of dialogue, descriptions of the action (which is divided up into scenes and shots), sparse descriptions of the characters and their emotions, the locations, some camera angles, costumes, etc. Everything else is left to some other discipline. The end result is the visual experience of a theatrical motion picture. 
 
Looked at in this way, the novelist is a primary creative artist who transforms imaginary or artistically treated true stories into a fictionalized form of varying lengths from the novella to the epic and beyond. The novel is, by the way, also a visual medium, except that the author uses words to help the readers reconstruct the visual images in their heads.  
 
The novel and the screenplay do have one very important thing in common, however. They both have the same underlying story structure. The same story principles apply to both. And, in fact, the screenplay can be an excellent first draft for a novel. The screenplay generally takes a lot less time to create and you can use it to test the characters and the structure. If it works as a screenplay, you can then transform it into a novel by adding and describing everything else that would be added by the camera, the actors, costume and set designers, including your special artistry and the underlying psychology of the characters.
 
In any event, the screenwriter is not considered the primary creative artist on a film unless they also direct or produce. They are the storymaker and decide what goes on paper; the director is the storyteller and decides what goes on film, which gives him or her the advantage. But let’s not forget the producer because he decides who gets to direct. So the screenplay, no matter how good it is, is only a suggestion to higher-ups. The producer and then the director decide what parts of the script they will use and what parts they will throw away – and what parts they will let someone else rewrite. In other words, you can easily end up being the first of many writers and live to see your script completely changed and perhaps even totally ruined. 
 
The novelist, on the other hand, who is a primary creative artist, doesn’t have these problems. Once you find a publisher and are working with an editor, you are much more likely to end up with something that is close to your original idea. Plus there are many more niche markets available to novelists. You don’t have to write to please a general audience or some studio executive who thinks you should be writing to please males between the ages of 18 to 25 or females between the ages 12 and 22. 
 
In any case, when you, as the novelist, pick up pencil and paper or sit down to your computer to write a novel, you already have the money, so to speak. You have to pay the rent, of course, and find time to write – but you don’t need someone else to put up forty million dollars so you can actually create it, and you don’t need Brad Pitt to commit in order to get the studio to make the deal. And you don’t need a high powered agent to get the script to Brad Pitt. You are the head of the studio, the filmwright, the director, the primary creative artist. You make all of the creative decisions and conjure everything down to the last detail, including all the leads. And when you’re done, the finished novel is a finished work of art.
 
Having a finished novel under your arm looking for a publisher is the equivalent of having a finished film under your arm looking for a distributor. And there are very few middlemen between you and your book deal. Even some of the top Eastern agents will respond to your query letters and ask to look at the first two chapters. You can also approach many publishers on your own, even without an agent, if you can present yourself in a credible manner and write a good query letter. 
 
On the other hand, if you’re a new screenwriter – i.e. not a professional working writer who already has good credits and an agent – it is very difficult to approach the studios or major independent companies on your own without having an agent or good contacts on the inside. 
 
Then there is the question of self-expression. And, in truth, there is a much greater opportunity for self-expression in a novel than a screenplay. Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Balzac, Dickens, Jane Austin, Willa Cather, D. H. Lawrence, Mark Twain, Dostoyevsky and countless other great authors all have a unique and recognizable style and are as distinguishable from one another as painters like Rembrandt and van Gogh or composers like Mozart and Beethoven. But if you try to guess who wrote the screenplay without looking at the credits, you will find that rather difficult. 
 
Finally, there’s the question of money. The current WGA low budget minimum for a theatrical motion picture is $60,000, the high budget minimum is $113,000.  Occasionally, a screenwriter gets high six figures or even a million dollars for his spec screenplay or as a writer-for-hire. A few writers have gotten as much as three million. 
 
Dan Brown, the author of The DaVinci Code, has made over fifty million dollars in U.S. domestic royalties alone and God knows how much worldwide. That’s equal to 50 to 100 super lucrative movie deals. For one novel. Plus he gets all the benefits of a movie deal anyway with much more favorable terms than any spec scriptwriter could expect. And this is to say nothing of J. K. Rowling, the author of the Harry Potter series. I read recently that she was making a billion dollars a year from that extraordinary franchise. 
 
In any case, if you are a screenwriter, the solution is to work yourself into the position of the filmwrights who can direct and produce their own films or choose who will write or direct for them – in which case you will become the primary creative artist with the same kind of creative control and financial reward as the novelist or Steven Spielberg, who is the most successful filmmaker of all time and can hold his own financially against any successful novelist. 
 
Be that as it may, the most important thing the novel and screenplay have in common is story. The forms of both are different but the underlying principles and structures are the same. Story is at the heart of all the different media and all the different genres and if you plan to write novels or write, direct or produce story films, it is important that you learn as much about story as you can. There are six billion people in the world with a genuine need for real stories which isn’t being met, and if you take the trouble to learn what a story really is, it will give you a tremendous advantage in either media. 

 

Next bonus article: What's Wrong With The Act Structure? (Prt. 1)

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