The Differences Between Writing Prose and Writing Screenplays

Lots of authors are interested in adapting their novels into screenplays. These authors usually fall into one of two categories:

    1. they have no idea how to do this
    2. they think they can just translate their prose into script format.

For writers who’ve never had no experience in writing screenplays, it’s better to be clueless than confident.

Books and films are completely different forms. Books often operate as cerebral entities – being inside a character’s head; being privy to their thoughts; witnessing their emotional responses, decision-making, and how events affect them. Film and television are visual mediums. Short of using a narrative/voiceover (not highly regarded in screenwriting unless it’s done exceptionally), none of these book drivers work in screenplays. Information has to be communicated visually. Some of that is left up to the actor, and their ability to express and relate what they’re feeling. But a bigger portion is left to the screenwriter, and how they set up their scenes so this is communicated.

Here’s a scenario: a protagonist comes home to find their partner, and all their belongings, are gone.

In prose, how is this handled? The protagonist comes home to an empty house. They might initially believe that their partner is out, so they call to them but there’s no answer. The protagonist checks the bedroom, and finds their partner’s clothes and things are gone. Maybe a note of condemnation has been left on the protagonist’s pillow. The protagonist realises that their partner has left them. There might be some context now, relating as to why this has happened – all the possible reasons that frame the situation for the reader’s interpretation. The protagonist is saddened, then angry, and tries to call their partner. Nothing. They question themselves. As they take responsibility and ownership of the situation, they break down.

Now, how about in screenwriting? All the physical actions can be represented – calling to the partner, the note, the empty closets and drawers, and that sort of thing. But how is the internalisation handled? How does the screenplay get inside the protagonist’s head to explore why this might’ve happened? The protagonist can’t just think about how they’ve been inattentive, or a workaholic who’s sacrificed their relationship for their career, or whatever the context might be. So how is that gotten across? How is the sadness and anger portrayed? In prose, it can as simple as a sentence saying just that. In film, it has to be expressed visually, e.g. the protagonist begins to sob, then grows enraged and slams the door.

Another distinction is that books are, usually, the sole vision of the author. They see the story from inception to completion. Even an editor exists to try help the author get to their destination.

Screenplays are a collaborative process. At some point, other people will get on board – a director, producers, etc. They’ll have their own interpretation of what a screenplay needs. It’s actually not unusual for the screenwriter to be phased out of the process, and another screenwriter (or screenwriters) are brought in to carry the project forward. Some of these screenwriters might be specialists, e.g. a screenwriter who specialises in structure, or who specialises in dialogue, or a ‘script doctor’ who’s brought in to help with a troublesome script. Directors will also rewrite the script. A big-name actor might demand changes, or refer the screenplay onto their preferred screenwriter. Or a screenplay might be changed to suit a particular actor, e.g. Beverly Hills Cop was intended for Sylvester Stallone, but was made more jokey when Eddie Murphy was hired; Salt was intended for a male lead, but then rewritten for Angelina Jolie. Most Hollywood screenplays would’ve gone through numerous screenwriters (although regulations stipulate that only a certain amount of screenwriters can be credited).

Because of this, it’s best if details in a screenplays are sparse. A book might elaborately describe a character. A screenplay might just say they’re ‘thirty-something’. The reason for this is because each reader of a screenplay – and particularly a director – will envision the story in their own way. They don’t want to be told specifically how everything should look. In fact, these kind of details can disconnect them from the material, and decrease their chances of taking it on. When they do, they use the screenplay as a basis for their vision, or for the studio’s vision.

Ultimately, both forms of writing have to be handled differently – they require a fundamental shift in the way writers think they need to express their stories. A novel will, on average, be about 80,000 words (and sometimes bigger). A screenplay is about 25,000 words. In screenwriting, a page equals about a minute – it’ll vary from page to page (depending on if a page is heavy with dialogue, or with action) but, over the course, will even itself out. While writers still need to observe structure, screenwriting substantially gives them less space with which to play.

These are just a handful of the differences, but should offer enough of an insight to see how each form varies.

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