As a producer developing a screenplay, you learn to look for stories with strong, complex characters and emotional intensity. You want a screenplay with conflict and the potential to evolve in unexpected ways — a “rich stew." And while the same is true for books, there are a few specific rules about screenwriting that just don’t apply to novels. Here's a quick look at the five biggest differences between screenplays and novels and why they matter if you want to write a compelling script.
What's the difference between a screenplay and a novel?
- A screenplay should describe a movie about two hours long (120 – 140 pages). There are exceptions, like The Irishman, but they're rare. It's also worth pointing out that every page of a screenplay reflects roughly one minute of screen time. Novels, on the other hand, can be as long (or short!) as the writer wants, and each page can span a few moments or millennia.
- Screenplays never have interior emotional reflections. Screenplays are a visual medium, which means the writing is external facing. You don’t describe details about what a person is thinking or try to explain complex feelings. Novelists however frequently explore the inner lives of characters with expository writing and omniscient narrators.
- Screenplays are collaborative. Screenwriters write with the actors, director, cinematographer, set designers in mind because ultimately the screenplay is for other people. Novels, while they can be a team effort, are rarely written with more than a novelist and an editor.
- A screenplay does not tell the director and cinematographer how to set up a shot. A screenwriter might make suggestions, such as “This is close on someone” or “This is a family at Thanksgiving dinner,” but the actual realizing of the scene is worked out by the director with his or her cameraman. Novelists make all the decisions when it comes to framing, point of view, and pacing.
- A screenplay is constructed by a finite number of concise units. These units are a function of the length of the movie and the descriptions within a unit should be brief. While novels have their own conventions and norms, books are still more fluid and changing than screenplays. And they don't have all the same intricate formatting demands that a screenplay requires to be functional.
Should you write a novel or a screenplay?
This list of differences between scripts and novels can go on and on, but the point is that screenplays aren't just a different kind of novel. Screenplays exist for one purpose — to tell a story (or play) for the screen. And that means they have to follow a different (and stricter) set of rules so that actors, directors, and producers can make them into films. Formatting SFX and audio cues correctly matter in a screenplay. And while some screenwriters bend the rules, most screenwriting conventions — like page length — are rarely broken. That's one of the reasons why adapting a novel into a screenplay is such a niche writing field. It takes a working knowledge of both styles to create a great final product.
No matter what story you're writing, pay attention to the conventions and rules governing the format. Despite what you might think, the rules are there to guide your script, novel, or short story through the creative process to the medium — and the audience — that will best appreciate your story.
Burt Weissbourd is a novelist and former screenwriter and producer of feature films. He was born in 1949 and graduated cum laude from Yale University, with honors in psychology. His earlier books include Inside Passage, Teaser, Minos, and In Velvet, all of which will be reissued in Fall 2020. His latest book, Danger in Plain Sight, will be published on May 15th and is the first book in his new Callie James thriller series.