When developing a screenplay, you look for strong, complex characters, conflict, and emotional intensity. While the same is true for books, there are rules about screenwriting that don’t apply to writing novels.
I went to Hollywood in 1975 to produce feature films. I was 26 years old, I didn’t know anyone in the movie business, but I’d stumbled onto a timely idea. I was going to work with — and most importantly, back — screenwriters. That is to say, stand behind their work by protecting it from being rewritten and include them in the process of choosing a director, casting the picture, and all the decisions that go into making a feature film.
Early in my producing career, I had the privilege of working with author Ross Macdonald, a legend in crime fiction, on his only screenplay. Working with him, I began to see how characters could drive plot.
I left Hollywood in 1987 — the golden age was over and I wanted to write. To me, the best screenplays I’d worked on never got made. Nevertheless, it was a great experience.
As a producer developing a screenplay, you learn to look for stories with strong, complex characters and a “rich stew” — that is to say a situation with conflict, emotional intensity, and the potential to evolve in unexpected ways. That is exactly how I approach the books that I write — I learned how to do that as a producer working on screenplays.
That said, here are some basic rules about screenwriting that I’ve found do not apply to writing novels:
1. A screenplay should describe a movie about two hours long (120 – 140 pages). There are exceptions, like The Irishman, but they are rare.
2. There should never be interior emotional reflections in a screenplay. You don’t describe details about what a person is thinking or try to explain complex feelings.
3. A screenplay is often collaborative and always written with the people who will be working on it in mind: the actors, director, cinematographer, set designer, etc.
4. 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.
5. 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.
1. A novel can be as long or as short as the writer decides.
2. A novel depends on interior reflections, allows long-detailed descriptions, and can take multiple points of view.
3. In a novel, there is time for long digressions, tangential secondary plots, and multiple characters that may or may not contribute to the ending.
4. In a novel, the writer can offer opinions about characters’ strengths and weaknesses, volunteer past events that may have shaped these strengths and weaknesses, and speculate about future events that could change the direction of these characters.
5. In a novel, an author can speculate about outcomes through interior reflections within the character hoping to achieve the outcomes.
6. A novelist is not writing for an actor or a director. Yes, the writer may get notes from an editor or a publisher, but these notes are generally about how effective the writer has been in achieving his or her stated goals. They rarely address or attempt to change the writer’s vision of the book that he or she has written.
Burt Weissbourd’s latest book, Danger in Plain Sight, will be published on May 15th and is the first book in his new Callie James thriller series.
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.