One of the most common questions novice writers ask is: "How do I know if I should be writing novels or screenplays?"
For most, that question often pertains to the success ratio between the two. Many could argue that anyone asking that question is missing the point of writing. While pursuing the goals and dreams of making a living as a writer is understandable, writing is also an action that is — or should be — less about the pursuit of profit and more about the want and need to express a story that is haunting your every thought.
But let's be real — people need to make a living. And if no other vocation is calling to you, and the passion for telling stories is genuinely there, then this common question is legitimately warranted and understandable.
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When we are talking about the success ratio between being a novelist or screenwriter, there is no single way to quantify the odds because both of them are difficult tasks to undertake.
However, that in no way, shape, or form means that you can’t do it. Writers see success in publishing and the film industry every year. New writers manage to see their goals and dreams come true.
Ask successful authors and screenwriters, and most will tell you stories that prove that there’s nothing outright special about them compared to you. It’s often about having the right story at the right time and the right place — whether it be in novel or screenplay format.
We must also consider the secondary interpretation of this question — that it is less about the money and career, and more about choosing the right platform for the type of stories you want to tell.
Here is a general breakdown of what struggles and obstacles writers face, both as a novelist and as a screenwriter, followed by some reasoning why one path might be easier or harder than the other. We'll also showcase the differences between the two platforms and how those stories are told.
Different Paths to Success
While both novelists and screenwriters tell stories to an audience, the paths to which those different writers take to get their stories to that audience are vastly different — and writers asking this question need to know and understand that.
BECOMING A NOVELIST
- You write a novel
- You have to find a publisher to publish it, or…
- You can self-publish and market it yourself
- Someone buys your book and reads it
That last bullet point is the great thing about writing a novel, as opposed to writing a screenplay. Once you get it onto whatever literary platform — print or digital, publishing house or self-publishing — it can be consumed and experienced instantly by an audience base without the need of any other factors beyond the reader being able to read.
It's quite a different experience for a screenwriter.
BECOMING A SCREENWRITER
- You write a screenplay
- You have to try to get it to a manager or agent to take it to producers, executives, and talent
- IF that happens, you have to find a producer to attach it to that can take it to studios and financiers
- THEN the studios or financiers need to want to make it, thus spending millions to do so
- THEN they need to attach a director and name actors to the project
- THEN the script needs to survive the rewrites that often come with all of that
- THEN the director and actors schedules need to match up with that of the studio and/or financier
- If that doesn’t happen, which is often the case, the whole process has to start over
- If that process is a success, THEN hundreds of people have to come together to make a great film to truly represent the story you wanted to tell — which often doesn’t happen
That is the most general of breakdowns but represents the added trials and tribulations that you need to go through before you can become a successful screenwriter by successfully having your script read, considered, bought, and produced. And all too often, your own scripts only work as samples for assignments. Spec scripts — screenplays written under speculation that they will be purchased — are not often produced, even if they are acquired by studios or production companies, which doesn't happen as often as screenwriters would like.
While one could recite the go-to and somewhat naive statement, "Just go shoot the script yourself," the difficulty of actually doing so in a way that compliments the full potential and vision of your story is easier said than done.
In short, with novels, all that you need to do is get published or self-publish and then get read — a difficult task in its own right. With screenplays, there are many more hoops that you have to successfully jump through to get that story to an audience.
All stories follow similar structures, no matter what the format or platform. There is a beginning, middle, and end. That three-act structure can be twisted, bent, sliced, diced, and rearranged, but when you get down to the core of it, the beginning, middle, and end is always there.
However, novels and screenplays use different structures beyond that for different reasons.
Screenplays require more structure than novels because they are primarily a narrative blueprint for cinematic interpretation. They require certain beats, certain layouts, and certain terminology to communicate the visual and audio needs of an eventual production — a production that hundreds of professionals will collaborate on.
Novels have a general open field in regards to structure. The technical constraints just aren't there. While certain publishing houses may prefer certain molds and methods as to how a story is told — chapters, sub-chapters, paragraph and dialogue format — structure isn't as much of a focus.
Screenwriting guru John Yorke and acclaimed novelist Tim Lott teach this very notion. Their course Story for Novelists: What Fiction Writers Can Learn from Screenwriters states, "While novelists divide their attention between many different aspects of writing, such as plot, style, character, and theme, screenwriters always have three things at the top of their agenda — story, story and story. They know all there is to know about story structure — they study it, apply it, live by it. In an industry where some films have budgets reaching millions of [dollars], screenwriters have to get it right."
Their course breakdown goes on to say that, "Novelists tend to be more relaxed about story structure. Partly because they can be — since the pressure from other stakeholders is lower — and partly because many of them believe that structure gets in the way of inspiration. Therefore, structure is often undertaught and underexplored at creative writing courses."
This isn't to say that novelists know nothing about structure. It's just that screenwriters are forced to adhere to more of it for their work to be read, considered, purchased, and produced.
Novelists have more freedom. They have more of an open canvas.
Screenwriters have to write on a more restricted canvas — with predetermined perimeters.
In ScreenCraft's Five Major Differences Between Writing Novels and Screenplays, we broke down the five elements that separate novels from screenplays and how writers of each differentiate between the two.
Length isn't a concern for novelists — at least not compared to the constraints that a screenwriter must adhere to. Novels are often hundreds of pages long — well above three hundred to start for the average novel. With screenplays, screenwriters have between 90 to 130 pages to tell their stories, using a specific technical format. Because of those constraints, screenwriters aren't allowed to go into lengthy tangents. Novelists have the freedom to further explore the backgrounds of main protagonists, as well as sub-stories of smaller characters.
Genre specification is less an issue for novelists as well. Books can be ear-marked under a certain genre, but can also contain many elements of subgenres. Screenwriters need to specify direct and straightforward genre types because that will determine who reads the script and what studios and companies acquire and produce them. As Rebecca Williams Spindler stated in her article, "If you were to sit down and pitch your screenplay to a Hollywood producer as a Coming of Age, Suspense, Adventure, Sci-Fi, Drama, Romance. The producer would raise a confused eyebrow, and from their WTF expression, your meeting has hence ended in their eyes."
With novels, internal thoughts and dialogue are widely used. For screenplays, there is no freedom to fall on that as voice over is considered to be a lazy cinematic crutch. Screenplays are a visual medium — actions speak louder than words, and inner thoughts are rarely communicated.
And finally, the formats between the two sharply differ within the range and scope allowed. The only budgetary or story setting concerns for authors are those found in the imaginations of their readers — and their own words can aide their readers in that aspect. Screenwriters have to pay particular attention to the budgets that their screenplays may call for studios to tell the scope of their stories. The more locations there are and the more extravagant they may be will drastically dictate whether or not a screenplay is considered. And if that screenplay isn't considered, it won't be purchased. If it's not purchased, it won't be produced. If it's not produced, no audience will ever lay eyes on it.
With novelists, all that they have to do is write it — and all readers have to do is imagine it within their own mind's eye.
How do you want your stories experienced?
Novels are enjoyed by readers wherever they want — airports, cars, bookstores, coffee shops, in the comforts of their own homes — and whenever they want — during lunch breaks, on vacation, before bed.
Screenplays are enjoyed by audiences through movie viewings, either at the movie theater, in the comforts of their own homes with their own home entertainment centers, in hotel rooms, or through smaller screens on their devices.
Novels are a multi-hour commitment that often ranges from multiple days to multiple weeks and even multiple months.
Screenplays are only a one and a half to two-hour commitment — give or take — through the movie viewing experience.
Novels allow for the added thrill of the reader being able to visualize the descriptions of the text using their own imagination, offering different interpretations.
Screenplays are experienced through the limitations of seeing the story unfold through the interpretation of the filmmaker and their cast and crew — their version.
Whatever the preference may be, when making this decision between being a novelist and being a screenwriter, an important and key aspect is how you want your stories to be ingested — internally (with novels) or externally (with movies).
Follow Your Passion
Now forget what I or anyone else has written. Because in the end, it depends on what you want to do. If you love movies and you want to tell cinematic stories, go that route. You show, rather than tell. So if that’s your passion, follow your gut.
If you are more detailed and want to really dive into the thoughts and backgrounds of characters and their stories, writing a novel is the route for you. And there’s at least a little less work to do to become successful, in terms of getting your stories into the hands of an audience.
And when in doubt...
The late Dances with Wolves author Michael Blake originally wrote the story as a screenplay in the early 1980s. He later worked with Kevin Costner on the 1983 film Stacy's Knights. Blake was reportedly staying over at Costner's house when he read the Dances with Wolves script. He and eventual Dances with Wolves producer Jim Wilson agreed that despite its worth, no studio would produce it. They recommended that Blake write it as a novel and try to get it published — and then work to use a reader base to entice studios to adapt it for the screen.
Blake did just that. It was first published as a paperback and sold primarily in airports. It soon became a bestseller, allowing Kevin Costner himself the chance to obtain the rights knowing that the film adaptation would get the necessary studio distribution. The rest is Oscar-winning history.
We live in a multi-platform obsessed world. It's no longer about the single platform base. Movie studios require intellectual property for most of their productions — thus they seek out novels to adapt. Publishers want novels that will also draw in movie studios for the adaptation rights.
This offers writers a chance to play on both fields — for the benefit of their own projects. You can write a novel to draw in an audience that studios can use to pre-market an eventual adaptation. You can also write a screenplay as part of your book proposal package. And it goes beyond the monetary aspects of signing deals in either industry.
Novels offer screenwriters a chance to break free from the constraints of the screenplay format and technical structure. You can expand on the scope and range. You can expand on the character backgrounds and utilize their inner thoughts to further the character depth. You can expand on the smaller characters involvement in the story as well.
Screenplays offer novelists a chance to utilize more structure in their stories, not only for writing a more commercially successful novel but also to have a chance of being adapted for the screen. You can learn how to compact a story and refine it to its core. You can learn how to tell more visually enticing stories — either within a screenplay or by applying screenwriting structure elements to a more streamlined novel.
Now that you've read the general differences of the various paths, structures, and formats between the two, you can ask that question — "Should I be a novelist or screenwriter?" — And hopefully, find your own answer.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies