The Single Core Difference Between Scripts and Novels
What is the major difference between scripts and novels?
Much is written about the differences between writing books and writing screenplays.
Novels are literary narratives of stories and character journeys that offer detailed prose and dialogue existing within the communication of various or specific themes.
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Screenplays are literary blueprints for feature films, written with cinematic and visual description to tell stories and character journeys for the screen — with various or specific themes used to make a final impact with the audience by the end.
We know that novels have the freedom to explore inner thoughts and character background, while screenplays are tasked with showing rather than telling — and that telling has to be cinematic and within the confines of a 90-120 page screenplay.
But aren't novels really just extended versions of screenplay structure, plotting, and characterization, enjoying the freedoms of description, overall prose, and no limiting page counts?
And aren't screenplays just shortened versions of literary narratives that feature paired down chapters called scenes that build to an end within a strict 90-120 minute time limit?
We've taken all of these breakdowns — and many more — into account as we searched for the single and most concrete example of the difference between screenplays and novels. And what we came up with was both simple, and somewhat profound.
Novels Share the Inner Emotions of the Story's Characters
While novels can display the outer emotions of the story's characters (see below), the narrative primarily focuses on the inner emotions.
Story is all about emotions as the characters react to the conflict at hand. In novels, we learn their inner thoughts. We learn about their past and how the conflict is conflicting with that past.
Readers experience the story through the eyes of the characters. They feel their emotions, their fears, their strengths, their weaknesses, etc. And we, as readers, know of these things because the narrative prose is describing them — often in great detail.
When a character deals with a conflict that the story presents, we immediately learn how it affects them. They may be conflicted. A third-person narrative may keep us in the dark. But by the end of the story, we read the inner emotions of the character in one way, shape, or form.
Screenplays don't have the freedom of doing that.
Screenplays Share the Outer Emotions of the Story's Characters
While screenplays can display the inner emotions of the story's characters, those inner emotions have to be personified and communicated by outer emotional displays through action or dialogue that can be present on the screen for all to see.
There's no freedom of writing inner thoughts — with the exceptions being narration or voice over — in screenplays. There's no way to convey the past life of the character unless you show it within a scene or use dialogue to tell the story.
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Characters express their emotions outwardly. They cry when they're sad. They laugh when they're happy. They scream when they're mad.
A character may withhold their emotions from the screen, but only until they eventually unleash it because, otherwise, the screenwriter is not telling a cinematic story.
For example, let's take a look at a rather emotional scene in the film There Will Be Blood. Within the context of the film, Daniel is trying to win over the locals to gain favor for his own business endeavors, so he chooses to succumb to the religious show that Eli puts on at Daniel's expense.
We know this not because a narrator has told us these details, but because the actions and reactions leading up to the scene informed us of Daniel's ways. Within knowing the parts of the story and characterization that came before this scene, the only information we have is Daniel's outer emotions — what is presented to us in physical manifestation.
In a novel, we would be told, sometimes in detail, exactly what was going through Daniel's mind at the time.
Daniel holds in his rage towards Eli. He knows that Eli is taking advantage of the situation. He knows that Eli is fully aware that Daniel needs these people to further his investments and prospects. But he doesn't dare break character. Even as Eli pushes him further and further, heart and mind boiling at the very mention of Daniel's son.
Screenplays are about outer emotions. Novels are about inner emotions.
The way you adapt a novel into a screenplay is by taking those inner emotions and turning them into outer emotions by using dialogue and action (crying, laughing, screaming) to communicate them.
And if you want to turn your screenplay into a novel, you simply use the freedom of being able to communicate inner emotions to your advantage by looking deeper into the minds of your characters and communicating what you find.
Screenplays are about outer emotions, novels are about inner emotions — and that is the single concrete difference between screenplays and novels.
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