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Writing a Novel Versus a Screenplay

Updated: Jun 14, 2023

‘Being a screenwriter is not enough for a full creative life’ – William Goldman

It’s hard to imagine that the writer of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid could come out with a line like that, but William Goldman warns us that writing only screenplays is denigrating to the soul.

Perhaps this is because a screenplay can take years in development, never see the light of day, or be so radically changed that when it hits the big screen, it does not resemble what the writer intended. Goldman suggests that as screenwriters, we must also write anythingelse to keep our creative minds fulfilled.

As a screenwriter, I embarked on writing my first novel, The Chancer. I had already written the screenplay and used it as a blueprint for the book. The first draft read like an elongated screenplay. I had yet to discard the restrictions that are drummed in from writing screenplays: everything must be visual – if it can’t be seen or heard, it shouldn’t be on the page; frugality of words; constant moving forward of the story. Writing the novel, I could let my mind wander into backstories, hang out with minor characters, ponder the scents of the landscape and describe the inner thoughts and motivations of the characters. What fun and freedom there is to be had writing a novel!

One of the most common remarks about a book that has been adapted to film is, ‘The book is way better’ or ‘I preferred the book.’ The book allows our imaginations to wander, and the story is perceived through the eye of the reader. The film, however, is perceived through the eye of the director, the actors and all the crew that bring the story to life on the screen and the end result may not reflect what the reader saw in his own imagination. The film is also shorter; scenes from the book will be cut, cast reduced, locations erased, and even elements of the story changed to make it work on screen.

One of the fundamental differences between screenwriting and novel writing is description. Where the novelist can take time to build a picture and create tension, the screenwriter is against the clock. The screenwriter can use dialogue to drive home a description that might take the novelist two pages.

– ‘You’re gonna need a bigger boat’ – Jaws

This line in Jaws tells us all we need to know about the shark and the characters’ situation. Screenwriters use dialogue as a tool for describing something quickly. Here’s another example from Escape to Alcatraz.

– ‘How was your childhood?’

– ‘Short.’

The novelist could have taken an entire chapter to describe a difficult childhood that is picked up in one line.

A book is a blank canvas and is not burdened by the technical restrictions of a screenplay, nor does it need to abide so strictly by structure. Of course, novels have structure, and anything that does not serve the story should be cut regardless of the medium, but writing a novel after screenplays is a like removing a straight-jacket.

The final product of the novelist’s hard graft is exactly how the writer intended. In today’s world, once finished, the novel can be published either independently or traditionally. A handful of people enter the author’s world – editor, cover designer, proofreader, and perhaps a publicist. None of them alters the author’s intention.

With a screenplay, in order to bring to the big screen, an endless list of people is needed to transform the written word into a motion picture. From the director to the actors to the producers, the script is fair game for tinkering. Before production on the feature film Songs for Amy, I had to cut locations and key characters to bring the script within the limits of the budget. Whilst shooting, I had to cut and re-write scenes to fit time constraints on the schedule. In some cases, the end result was better than what had originally been written but in others, I wanted to weep over the loss of what I felt were crucial elements of the story. The film is a massive communal effort of which the screenwriter is only the beginning. Actors breathe fresh perspectives on characters, ad-libbing and improvisations may improve a scene; art departments and wardrobe may bring stylistic elements that are not on the page; the director adds their own style and all the other crucial people involved in making the film come together to create the final product.

The curtain goes back, the screen comes to life, and what was written on the page is now a movie with actors embodying the characters of your story – there is nothing like it! As joyous and satisfying as it is to finish a novel, nothing can compete with the wonder of seeing the transition from script to screen.

With my own novel, The Chancer, I benefitted from my background in screenwriting as it is a pacy comedy. Therefore, constantly driving the action forward and using less rather than more suited the genre of the novel. At the same time, by writing the book, I wandered down paths I wouldn’t have seen writing the screenplay, and so when I completed the novel, I went back and rewrote a better screenplay.

So, from here on in, I’ll be writing both. (c) Fiona Graham

About The Chancer:

In 1989, in the west of Ireland, Donnie McNamara, tired of being a family disappointment buys a one-way ticket to Tinseltown to pursue his ridiculed dreams of acting.

Abe Nelson, a fallen Hollywood legend, now wallows in LA dive bars.

Their worlds collide. Abe becomes a mentor for Donnie and is catapulted into his fantastical endeavour.

But will the journey to stardom end in red carpets or red faces?

‘Chance would be a fine thing. But The Chancer is the finest – and funniest thing of all’ – Olaf Tyaransen, Journalist & Author.

‘Hilarious and heart-warming, The Chancer sparkles and pulls you in from the first page. A dazzling debut from Fiona Graham. I devoured it’

– Emma Heatherington, Best-selling author

‘Fantastic book! Sharp, funny and extremely enjoyable’ – Sean Maguire, Actor

Order your copy online here.

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