5 Reasons Why Novelists Need to Write a Screenplay
The idea of writing a screenplay can seem incredibly scary to a prose writer. Maybe it's the format or the formula that keeps you away, or maybe it's the fact that you're worried you'll lose your style or ability to explore inner monologues the same way on screen as you do in your novel.
While these fears are totally justified, as someone who writes both screenplays and novels, I can say that it's not so much that you lose your style or voice as a writer when you write screenplays, you just have to think about them differently.
That's why when I talk about writing in a new medium, I always call it "translation" and not adaptation. Adaptation implies you're just copying and pasting the story over into a new medium, and usually that yields results no one is happy with.
But when you think about writing in a new medium as a translation of your skills, you can understand that nothing is lost from your novel writing voice, it just is being translated differently, and sometimes even better!
Think about language. In English and in Spanish, we can say the same things and communicate the same ideas. However, how those things are said, the context, the culture, the rhythm, and so forth changes, but the meaning and ideas remain the same.
If you speak two languages you'll know what I mean when I say some things are better said in one language than in the other, and vice versa, because each language has its own strengths at communicating words and thoughts.
The same exact can be said about storytelling!
However, even if you're still skeptical about the whole process, while you wait for enrollment to open for my literary screenwriting course, here are five reasons why screenwriting will actually help your novel writing.
1. It'll get rid of your writer's ego
The writer's ego – something I talked about in greater detail over at Well-Storied – is essentially any storyteller's obsession with their name as a writer, and how people perceive that name.
While pride for one's work is very good, oftentimes a heavy focus on our names as writers means we get more caught up in how we are perceived as people, and not how our stories are told and whether or not we are telling them in the best way possible.
The writer's ego is arguably the most prevalent in all novelists because they alone are the ones telling their story, so their word is final and the credit they are given is, therefore, the heaviest of them all. In other mediums, like screenwriting or video game writing, there are other variables at hand, and so not all the work can be credited towards the writer.
You might be thinking that you want all that credit and that's why you write novels.
That desire is completely understandable. However, when left unchecked, your writer's ego can propel you to think about yourself more than the stories you are telling.
For instance, have you ever had an author you loved when they were lesser known? And then when their name took off and they became famous, their work started to become stale and repetitive?
That's because of the writer's ego.
It's a difficult thing to manage, and something I'll be going over at Well-Storied next week, however one of the best ways to put your writer's ego in its place is with screenwriting.
Why is that?
Well, with screenwriting, you don't have the final say with your project. The director, the editor, the producer, and so forth all have the final say, and that can really worry some people.
What if your story is ruined? What if they take out the best parts? What if they just hire a new writer all together?
However, what's even more horrifying to many writers is the scary thought that someone might take your story and make it better.
If your story is ruined, so what? You didn't make that change, so it's not your fault! But if it's improved? Well, then your writer's ego might shrink down some after realizing your voice as a writer is really made up of tons of other voices, and that's what makes it so good!
As novelists, it's hard to see how others shape and impact our work, but in screenwriting not only is it blatantly clear, but we have no choice in whether we see it or not because as you write a script, you're writing knowing that your "brilliant" idea may not make it to the screen.
And while that might terrify you as a novelist, taking a moment to write a script from time to time will help you keep that writer's ego in check.
2. Screenwriting will help you understand what makes your story so strong
Novels give you a lot of time to wander as a writer. While I don't think that's bad – it's what makes the medium so powerful – if you're having trouble understanding what your stories are about, then it might be because your novel is wandering so far away from you, you can't see what the core story is.
Because screenplays have to be so efficient, there isn't any time for wandering. In fact, every scene in a screenplay usually is around two to three pages long, which translates to about two to three minutes. Pretty quickly you can see how such short scenes require you to strip your story down to the bare minimum and see it for what it is:
A good story, or not?
In reality, a lot of mediocre stories exist in prose because they can dazzle you with language and style. While that's not a bad thing – I have tons of books I love, knowing the story isn't "amazing" but still loving for the sake of the writer's command of language – if you really want to write a novel that both uses the language and tells a powerful story, you can use screenwriting to see how well your story stands up without all the "fluff." (But I do really love that fluff, don't get me wrong!)
As you write a screenplay, your time is very limited, so you have to choose only the strongest elements of your story or otherwise clutter your narrative up with other weaker parts, which no one wants!
This then also forces writers to cut out any scenes that don't move the plot forward, breaking down the film to its core story and telling it from there.
Whether you choose to adapt (or, as I like to say, "translate") your novel into a film, something I did a webinar on last weekend, or write a new story from scratch as a screenplay, you'll find very quickly that screenwriting teaches you to write the strongest story possible in a short amount of time. This exercise then forces you to see what makes your story strong and then gives you a place where you can enhance those areas even further.
Ready to give screenwriting a chance? I make it easy with my simple e-course, Speedy Screenwriting!
3. It'll teach you to write powerful scenes
In screenwriting, we use the phrase "get in late, get out early," which essentially asks all writers to enter a scene as late as possible and to end the scene as soon as possible. This forces screenwriters to maximize their time on screen and use it as efficiently as they can.
While I a strict adherence to this rule can often feel robotic, even if you don't stick to writing perfect two to three-page scenes, screenwriting forces you to maximize your time in a scene so that you are only using the most powerful parts.
Novel writing often involves a lot of build up or exposition and while those traits and fine and often quite effective in novels, screenwriting calls the writer to only choose moments that move the plot forward or reveal information about character.
The more you are forced to practice doing this – like in screenwriting – the better you'll be able to use these same tools in your novel writing, always considering whether or not the chapter you're writing serves a purpose or whether it's just there because you like the idea of it. (A problem I know I deal with all the time in my prose!)
So if you find that your scenes aren't memorable or that they leave readers feeling like something is missing, consider how writing a screenplay every now and then might sharpen up your scene writing tools.
4. Screenwriting will teach you to be efficient with your words.
Speaking of maximizing time, when you write a screenplay, you have to write sentences that at first may make the descriptive and flowery writer in you cry, but with a bit of practice, you'll see that screenwriting challenges you to convey a ton of information in the least amount of words possible.
Think about characters, for example. In a novel, you can spend pages and pages describing the backstory of your character, their internal struggles, and their various relationships. Of course, a lot of prose writers will dissuade novelists from doing this, saying it's "telling" instead of showing," but I am one of the few people who believe novels are all about telling and therefore love to read about backstories in a novel. It's why I love fables and magical realism so much!
But my opinions aside, whether you think explaining backstories is good or not in a novel, the possibility to do so is always there. However, in screenwriting, even if you wanted to, you can't really describe a character in ten pages. Instead, you must describe them in one sentence, maybe two at most.
Do you see how that challenges you to be efficient as a writer?
Again, always being efficient can be boring, but if you're struggling with dawdling plot points in your novels, jumping over to screenwriting for a bit is going to force you to convey information in as a few words as possible.
At first, this might feel very limiting, but over time you'll come to see that this constraint on the number of words you can dedicate to information makes you even more creative as a writer, not less, because you have to rethink every word and its value in a sentence.
5. It will teach you to express exposition not with dialogue, but with images in your novel.
If novels are about telling – say what you will, you have to use words to tell a story in a novel – then screenwriting is all about showing.
While some exposition in the screenwriting world can be expressed via dialogue, it has to be done so in a subtle way that doesn't just explain things to the viewer. Though that might work in a novel, unless you're Ferris Bueller, if your characters begin to relate backstory and exposition all through dialogue it starts to feel like the story is spelling things out on screen for the audience and gets boring very quickly.
As a result, these two features of storytelling must be conveyed via images in films.
To novelists, that might seem hard. but if you think about how "a picture is worth a thousand words" and a movie is made up of thousands and thousands of pictures, it becomes a bit easier to comprehend.
As you begin to write more and more scripts, you'll find you can convey a lot with the way someone gestures or what your character looks and when they do so. If a character doesn't trust someone, how do they behave around them, where do they look, how do they move?
Or if your character loves someone, how do they see the world? Is that world only filled with that person, always standing front and center?
Or if your character is shy, where do they stand in large groups? How do they react when someone pushes them as they walk by?
All of these questions, when answered, turn into visual queues for the audience that they pick up right away, so that they don't need to wonder if your character is in love with someone else – they can see it plainly – or whether or not your character has a dark secret – their behavior says it all.
But it works beyond just people too. The history of a city, of an object, of a home – these can all be conveyed via images, not words, and the more screenplays you write, the more you'll learn to really tell a visual tale without relying on the words of prose and dialogue.