Thursday, September 3, 2009

Screenplays vs Books: What's the difference?

Since I already alluded to it in my post yesterday I thought I might as well end your suspense (I'm sure you've been holding your breath this whole time) and make today's blog about the difference between a book and a screenplay. Thus, I now present...

Screenplays vs. Books: What's the difference?

There's a reason why it's so rare for an author write the script for the movie adaption of their own novel, and it's not just Hollywood politics (though that does play a role). Screenplays and books are two completely different animals, and generally what makes one good will make the other deplorable, so it takes a very diverse writer to be able to pull off both.

The difference lies in the very essence of what they are. A book is an end product. It's written for the consumer, designed to pull them in and not let them escape until they've gobbled up every word, hopefully multiple times. A screenplay, on the other hand, is a means to an end. It's never going to be read by anyone other than industry professionals (or the occasional film geek who knows how to google) and it's not written to be. It even has its own format and its own shorthand, which the Average Joe wouldn't understand. Basically it's an instruction manual for how to make the film. The film is then presented to the masses, and the screenplay gets shoved in an archive somewhere and never thought of again.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not implying that screenplays are a lesser entity. I've read some amazing screenplays in my life (none of which were mine) and there's definitely an art to writing them. And believe me, I've studied that art...a lot. And honestly, I hated it. Because a good screenplay needs to be several things, and none of them fit with the way I think as a writer.

For one thing, it needs to be concise...and in case you haven't noticed, I can be kind of long winded. The average screenplay is around 120 pages, all of which have huge margins and tons of spacing, so every word is precious and must be chosen carefully. Dialogue is also essential and prose (any sort of description) is limited to an absolute bare minimum.

On top of that, a screenplay is written for specific targets: directors and actors. Now, most of you probably haven't met any directors, but I have and I can tell you they all have one thing in common: everything is all about their vision. Honestly, that's the way it should be, because you have to have vision to make a good film. But that makes it hard for the writer, because if you want to write something that will appeal to a director, you have to make an effort to leave your own vision out of it. Sure, you're still the writer, and you still get to leave your mark on things. But instead of writing every detail of the fantastic car chase between Freddie (in a minivan) and Vance (on a Vespa) through the streets of San Diego, your script should read something like this:

Freddy jumps in his minivan and speeds away. Vance hijacks a vespa and follows. Dramatic chase through the Gaslamp Quarter ensues.

And the reason for that is because, one: you don't have the room for that kind of description, and two: the director will want to come up with it himself. And it's the same thing with actors. You may want to put acting directions before each line of dialogue so everyone will know exactly how the character says it in your head. But an actor wants to come up with their own take on the character. So they don't want you telling them that they should say a line angrily or sadly or quietly. They want to decide that themselves. And none of this is a bad thing. Films are a "collaborative effort," so of course the screenplay should leave some room for interpretation. But I'm a bit of a control freak, and if I write a line of dialogue or a car chase I want to be the one to describe it. So it drove me crazy having to leave it up to someone else.

Finally, screenplays are extremely external--extremely visual. After all, the words are the blueprints for a movie, and movies are, by definition, a visual art. So if you want to show that a character is depressed, you have to do it visually. Sure, part of that comes from the actor's performance. But it also comes from the clothes you put the character in. The way their house looks. Maybe even the weather (ever notice how it's always raining when something bad happens in a movie?). Because you can't just have a character say, "I'm depressed" (well, you can, but it's not exactly good writing). And you also can't go into the character's head and let the audience hear their thoughts (unless you use a narrator, which is considered another no no). You have to find a better way to convey it. But that isn't the way I think. I love getting inside the character's heads, really exploring their deepest thoughts and feelings. And I couldn't do that in a screenplay. And it really stunted my writing.

So after four years of trying to find a happy medium, I finally accepted the truth: I'm not a great screenwriter. I'm an okay screenwriter. Sometimes I'm even a good screenwriter. And I was probably good enough to find work in Hollywood (after all, there certainly is enough horribly written stuff out there). But if I was going to put my ideas, my art--if you will--out there for all to see, I didn't want to to just be okay. I wanted it to be great...or at least the best I could do. And that meant writing books. So that's what I write.

And someday, if my book becomes a tremendous success and Hollywood wants to turn it into one of their summer blockbusters (hey, if you're gonna dream, dream big, right?) I want no part of the screenplay. Sure, I want to make sure they don't transform my characters into teenage prostitutes from another planet (you think I'm joking, but it can happen). But I'm not a screenwriter, and I don't want to be. Mind you, I'm not exactly losing sleep over this kind of decision (especially since I haven't even finished my rough draft yet). But it's always good to be prepared, right?

1 comment:

  1. Hi Shannon :)
    Thanks for sharing about the differences between scripts & books. I was going to go for screenwriting but I learned that anyone over 30 is considered too old to be a beginner scriptwriter.
    (Is that true?)
    All the best,


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