Cowboys and Indians

Posted: December 15, 2010 in screenwriting
Tags: ,

Novels vs. Screenplays

When I was in grad school, my classmates had a bad habit. If they knew someone had ever written a screenplay, they would look at a story and say, “This was written like a screenplay.” What they usually meant was, “This doesn’t have a lot of detail.” Because they all assumed screenplays lack detail.

It was a mistake because we were all so new in our careers that the kind of habitual writing markers of novelists and screenwriters had yet to be ingrained in any of us. And because screenplays can sometimes be different from fiction only in the formatting. And because I say so.

So what is the difference? Why can’t every book be made directly into a movie?

Because I write both, I can tell you the difference to me.

In writing novels, an author has access to the entire inner workings of every character to cross the page, and the author chooses who to reveal. The author can choose a point of view that restricts access. HOWEVER, an author can’t hide thought that fall into the point of view she has chosen. You can’t write from the first person perspective of a homicidal maniac, and just leave out his thoughts of “Kill. Kill. Kill.” It is dishonest, and your reader will feel tricked.

In a screenplay, however, you have no ability to express a characters thoughts, unless you go crazy Avant Garde and have a running voiceover of thoughts. Even movies that claim mind reading characters are still terribly selective about the mind reading they do. You’re control over point of view is much more limited in screenwriting. In a novel, I can tell you what a character thinks is happening. In a screenplay, not so much.

In a screenplay, you can write in directions for the actor to reveal the character’s thoughts, but it is usually along the lines of an action. Sam frowns. Sam frowns angrily. Sam slams the door shut in a fury. But that script passes into other hands and some mopey actor frowns wistfully instead, and the director likes it, and suddenly, the entire thinking of that character is altered, even if the actions stay the same.

So even if you made your best effort to write a character who reveals their thoughts, ultimately, you don’t have much control over it. Better to focus on actions and dialogue, the things you have better control over. The actor changes the nature of the frown, that’s just how it goes. He changes a punch in the face to stabbing with a broken bottle, and that is a rewrite. Which they can do, too.

I’m not so much concerned about the ultimate lack of control most screenwriters deal with because I don’t write for hire. Which sounds like a self-aggrandizing way of saying I’ve never sold a screenplay. But I’m also not trying to. I write screenplays so that I can direct them. But also, I consider the interpretations of the actor to be a contribution, not a detraction. Most of the time.

When I write screenplays, I leave space for the actor to interpret. I expect to collaborate. When I write novels, I try to fill those spaces with nuance and implications, because I am responsible for everything.

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Comments
  1. Ray of the Hill people says:

    …are you a method writer? cause I feel like you are a method writer.

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