Paul D. Marks made his EQMM debut in this year’s November issue with the story “Howling at the Moon,” but he has long been established in the field, and is the author of more than thirty published short stories. He is also a screenwriter and he tells EQMM he “has the distinction, dubious though it might be, of being the last person to have filmed on the fabled MGM backlot before it bit the dust to make way for condos.” Recently, he has turned more of his attention to novel-length fiction, and last year he added a Shamus Award for his 2012 mystery-thriller novel White Heat to his other credits as a crime writer. In today’s post he gives us a look at what’s involved in wearing the various hats of screenwriter, novelist, and short-story writer.—Janet Hutchings
The Hook, The Setup
As a former “script doctor,” I’m often asked by people who’ve never written a screenplay what the differences between screenplays, novels, and short stories are, since I’ve written all three. And I always turn the question back on them before I respond. They come up with a variety of answers and most are pretty good. But they almost never hit on what I consider to be the main difference. I can’t go into all the nuances, but here’s a sampling.
A lot of people come up with length as their first answer. Sure, print ’em out and stack ’em up next to each other and the shortest pile will be the story, then the screenplay, then the novel.
Another common answer is that screenplays and the movies made from them are visual. They are light and movement versus words on a page. And they do rely heavily on visual images (i.e. the famous waves crashing on the beach in the classic film From Here to Eternity, and the door closing on Diane Keaton at the end of The Godfather). But, when writing a screenplay, whether a romance or a mystery, one doesn’t have to go into a lot of baroque description of the scene. For the most part, and to paraphrase Gertrude Stein, a beach is a beach. In a novel you might describe the golden sands and foamy waters lapping on the shores, but in a screenplay it’s just EXT. BEACH – DAY, with very little description below the “slugline,” unless there’s something really important about this particular beach that needs to be pointed out.
People also say that novels can be internal, while screenplays are external. In prose, it’s easier to get into the characters’ heads and emotions. In a screenplay/movie, actors have to be able to show their internal emotions through dialogue, expressions, and actions, although on occasion there is a voice-over narrator, but that’s the exception. Screenplays/movies consist of what you can see and hear. Novels can be more complex, have more threads, subplots, and characters. Movies usually have an A and B story, novels can have A-Z stories. Look at some of those classic Russian novels or even L.A. Confidential. Ellroy’s book is very complex, with lots of characters and subplots. The screenplay was effectively condensed and tightened, while still keeping the essence of the novel.
Another major difference between a screenplay and a short story or novel is, of course, the format. Screenplays consist of sluglines, action, and dialogue. They are also highly structured, usually in the “three-act structure,” which also lends itself to mystery story and novel plotting, as it’s very tight. I often do a first draft of a story or novel as a screenplay—my “outline,” if you will. Even a movie like Pulp Fiction, which at first glance doesn’t seem to follow the three-act structure does, if you take it apart and reorder the scenes chronologically.
And while dialogue in all three forms should advance the plot and reveal character, in screenplays it needs to be short and concise and carry a lot of weight, or subtext. I once had a producer tell me that dialogue should read like “ten-word telegrams.” Maybe that’s a little exaggerated, but not much. And, of course, movie dialogue is written for actors to speak, which is very different from dialogue on the page of a novel.
There is also lots of overlap between the various forms. All tell a story, and all should have something compelling to interest us, characters we can relate to, a story that’s intriguing, a puzzle to solve, etc. I once heard someone say that all stories are mysteries, and if you think about it, they really are, even if not crime mysteries. But the one thing all three forms have in common is that they’re based on conflict, an overall story conflict and smaller conflicts of one kind or another in just about every scene. Even Disney movies have conflict. Without it your story is dead in the water.
The Transition to and from Screenplays
When I first started trying to write stories and novels, I had trouble with the transition from screenwriting. In fact, one person who read an early novel of mine said that it read (too much) like a screenplay. Maybe it didn’t have the INT./EXT. sluglines and other things common to screenplays, but it still read like one. My transitions were too abrupt. And I really needed to work on my descriptions, as in most screenplays they’re on the sparse side to say the least, and I needed to flesh them out. I also needed to delve more into the characters’ heads.
Another issue is that movies are most often told from multiple points of view and in novels these days that’s largely frowned upon. So when I first began writing stories I would write from multiple POVs in a single scene. I guess you’d call it the omniscient point of view and I had to wean myself off of that.
Another thing to keep in mind if you try your hand at a screenplay is that one script page equals one minute of screen time. And there is definitely an art to getting that right.
But none of these are what I would consider the main difference between a screenplay and a novel or short story. The main difference is that a screenplay is not the final product. Movies are a collaborative art and a screenplay is more like an architect’s blueprint, whereas the novel is the finished house, from roof tiles and exterior walls to carpet, pipes, and insulation. When you’re writing a screenplay, you are the architect, drafting the plan to give to other people who will add the plumbing, electric, and other elements. You are writing for an army of people. Everyone thinks of the director and the stars or actors. But you’re also writing for the greensmen, best boys, set decorators, hair and makeup, set dressers, art directors, cinematographers, costumers, etc. Every one of these people has to know what they’re supposed to bring to your script. So you have to write with all of them in mind. But you also have to write with a certain finesse that is movie writing and not novel writing, which means not a lot of elaborate descriptions of the glorious sunset. Just enough to give a feel for the scene.
Novels and stories, even with an editor’s input, remain largely the writer’s vision. In a novel or short story, you’re the director, art director, production designer, set decorator all rolled into one. In a screenplay you’re part of a team. Screenplays become movies, which are the vision of several entities—writer, director, actors, et al—while novels and stories are complete in themselves.
The Bottom Line
You can’t talk about only the writing when you talk about the differences between a screenplay and a novel or short story. You also have to talk about the business side of things—Show Biz—because it’s all intertwined.
When you write a Hollywood screenplay, you are not the captain of your own ship. Unless you’re going to raise the money and produce and film it yourself (more possible these days than ever before), you will be rewritten, because in Hollywood you don’t retain the copyright to your script once you sell it. And credits on Hollywood movies are determined by arbitration in the Writer’s Guild and not everyone gets screen credit. Also, if you go non-union, you don’t get residuals or royalties at all.
If you have an ego, write novels, because everyone in Hollywood gets rewritten. And don’t think you’re going to be the exception. Whether you write an original spec screenplay that’s bought or optioned or if you sell a novel to Hollywood, you will be rewritten and you most likely won’t have much say about what goes into the rewrites. Even a novelist as big and successful as Clive Cussler, who supposedly had a great amount of control over the script based on his novel Sahara, is so unhappy with the final result of that movie and the way the producers treated him that he’s suing them.
I eventually left screenwriting because I wanted to have more control over my stories and characters. I also got tired of my dad not knowing what I did because, though there might be up to three or so writer credits listed, there’s often an army of rewriters who don’t receive screen credit. And I wanted to be able to tell my stories my way and not have someone change them because they needed the story to fit a twenty-five-year-old actor instead of a forty-five-year-old actor. So now I write stories and novels and they’re exactly what I want them to be—well, close. And maybe one of these days Hollywood will come calling again and want to buy one of my novels . . . and then someone will rewrite me.