Writing Scripts and Writing Books - You Can Do Both If You Are Willing To Learn The Difference
As an established writer of numerous books, articles, stories and scripts – some produced and some optioned, I am well aware the difference between the two forms. Each story has its own unique point of view and own way that it is best told. Some scripts will transform easily into books (and visa versa) and some will not.
There is a myth that screenplays are easier to write than books. That is false.
Another myth says that writers of books are (will be) paid handsomely for their rights and that Hollywood is just waiting for your book. I wish that were the case.
Don’t forget they have to hire a screenwriter to rework the book (often on spec or for very little pay) and take all the risks while trying to sell the book/script to the larger producer or studios. (Seldom will the studios pick up the book on their own. They usually wait for the smaller producers to bring it to them.)
Sometimes producers will take your book just because they have fallen in love with your title (which in truth cannot be copy written) and other times they will take your story and change it around so drastically that not only won’t you, the writer, be able to recognize your own story, but you might even want to hide in the closet when the movie comes out.
It is possible that you, the book writer, can write the script. That doesn’t mean they will buy your script as is, but it does give the producer a sense of where the book can go when it is converted. It might mean you will be paid a little more for doing the first draft. If a studio does get behind your story, they will probably hire an A-list writer who has already had some successes to redo the script. In fact, there might be more than one writer on your story. If the studio isn’t happy with the first writer, they will hire another.
There are many similarities of both scripts and books.
For one thing both have to be powerful stories with engaging characters, great beginnings, middles and endings.
As with all writing there is the eternal question of plot versus character. I, for one, am a proponent of the characters reigning. You can have the most wonderful plot, the perfect structure, with all the twists that you can think of and the novel or script can still fall flat. If you don’t have engaging characters that the reader and view can identify and bond with, to root for, feel sorry for and want to see succeed in their goals – both internal and external – than your story will go nowhere. Bios need to be done on each and every one of your characters. Understand your characters journeys and their arcs. Don't just concentrate on the main character. Think of your secondary characters as well. They have roles and provide conflict.
I am a firm believer in outlining. It helps you to establish set ups and pay offs, plant clues and twists, as well as seeing where you are falling short. Knowledge of structure is important. There are various sources that insist the inciting incident must happen by such a page, act breaks on another page, etc. and while the foundation is looser in the books, it still has to be there.
In both books and scripts, the beginning must be exciting and compelling. The first ten pages are crucial. Descriptions of the character have to be shown through actions and not through physicality as many novice writers are want to do. Some readers and producers won’t read passed the first few pages if they are not interested.
It goes without saying that grammar and spelling must be PERFECT. A few typos on the page will alert the reader that you are not concerned with your story.
The stakes must be high and get higher as the plot progresses.
Each genre has its own formula. Certain elements must be followed for the genre you are writing.
The research must be authentic. If you don’t know something, ask. Experts are usually willing to help writers.
Titles are crucial. As we said earlier, titles cannot be copy written, but they should mean something to you. They must give a hint of the genre and entice the reader. Usually I will research my chosen title as I don’t want my story to be associated with others of the same title that are not (as good as) my story.
Proper formatting is important in books – double spaced with proper indentation, but in scripts format is critical and people can be picky - using it as a reason sometimes to reject your baby. Scripts, especially, need plenty of white space without long passages of narrative and explanation. (A script reader will often glance through the pages and if it looks like a heavy read, they will put it aside maybe to be read later, maybe not at all.)
Industry standards are Movie Magic (which I prefer because they don’t charge for tech support) and Final Draft. Though there are several other programs out there and you can create your own using proper margins on Microsoft Word.
When I wrote the prequel of Cagney and Lacey book for Dell, I decided that I wanted to write a script for the show. However, when I turned the script in, the story editor lambasted me. If I couldn’t get the script format correctly, he wasn’t even going to read what I gave him.
Fancy covers, ornate fonts, and presentations will mark you as a novice.
In both books and scripts, you must understand your audience. Who are you writing for? Do you understand them? Your book or script is not going to be for everyone – as novice writers would like to believe. If you are writing a young adult, you must speak current teen talk; if you are writing mysteries you need to understand the beats and format of a mystery. You need to know a bit about marketing. Who will your readers be? Be sure that you are writing for your readers and not just writing for yourself. (If you are that's okay, just be aware you might not be selling it.)
In either case, do not talk down to your readers. Do not explain too much to them. Plant clues but don’t shout out everything or repeat too much. Don’t depend too much on exposition to tell your story. Let it show in action and in dialogue.
Know that that rewriting is a way of life for writers. Seldom is your first draft the perfect one that we would like to think it is. By not wanting to rewrite, it means your story might not sell immediately or at all. Not everything you have written is gold. Be willing to change.
In one script, I rewrote it eight times based on notes from various people and finally realized, as all writers should, that they need to listen to their hearts for their story. As a script writer you get notes not only from other writers, but producers, actors, directors, and agents, whereas as a book writer, you only have to listen to your agent and editor. Script writing is a team sport where as novel writing is more singular.
You have to learn to interpret the notes and understand what they really mean when they ask you to put a monkey in that scene or change your main character from a male to a female. Try to get to the root of what they don't understand and what you can do to change it without destroying your story.
However, if more than two people make similar comments about your story, about not understanding your character or their motive, than you need to consider. Is the story that you are getting across the same one that you are trying to tell? What are they reading? Is it what you are really writing? Maybe you know the character and her back story well, but it's not coming across on the page.
Sometimes persistence is the key here to a sale. (One story I started over fifteen years before – my young adult AGAINST HER WILL - is finally seeing the light of day and will be out March 2015. It just wasn’t the right time then and yes, some changes did have to be made.)
In both ways you need to understand how to write a synopsis and treatment.
Now for the differences.
Novels can be as long as you want them to be – within publishing reason, of course. The price for printing is higher than before and many publishers have limits on their book length. They also want to take into consideration the fact that reader’s attention span is shorter than it used to be. No longer will they sit for a thousand page manuscript as they did in Dickens’ days.
Scripts, on the other hand, are growing shorter and shorter. Once 120 pages was the standard. Now scripts should be between 99-110 pages. In fact, some horror scripts are only 90 pages.
Novels can have multiple view points. While you follow one main character, it is permissible for the writer to go off on subplots and explore the life of the secondary characters. It’s also possible – top an extent – to explore the setting, location, time period and politics of the story. In the script, one needs to stay true, as much as possible, to the main character, following their actions and reactions. In fact, your protagonist should plan to be in 90% of the scenes.
Writing a script has been likened to writing poetry. Less is more. Symbols are often used. Language and sentences are best short and terse. Though even with books, the shorter your sentences, the more tension in your story.
Flashbacks and voiceovers are discouraged in scripts unless they really move the story forward. If you have to put them in, they must be kept short. While you don’t want to go into too many flashbacks in books, especially at the beginning of the story, you can weave more back story in during the process of the tale.
Everything in the script must be visual, whereas in books one can go into the character’s thoughts and feelings. Showing and not telling is even more important here. One doesn’t necessarily say that Andrea was angry, but Andrea clenched her fist; her face flushed. See the visual.
Whereas books can go everywhere and anywhere, have space fights and alien crashes, in writing the script, especially if you are an unknown or new scriptwriter, a low budget for filming your story – which is really a blueprint for the film – should be considered. Oh, you can write in car chases and exploding buildings, but unless you are Michael Mann or otherwise well known, you will have trouble selling the script with expensive effects. That script might stay on your shelf until you have proven yourself with lower budget stories. Things like animals and children also add to the expense of a film. That also means keeping the number of characters and number of locations down to a minimum. No hordes of angry mobs. So it’s better if you can find another way express that scene.
If you are adapting your book to a script, you will want to see which characters are really crucial to the story. You might find yourself condensing the number of characters and simplifying the story. Books can go through generations and extended years. In a script, you will find that you want to condense the time period of your story and heighten the ticking bomb to increase the suspense.
In scripts, especially you need to have a succinct log line of no more than two lines that indicate the genre, a little about the character and their conflict and obstacles. Though it is good, even as a book writer, to understand and have a pitch for your book especially when you attend conferences, etc.
Agents also differ in the script world. While you do need representation to be considered credible, agents are not as necessary for the newbie scripter. A screenwriter, especially one just starting out, is probably better with a manager than an agent, who will really only get behind you if you are already selling well. The screenwriter can also get an entertainment attorney to assist them with sending out their material.
Lastly as a novelist, you can write from anywhere. Yes, you can write scripts anywhere, but it helps to be in Los Angeles so that you can be available for industry networking and meetings. Mostly, face to face meetings only happen once your agent or manager arranges them, but who knows what producer or showrunner you might run into at Coffee Bean. Of course, Skype does wonderful things these days and internet sites as www.Stage32.com can put you in touch with executives to pitch to even from Europe. Hollywood is a relationship industry so that more personal networking you can do, the better.
As I said before each story has its own narrative form that fits it best. If your book has too many subplots and too many characters, maybe a script isn’t right for it. If your book has too many “talking heads” (dialogue) and not enough action scenes, you might have to add some. It’s easier to go from a script to a book since that can be used as a detailed outline for your book.
The fact is that each type of writing takes a different mindset, but basically, no matter what you are writing, you need a fabulous story.
So start writing.and check out my new book The Ultimate Writers Workbook For Books And Scripts - Motivational Press - on my site www.seritastevens.com