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Writing Prose vs Screenwriting

I do both of the above. I write stories and novellas (and one novel), and I write scripts. I have degrees for both. My undergraduate degree is in screenwriting; my graduate degree is in the rather amorphous “writing,” but my thesis was a YA novel. That I keep meaning to revise.

I’d been focusing more on the prose but then had some success writing a play, and a short script based on one of my novellas, and next thing I knew people were asking for screenplays. Well, okay . . .

But writing a script is very different from writing a story or book. People think if you can do one you can do the other, and that’s not at all true. Not even taking into account things like format, the things you need to think about and really consider are different.

Prose, for me, is very easy. I have characters and places and scenes and events in my head, and in order to put them into a reader’s head so they see what I see, I put the words on paper, ideally in a way the reader finds entertaining so they want to keep reading.

When writing a script . . . Things get complicated. A script is, yes, in part about getting readers to see what you see, but the reader is different. A script is only partly a story. In larger part, it’s an instruction manual. There is a technical element—and I’m not talking about a shooting script, because writers shouldn’t be giving that kind of instruction out of the gate, and that’s something else that newbie screenwriters need to get a handle on; no, the technical element here is simply one of making it clear to a director, to the actors, to producers and the art department, etc. how to construct this movie if they decide to make it. Therefore I find screenwriting much more difficult and time consuming than writing prose. Because a script is: “Here is the story AND here’s how to show it to people.” Make it rain, act sad, do this part at night . . . Stuff that in a story one merely writes, in a script must be made to happen.

People grouse when the movie is different from the book. But these are the reasons: (a) What works in prose doesn’t on screen, often because a long scene of two people talking somewhere will get boring really fast if you have to watch it; (b) what doesn’t cost any money to write (like rain) does cost money to film, so sometimes the budget forces changes; (c) the writer sees a chance to make something different or better than when s/he first wrote it and so changes it in the script version; (d) an actor doesn’t want to (he’ll say it isn’t “true to his character” but that’s really just code for “I don’t wanna”); (e) time constraints . . . There are others, but you see how not all things prose are film friendly. A good screenwriter knows what he’s aiming for and thus knows where to trim. “Does it have to happen in the rain?” he asks himself. If it’s a tiny indie film with no budget . . . Lose the rain machine. Or plan to film during monsoon season.

I’ve currently got two screenwriting projects on my plate, another in the back of my head waiting for me to get ’round to it. And some more prose projects jockeying for space as well. I’ll be glad to get to those, because for me prose can feel like falling into a soft bed after sleeping on a hard floor. After all, writers are on the whole solitary creatures, but screenwriting requires extended amounts of interaction with others. Writing prose is something we can just hole up and do. It’s a good balance. I’m glad—and lucky—to do both.



Comments (1) for post “Writing Prose vs Screenwriting”

  • Plays/screenplays and prose are what I write, too, but I started the opposite way from you: I began with plays and just dove into prose a few years ago. The hardest thing for me, at first, was how much LANGUAGE you have to use in a novel! In plays/screenplays, every word is precious, because you get so few. And everything you want to say has to be expressed in dialogue. But in a novel… I couldn’t believe how many words I had to come up with!

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