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The Novel vs. the Screenplay: a Tough Love Guide for Talented Writers

By James Bonnet

This article can be appreciated by all writers and filmmakers but will be of special interest to writer / storymakers who are trying to decide where to best invest their creative energies and talents - the novel or the screenplay. I'll begin with some general observations concerning the novelist and the filmwright (a new term I'm coining to describe a film's true primary creative artist) and then I'll describe the similarities and critical differences between a novel and a screenplay.

The novelist creates and describes everything that appears in the novel -- the characters, the emotions of the characters, their actions, their thoughts, the plot, the costumes, the atmosphere, the environments, etc. And many of the early filmmakers and movie moguls were like novelists in that they were the primary creative artists (filmwrights) who had the responsibility for creating everything that would become part of the film. But they didn't have the time to do everything themselves, so they had to hire others to do the costumes, design and build the sets, act the parts, operate the camera, direct the action, create the special effects, and so on - all things which novelists would do on their own.

So the large and small production companies or studios were built around the filmwrights. Charlie Chaplin, Irving Thalberg, Steven Spielberg, and Walt Disney, among others are filmwrights. All of the other disciplines, including the writers and directors, have to come to them for approval. And today what we know of as the screenwriter became one of the many functions that served the interests and needs of the primary creative artist, the filmwright, the one who was really making the creative decisions.

The way I see it, the filmwright and the novelist are equivalent and have similar creative experiences, except that the novelist is a one man or woman band doing everything themselves, while the filmwright delegates many responsibilities to others, is generally more sociable, and can handle a great deal more stress.

Looked at in this way (realistically), a screenplay is one facet of a multi-faceted, collaborative artistic endeavor which is governed by someone else and contains lots of dialogue, descriptions of the action (which is divided up into scenes and shots), sparse descriptions of the characters and their emotions, the locations, camera angles, costumes, etc. Everything else is left to some other discipline. The end result will be the visual experience of a film or theatrical motion picture.

Looked at in this way, the novelist is a primary creative artist who transforms imaginary or artistically treated true stories into a fictionalized form of varying lengths from the novella to the epic and beyond. A feature film is generally somewhere in the neighborhood of two hours long. The novel is, by the way, also a visual medium, except that the author uses words to help the reader reconstruct the visual images in their head.

The novel and the screenplay do have one very important thing in common, however. They both have the same underlying story structure. The same story principles apply to both. And, in fact, the screenplay can be an excellent first draft for a novel. The screenplay takes a lot less time to create and you can use it to test the characters and the structure. If it works as a screenplay, you can then transform it into a novel by changing the tense from the present to the past and adding and describing everything else that would be added by the camera, the actors, costume and set designers, including your special artistry and the underlying psychology of the characters.

Now a little tough love for screenwriters. The screenwriter is definitely not the primary creative artist on a film (unless they also get to direct, produce and executive produce) - and they are often not even allowed on the set. They decide what goes on paper and that's about it. The director decides what goes on film, which is far more significant. But let's not forget the producer because he decides who gets to direct. And the actors pretty much do their own thing, at least as far as the writer is concerned. So the screenplay, including a screenplay written by William Shakespeare, is only a suggestion to higher-ups. The producer and then the director get to decide what parts of the script they will use and what parts they will throw away - and what parts they will let someone else rewrite. In other words, you can easily end up being the first of many writers and live to see your script completely changed and perhaps even totally ruined. Then, to add insult to injury, if it doesn't go straight to video and does finally reach the silver screen, you may end up getting no credit at all.

The novelist, on the other hand, who is a primary creative artist, doesn't have these problems. Once you find a publisher and are working with an editor, you are much more likely to end up with something that is close to your original idea. Plus there are many more niche markets available to novelists. You don't have to write to please a general audience or some studio executive who thinks you should be writing to please males between the ages of 18 to 25 or females between the ages 12 and 22.

In any case, when you, as the novelist, pick up pencil and paper or sit down to your computer to write a novel, you already have the money, so to speak. You don't need someone else to put up forty million dollars so you can actually create it, and you don't need Brad Pitt to commit in order to get the studio to make the deal. And you don't need a high powered agent to get the script to Brad Pitt. You are the head of the studio, the filmwright, the director, the primary creative artist. You make all of the decisions and conjure everything yourself down to the last detail, including all the leads. And when you're done, the finished novel is a finished work of art.

Having a finished novel under your arm looking for a publisher is the equivalent of having a finished film under your arm looking for a distributor. And there are very few middlemen between you and your book deal. Even some of the top Eastern agents will respond to your query letters and ask to look at the first two chapters. You can also approach many publishers on your own, even without an agent, if you can present yourself in a credible manner and write a good query letter.

On the other hand, if you're a new screenwriter - i.e. not a professional working writer who already has good credits and an agent - it is very difficult to approach the studios or major independent companies on your own without having an agent or good contacts on the inside. And, generally speaking, for the new writer, the top literary agents in Hollywood are very hard, if not impossible, to get to. They're not really in the business of discovering and nurturing talent. They don't need to be. After you've managed to be discovered or make it big on your own, you'll come to them anyway. In short, there are many thick layers of resistance and obstacles between you and getting your screenplay actually turned into a film.

And then there's the question of money. If you compare the potential a writer can make from his hit movie or his best selling novel, it's no contest. The current WGA low budget minimum for a theatrical motion picture is $53,000, the high budget minimum is $100,000. Occasionally, a screenwriter gets high six figures or even a million dollars for his spec screenplay or as a writer-for-hire. A few writers have gotten as much as three million. And the chances are, no matter how successful the movie is, aside from residuals and other ancillary rights payments, you will never see anymore money than that.

Dan Brown, the author of The DaVinci Code, has made over fifty million dollars in U.S. domestic royalties alone and God knows how much worldwide. That's equal to 50 to 100 super lucrative movie deals. For one project. Plus he gets all the benefits of a movie deal anyway with much more favorable terms than any spec scriptwriter could expect.

Then there is the unkindest cut of all, the question of self-expression. For, in truth, and this is another no contest, there is a much greater opportunity for self expression in a novel than a screenplay. That's easy to demonstrate. Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Balzac, Dickens, Jane Austin, Willa Cather, D.H. Lawrence, Mark Twain, Dostoyevski and countless other great authors all have a unique and recognizable style and are as distinguishable from one another as painters like Rembrandt and van Gogh or composers like Mozart and Beethoven. But try to guess who wrote the screenplay without looking at the credits - if it isn't Charlie Kaufman or David Mamet you're going to have a really hard time.

So I guess the point of this article is that, these days, if you're a talented and serious writer / storymaker, and you're trying to decide whether to write a novel or a screenplay, you should give serious thought to writing a novel. In fact, if you really weigh the advantages and disadvantages, you will probably conclude that writing a spec screenplay, when you don't have a great agent and a solid career already in place, may make almost no sense at all.

In any event, as I indicated earlier, the most important thing the novel and screenplay have in common is story. The forms of both are different but the underlying principles and structures are the same. Story is at the heart of all the different media and all the different genres and if you plan to write novels or write, direct or produce story films, it is important that you learn as much about story as you can. There are six billion people in the world with a desperate need for real stories which isn't being met, and if you take the trouble to learn what a story really is, it will give you a tremendous advantage. (See my other Writers Store articles: The Essence of Story, What's Wrong with the Three Act Structure, Conquering the High Concept, and The Real Key to a Writer's Success )

Meet the Author: James Bonnet

James Bonnet, an internationally known writer, teacher and story consultant, began his career as an actor creating the role of James Roosevelt in the Tony Award winning hit Broadway show, Sunrise at Campobello. He received his first professional writing job at age 23, writing for the television series, It’s A Man’s World. He was elected twice to the Board of Directors of the Writers Guild of America and has written or acted in more than forty television shows and features. Since 1990 he has been conducting intensive weekend story seminars in Los Angeles, and consulting with novelists, screenwriters, producers and directors. Since 2006 he has ...