Why writing a screenplay is great for storytellers

The Screenwriter: An Architect of Dreams!

A complete draft of a screenplay has a maximum of 120 pages, and amounts to about 30 000 words, compared to the 40 000 words of a novella, and the 80 000 to 100 000 words of a novel (which can extend beyond 500 pages).

“Screenwriting is a highly disciplined form of storytelling, one that comes closer to poetry writing than too many forms of prose. It is probably the best discipline to teach you the rules and structure of storytelling and thus inherently valuable to any writer,” says Richard Krevolin,  an award-winning screenwriter, author, playwright, and professor. A graduate of Yale University, Richard went on to earn a masters degree in screenwriting at UCLA’s School of Cinema-Television, and a master’s degree in playwriting and fiction from USC.

A screenplay is writing intended to be turned into a film: 125 pages filled with vivid images (visual narrative), words, dialogue, description, memorable characters, and action. A screenplay is a unique breed of animal that is fun for the storyteller to tame, and exciting to master.

To tell a story, you must set up your characters, introduce the dramatic premise (what the story is about) and the dramatic situation (the circumstances surrounding the action), create obstacles for your characters to confront and overcome, then resolve the story.

All stories, from Aristotle through all the constellations of civilization, embody the same dramatic principles.

The Lord of the Rings is a film series of three epic fantasy adventure films directed by Peter Jackson, based on the novel written by J. R. R. Tolkien, the screenplays were crafted by Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Peter Jackson, and Stephen Sinclair. It is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential film series ever made.

  • The screenwriter creates everything that will become part of a film; a producer will finance the film; a director will direct the action; actors will bring the characters to life; production and costume designers will design the costumes and sets; a cinematographer will operate the camera; the special and visual effects teams will create the special effects, and so on – all things which novelists would do on their own. 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. 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 screenwriter delegates many responsibilities to others and is 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 is about it. The director decides what goes on film, which is far more significant. But let us 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. The novelist is a one man or woman band doing everything themselves.

The screenwriter and the novelist are equivalent and have similar creative experiences, and the novel and the screenplay do have one important thing in common, 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 forms of both are different but the underlying principles and structures are the same.
  • From inspiration to last draft you may need as much time to write a screenplay as to write a novel. Screen and prose writers create the same density of world, character, and story.
  • Prose writers fill pages as fast as they can type, screenwriters cut and cut again, ruthless in their desire to express the absolute maximum in the fewest possible words.
  • For the screenwriter economy is the key. The screenwriter cannot, like the novelist (in authorial voice), or the playwright (in soliloquy), hide behind his words.
  • The screenwriter cannot smooth a coating of explanatory or emotive language over cracks in the logic, blotchy motivation, or colourless emotion and simply tell us what to think and how to feel. The camera is the dread X-ray machine of all things false. It magnifies life many times over, and then strips naked very weak or phony story turn.

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.

Why Novelists Need to Write a Screenplay

  • Structure is everything – The same concept of structure can be applied to a novel. A good story doesn’t meander aimlessly from moment to unrelated moment in the hopes of making sense in the end—it needs a path to follow. Otherwise, readers will get lost or, worse yet, lose interest. 
  • Screenwriting will help you understand what makes your story so strong – Novels give you a lot of time to wander as a writer. While I don’t think that’s bad – it’s what makes the medium so powerful – if you’re having trouble understanding what your stories are about, then it might be because your novel is wandering so far away from you, you can’t see what the core story is. Because screenplays have to be so efficient, there isn’t any time for wandering. In fact, every scene in a screenplay usually is around two to three pages long, which translates to about two to three minutes. Pretty quickly you can see how such short scenes require you to strip your story down to the bare minimum and see it for what it is.
  • Whether you choose to adapt (or, as I like to say, “translate”) your novel into a film, or write a new story from scratch as a screenplay, you’ll find very quickly that screenwriting teaches you to write the strongest story possible in a short amount of time. This exercise then forces you to see what makes your story strong and then gives you a place where you can enhance those areas even further.
  • It’ll teach you to write powerful scenes – In screenwriting, we use the phrase “get in late, get out early,” which essentially asks all writers to enter a scene as late as possible and to end the scene as soon as possible. This forces screenwriters to maximize their time on screen and use it as efficiently as they can. Screenwriting forces you to maximize your time in a scene so that you are only using the most powerful parts. Novel writing often involves a lot of build up or exposition and while those traits and fine and often quite effective in novels, screenwriting calls the writer to only choose moments that move the plot forward or reveal information about character. The more you are forced to practice doing this – like in screenwriting – the better you’ll be able to use these same tools in your novel writing, always considering whether or not the chapter you’re writing serves a purpose or whether it’s just there because you like the idea of it. (A problem I know I deal with all the time in my prose!)
  • Screenwriting will teach you to be efficient with your words – When you write a screenplay, you have to write sentences that at first may make the descriptive and flowery writer in you cry, but with a bit of practice, you’ll see that screenwriting challenges you to convey a ton of information in the least amount of words possible. Think about characters, for example. In a novel, you can spend pages and pages describing the backstory of your character, their internal struggles, and their various relationships.
  • It will teach you to express exposition not with dialogue, but with images in your novel, sharpening the art of visual narrative – If novels are about telling – say what you will, you have to use words to tell a story in a novel – then screenwriting is all about showing. While some exposition in the screenwriting world can be expressed via dialogue, it has to be done so in a subtle way that doesn’t just explain things to the viewer.
  • Cut to the chase – One page of a screenplay equals one minute of screen time. Most films are either 90 or 120 minutes long, so that’s exactly how many pages the writer has to tell the story. Every minute counts. If a film’s plot isn’t apparent within the first ten to fifteen minutes, the audience will lose interest. And if too much of the 90- or 120-minute window is wasted on long, pointless scenes, there won’t be enough time to develop the rest of the story properly or resolve it without rushing. Similarly, every page of your novel counts, especially at the very beginning. Many readers—and literary agents and editors—make snap decisions about whether or not they’ll read a book based on the first few pages. Don’t waste those precious pages describing how dark and cloudy the sky is. Introduce your characters. Establish the tone. Set up a story that’s going to knock their socks off, starting on page one.
  • Write it so they can see it – Showing is telling. Screenwriters don’t have the luxury of writing everything out for their audience, so they have to reveal information through nuanced action and dialogue. When a movie is being made, the director and the actors need to be able to see and hear the film through the words on the page. Otherwise, the scene won’t work as the writer intended. Novelists have a similar obligation to their readers. If your entire book consists of back-and-forth dialogue with no description of the simultaneous action, no one is going to know what’s going on. On the flip side, it’s hard to truly empathize or identify with characters in a book of all action and no dialogue.
  •  Develop your charactersScreenwriters have a particular knack for coming up with good characters because they have to. After all, no one is going to sit around staring at a screen for two hours without having some emotional interest in or connection to the characters. The same is true for a novel. Don’t let your plot overpower the fact that your characters are three-dimensional beings. When a reader is depending on your words to create a solid mental image and an emotional connection, the dimension you provide is particularly important. An amazingly well-developed character will go a long way in terms of keeping those pages turning.
  • Every scene is important – Have you ever watched a movie where nothing happens? The characters meet in the middle of the screen, sling some pointless dialogue back and forth, and part with nothing changed. Most of us would consider that a bad movie. So why do the same in your novel? Every scene you write should propel the plot forward, always in the direction of the resolution. If it doesn’t, then it needs to be cut. Cutting the scenes you love isn’t easy for novelists or screenwriters, but it’s a necessary evil. Not only will this keep your word count in check, it will also keep your story lean and the tension high so that readers are strung along every step of the way.

The Write Journey Is Your First Step Towards Becoming A Screenwriter

“Done well, screenwriting is real writing. Yes, there is hack work, but the same is true for novels. There is a lot of drivel on bookshelves, and very few novels that will transport you and uplift you or illuminate some truth of the human condition. The notion that somehow writing novels is real writing and writing screenplays isn’t is nonsense – usually uttered by somebody who couldn’t write a movie that would move people if you held a gun to their head and said, ‘’Show me what great screenwriting is,” says Frank Darabont, The Shawshank Redemption. As a director, Frank Darabont is known for his film adaptations of Stephen King novellas and novels such as The Shawshank Redemption (1994), The Green Mile (1999) and The Mist (2007). He also developed and executive produced the first season and first half of the second season of the AMC horror series The Walking Dead (2010–2011).