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Novel vs Screenplay, Round Two

In Novel vs Screenplay, Round One we discussed how an overemphasis on physical details such as character movement can slow the story down.

The “Filmic” writing style happens because modern-day writers have grown up with television and movies, are influenced by the way in which these other media work, and make the mistake of conflating storytelling styles. The fundamental problem with this is that each medium is different. A TV show has much stricter time limitations, and different ways to move the story along, as well as different ways of ending an episode that attempt to get the viewer to consider watching the next episode. Films are typically one-off events, so the story arc is typically completed at one go (trilogies etc., aside). Even a television miniseries that may run as long as some big film trilogy like Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings, is still influenced by the two-hour time slot for each episode in the miniseries, minus the commercial time, and even such details as screen size.

Novels work in a very different way from films and TV. Book chapters do not correspond to commercial breaks. There is much more room for subplots, for example, and going into a character’s head is done in a very different manner than in film or television. One of the first things a novel writer should keep in mind is that dialogue does not work in a book the way it works on TV and in film. Here starteth the lesson.

Jade frowned and said, “I’m not sure why we’re taking the truck to the store.”

“We have to pick up some extra ammunition for the week,” Erin responded, laconically. “Along with the meat and vegetables, we won’t have room in the Honda for the rest.”

Jade nodded vigorously, clearly wanting to get going.

Erin, however, stubbornly stood where she was.
The sentences above aren’t grammatically incorrect, and they communicate the basics of the scene. But switching from filmic writing (writing a screenplay) to novel writing means doing things differently. The above section of text is very filmic; there is little difference between it and a screenplay. Have a read of the same thing in screenplay format as comparison:

JADE

(Frowning)

I’m not sure why we’re taking the truck to the store.

ERIN

(In a laconic voice)

We have to pick up some extra ammunition for the week. Along with the meat and vegetables, we won’t have room in the Honda for the rest.

Jade nods head vigorously, clearly ready to leave. Erin doesn’t move.

A screenplay is designed to allow the actors to provide the emotional content, thus there is minimal direction in terms of character motivation, or even emotion. The screenwriter’s job isn’t to provide the emotional depth, only to suggest in the broadest sense what that emotion may be.

In a novel, however, there are no actors, only characters that the writer creates out of a magical congregation of words. Everything you write needs to be working toward a goal. And the goal is not dialogue, or adverbs, or other things that simply tell how something happened. The reader wants to know why it happened. The first version above shows the how, by explaining only what Jade and Erin said to each other, and by tacking adverbs on the verbs to specify the type of emotion attribution to the dialogue or physical action. How doesn’t sell the story. What you need is character drama.

Instead of telling the reader that the two people are at odds with each other, the writer has to show it. While the adverbs “laconically” and “stubbornly” in the first version suggest that the reader is seeing things from Erin’s point of view (POV), in the reworking, I highlight Erin’s POV to provide more insight into what the character is thinking and feeling, and use the scene as a way to highlight her motivation (as well as provide some backstory to provide strength to the reasons for Erin’s responses):

Jade frowned, probably ready to complain some more about not being able to drive stick that well. “I’m not sure why we’re taking the truck to the store.”

“We have to pick up some extra ammunition for the week,” Erin responded, with more derision in her voice than she’d even intended. Wasn’t it obvious why they needed to take the truck? Hadn’t Jade been along on the last six trips? Had she forgotten the time they’d had to leave some of the canned foods behind because they’d taken the smaller vehicle? Apparently she had, so Erin explained, once again. “Along with the meat and vegetables, we won’t have room in the Honda for the rest.”

Jade did that annoying bobble-head thing, looking more like a dashboard ornament than someone agreeing to a simple statement. But Erin wasn’t interested in Jade’s reluctant agreement, and it was time to clear things up with Jade about her duties. The group needed everyone focused, or they’d all fail together. It was time for Jade to wake the hell up, and Erin was going to be the alarm clock.

Good use of a POV means we as readers get to delve into the depths of whichever focus character we’re in. Going into a character’s head means the reader can begin to feel the emotions that character is feeling, and begin to love (or hate) that character. Unless the reader can see the character as a real person, that character remains an outline on the page.

Looking for more tips? Here’s what’s up so far. More to come!

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