I was a novelist before I was a screenwriter. And, like most novelists, I firmly believed the book was always (well, okay, almost always) better. So why write screenplays?
I found my answer when I had an idea I was convinced was going to be a novel. It had a great protagonist and an interesting setup, sort of what would happen if Hamlet met Blade Runner. But, as I started trying to structure it and develop the protagonist, I realized something was off.
As a novel, it kept falling flat. I was withholding information from my readers in an awkward way. I couldn’t get the character to sound right. I wrote 10,000 words before I realized it was never meant for the page. It was meant for the screen.
No matter the medium, there are two fundamental elements in every story: a character’s motivations (internal) and actions (external). They dance back and forth, driving the story forward in a constant cycle of action and reaction.
The fundamental difference between stories designed to be read and stories designed to be watched is how the audience experiences the character’s motivations. Are they directly privy to them or must they deduce them?
When you write a novel you have the luxury of being able to get inside your character’s head and let your audience know how they feel and what they’re thinking. In a screenplay, you can’t do that. You have to find a way to visualize and externalize all of the internal emotions and conflicts.
In a novel, a character’s thoughts and emotions dictate the actions they take. In a movie, the viewer can’t know what the character is thinking or feeling, except as those thoughts and feelings are revealed through action.
Let’s look at the scene in Titanic (1997) when Rose is briefly in a lifeboat. Here’s what happens:
- Jack and her fiancé convince her to get in the lifeboat.
- It’s lowered toward the water while she stares at Jack.
- Rose jumps out of the boat, back on board the Titanic.
- She reunites with Jack.
As a viewer watching this scene, we can deduce she loves Jack with reckless abandon and doesn’t care about her own safety. How do we know that for sure? Well, we don’t. We’re not mind readers. But, based on her actions, it seems like a pretty good guess. As a viewer, we first experience her actions and then deduce her emotions.
If Titanic had been written as a novel, we probably would have experienced her emotions first and then observed how those translated into action. With apologies to James Cameron, it could have gone something like this:
The lifeboat descended in spurts, shuddering closer to the icy waves. What was I doing? I’d loved more deeply and lived more fully in the past two days with Jack than I could in a lifetime with Cal. I didn’t want to be in this lifeboat if Jack wasn’t by my side. I flung myself over the keel and scrabbled to find a grip on the canted deck railing.
Titanic is both visually compelling and emotionally rich, so it would likely work equally well as a film or novel. But some stories are meant to be seen, not read. Novels take advantage of getting inside a character’s head, so readers know their thoughts and feelings. Movies take advantage of action and imagery.
Ideas that are very visual or require keeping a secret about a protagonist (that perhaps even the protagonist doesn’t know about themselves) tend to work better as screenplays than novels.