Following up on my previous blog, here’s more on the difference between writing novels and screenplays.
Some years after my first novel Dry Hustle was published in 1977, I decided to master the film script form so that I could make a decent living. It was time to settle down to one thing; my twenties were all about trying on as many hats as possible: documentary filmmaker, recording artist, novelist (I even squeezed in a musical). I sold a screenplay pitch to MGM, and off I went. That was 30 years ago, and I’m still working. But in contrast to film people who say, “What I really want to do is direct,” I was often heard to say, “What I really want to do is write – books.”
So I embarked on my new novel Jane Was Here with trepidation. I worried that the terse, mechanical style of scripts had rotted away my ability to flow with the narrative form. And in ‘the business,’ a screenwriter has three months to write a 110-pages first draft, so you don’t spend much time weeding and polishing action prose. But in a novel, you can’t write, “GUNSHOT O.S…PAN TO WOMAN (MARY, 30’s) sticking a pistol in purse. She’s beautiful, sexy: think Natalie Portman.” Instead you have to describe the action in beguiling, original prose, free of the cliches you always dispensed freely because film people are comfortable, even reassured by them. You have to slow down and make use of descriptive language, and suddenly there’s a bewildering array of words to choose from, countless ways to move characters around instead of “She exits.”
Vocabulary: I once used the word “obdurate” in a script. Before submitting it, my manager called me to say I couldn’t use it, no one would know what it means. I felt really sad. I had to consign so many words to this inner oubliette (definitely a taboo word) where they would never see the light of day. Imagine the freedom I felt when writing Jane Was Here: I could release them all from this dungeon. I could now use “adipose,” “nacreous,” “caesura,” “arrant,” and – oh frabjous day! – “obdurate.”
There’s little difference between film scripts and novels in terms of dialogue, although the screenwriter will probably be more efficient. In scripts you have to refine dialogue so that a scene doesn’t go longer than 5 pages at the most. Playwrights and novelists’ characters can yammer on endlessly.
Writing screenplays taught me how to plot. In any writing course I ever took in college, we were never taught how to manipulate the long-form story. I studied with the great Grace Paley, who only wrote short stories. “Life is too short, and Art is too long,” she said. I got the feeling that plot wasn’t necessary and even a bit meretricious (do not ever use that word in a script).
My first novel had a great premise but the plot was mostly episodic, with no real rise and fall to the story. When I turned to writing scripts, it didn’t take long to discover I was woefully deficient in this area. I had to teach myself how to deliver an adventure, with twists, turns, curveballs, “misdirects,” and a satisfying of an ending. It served me very well when it came time to design the mystery-paranormal-suspense-thriller that is Jane Was Here.
And then there’s the length. You’re limited in pages to the screen-time of a feature (100 minutes and up). It’s very manageable. A novel, on the other hand, is harder. It accrues to 200 pages and counting. After 200 you can’t even remember what you wrote before – there’s a point where you feel lost at sea.
But that’s the story of, that’s the glory of, books.
Next blog: Screenplays Vs. Novels - Part Trois.
- I am a restless writer of fiction, film, and music. I scripted such films as 9 and ½ Weeks, Sommersby, Impromptu (personal favorite), What Lies Beneath, and All I Wanna Do which I also directed. Both my documentaries, Marjoe and Thoth, won Academy Awards. Formerly a recording artist, I continue to write music, posting songs on my website. I live in New York with my husband James Lapine. My second novel, the paranormal thriller Jane Was Here, was published in 2011. My latest film, Learning to Drive, starring Patricia Clarkson and Ben Kingsley, came out in August 2015, now available on VOD, DVD, and streaming media. This blog is a paranormal memoir-in-progress, whenever I have spare time. It's a chronicle of my encounters with ghosts, family phantoms, and other forms of spirit.