By Danny Manus
Screenwriting and novel writing are very different worlds, and it is not an easy task to go from one to the other. And while writing the book might be the key to selling your feature, writing your script LIKE a book, will probably get your project thrown in the pass pile.
With so many authors adapting their own work to script, novelistic writing has become one of the notes I most often give. So instead, I want to give you some specific things to look for so you can avoid these notes and make sure you’re not guilty of novelistic writing.
The best way to tell you the difference - is to show you. In fact, “SHOW, DON’T TELL” is one of the tenets of writing a proper screenplay and perhaps the largest dissimilarity to books.
So here’s an example of the same scene – one written for book, one written for film.
The O’Reilly clan gathers in their modern art-deco dining room for their weekly family dinner. The room, painted a bright, happy blue after their last house remodel, gives irony to the somber feeling that seems to pervade each of the family members’ faces. They each pull out their silver high-backed chairs, barely acknowledging each other, like they’re all on automatic pilot.
There’s an abstract painting on the far wall, a mix of red and black hues blurred together in some angry-cloud fashion. Kate O’Reilly probably found it at one of the many garage sales she frequents even though she has the money to buy art at high-end retail prices. The two large windows that look out into the backyard are open, allowing some slight outdoor ambient noise – it’s raining again. The only other things contained in the perfunctory room include the long fancy dining table, a chandelier out of some futuristic Modern Homes Magazine, and a couple shelves filled with kitchen knick-knacks that have never been used and now serve as simple decorations.
Robert wears his usual khaki pants and sweater over buttoned-up-shirt combo. Not a salt-and-pepper hair out of place. He places his napkin on his lap, ready for either a family meal or dinner with the Queen. His beautiful but overworked wife Kate silently brings in the pot roast, adding to a complete table of accoutrements including mashed potatoes, grilled asparagus, bread and butter, and salad. She takes her seat at the other end of the table, taking a too-long sip from her wine glass filled with fruity, white resentment. She’s always hated how Robert dresses, and even more so how he waits to be served like a child. He hates her long sip of wine.
The table is set perfectly, with dinner fork and salad fork in their right spot. The china itself, despite being used every week, still looks how it did when Robert and Kate received them as wedding presents a forgotten number of years ago. Kate’s meticulous china-polishing schedule ensures it will be around for their children’s weddings as well.
Their children sit around the table like preppy zombies, seemingly uncomfortable being unplugged from their smart phone and video game devices. What is there to say when you’re not telling the world in a status update? Michael, a head full of moppy hair, looks younger than his 12 years would connote. Unlike Taylor, who at 16 looks like she could snare any 40-year old actor walking the red carpet, and you better believe she’s thought about it. Michael can barely look at his sister, knowing all his friends only come over hoping to get a glimpse of her in a state of undress. Taylor knows they do, and doesn’t mind indulging their junior high fantasies – anything to be noticed. One day she’ll realize that if she made more of an attempt to connect with her parents, she wouldn’t seek the attention elsewhere.
The family begins to eat. The clanging and clinking of forks on plates and the sounds of cutting meat fill the room, the smell of fresh cooked beef mixing with Kate’s expensive perfume.
INT. DINING ROOM – EVENING
The preppy and awkward O’Reilly family – ROBERT and KATE (40s and pristine), TAYLOR (16, looks 26) and MICHAEL (12, looks 9) - sit around their long, expensive and intricately set dining room table and eat silently.
The CLANGING of silverware is the only sound that cuts through the painful quiet.
That’s it! See the difference?
You’re taking a 325-page book and cutting it down to a 110-page script where dialogue takes up at least 60%. So basically everything needs to go that isn’t crucially important to the story, world and characters. And anything that can’t be seen visually on screen – is out.
And it is totally cheating and not allowed to include numerous scenes or locations within one paragraph (or a few paragraphs) without separating them by scene locations unless you’re writing a montage! Do not go from one location to the next without a scene heading.
For example, you cannot write a paragraph that says –
“John leaves his home, gets in his car, drives to work where he screams at his co-workers, making sure they all know what he thinks, then gets back into his car and drives to his girlfriend’s place. He packs his things, trashes the apartment, and exits back to his car, finally sighing relief. Mission accomplished.”
This is actually 8 different scenes, which would each need a scene heading, new location, description, and especially the work scene would need that dialogue written out. If you have a paragraph like this in your script, you are writing novelistically (yes, I’m coining that word) and you probably have 250 scenes in your movie instead of 70-100.
But in case the above examples aren’t enough, here is a quick checklist to go through when writing a script to make sure you’re not committing any cardinal screenwriting sins.
- Show, Don’t Tell.
- Always put yourself in the position of an audience member – not a reader, and not the person who created this world. Think as an audience member watching it and CONSTANTLY ask yourself – “will this make sense?”
- Do not tell us what a character is thinking or feeling or what’s going on in their heads at any given time. Only show us what we are seeing on screen. Don’t tell us that your character is sad - just describe what action he is doing on screen that will get that emotion across to the audience.
- Do not tell us backstory in description that we are not seeing play out in the action/dialogue.
- Keep your description in present active tense. “John drives” not “John is driving.”
- Do not use quotation marks around your dialogue.
- Do not say things like “He said” or “She replied.”
- Do not include much production design, description of rooms, furniture, colors of wardrobe, insanely detailed surroundings or weather unless it’s incredibly important to the scene, character or story.
- In a script, make your big moments big on the page. Don’t just say “The tanker blows up, killing many.” Make it stand out - “KA-BOOM! The tanker EXPLODES into an epic FIREBALL, bodies everywhere, SCREAMING echoes through the cloud of fire!”
Writing the book version of your script can be a great selling tool and writing exercise, and vice-versa. But they are different animals with different formats, fonts, programs and purposes. So if you’re doing either one the wrong way, you will actually be hurting your chances instead of improving them. Hopefully this will help you on your writing journey.
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