Story versus Script: Writing for both Books and the Big Screen
By E. N. Dahl
There are some writers out there who’ve successfully managed to write both books for traditional publication, and scripts for major TV and film projects. I’m not sure I’d call myself successful—I’ve won an award or two, had some novels out, but no major releases or advances—but I’ve given them a shot.
For all those prose writers out there looking to branch out to the screen, whether that involves coming up with original projects for would-be Hollywood producers or just adapting your own work for whatever indie darling comes your way, here are a few tips I’ve put together for my personal reference. Maybe they’ll help you too.
1: Do NOT include directing notes.
This is possibly the biggest, most important rule. If you saturate your script with camera directions and telling the actors what emotions to express, you’ll almost certainly get shot down. Maybe you won’t, but nobody likes being told what to do, especially if you’re a newbie. Plus, it’s easier for you that way. Stop worrying about what the camera’s doing unless it’s absolutely necessary to shoot a scene a particular way.
2: Invest in screenwriting software.
You don’t need to pay much. WriterDuet is free. You’ll need to pay to save as PDFs and all that, but seriously, trying to format a script on MS Word is awful. It’s very easy to do it wrong. Just try WriterDuet and see what happens.
3: Think of your script as anti-prose.
Scripts hinge almost entirely on quick, snappy description and dialogue. You don’t need a half-page description of how seedy and run down a particular place is. If it helps, think of your script more like a comic book. For example (keeping in mind, this isn’t proper formatting):
THOMAS, MARTHA, and YOUNG BRUCE walk down the alley. Dirt crunches underfoot. There’s graffiti on the walls. Trash piled up everywhere. A siren wails in the distance. The one flickering light reveals JOE CHILL watching from the shadows. We see him; they don’t.
Even that semi-colon might’ve gone too prose-oriented, but you get the point. Don’t worry about eloquence or full sentences. Some scripts succeed with beautiful, flowing (but still brief!) descriptions. Most don’t need that, unless you’re trying to convey mood, or working on a more unusual/experimental narrative.
4: Don’t be afraid to break the rules—including what I’ve said.
Some of the best movies in the industry came from nowhere, broke every rule, then broke every record. Consider some of the following lines from the opening to the script for Psycho:
The city is sunblanched white and its drifted-up noises are muted in their own echoes.
The very geography seems to give us a climate of nefariousness, of back-doorness, dark and shadowy. And secret.
Here, the writer is talking directly to the director, producers, and other staff. While, yes, this script is from 1959, so the rules and environment in Hollywood were a little different, we can see there’s a mystique to these lines, steeped in metaphor that can quickly and easily translate to film, contained to just one sentence or line each. In the recent version of Carrie, the titular character is described as “A terribly appealing little girl,” if that gives you a good reference.
5: Read scripts!
This is the one rule you absolutely shouldn’t break. Sure, there’s always a chance you’re a wunderkind who can write the next mega blockbuster without any experience, guidance, or familiarity with screenwriting, but the odds are infinitesimally small.
Stephen King famously said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.” The same applies to scripts.
Pick TV, film, shorts, whatever you want to read, just don’t look at this as a chore. Pick a favorite and see if you can get a script from its development. Psycho and Die Hard are both available online, for free. I’ve read through episodes of Brooklyn 99, as well as Carrie and Alien—all sorts of material. Just Google “Script online free” and you’ll find more material than you could possibly need (some sites offer this legally, some do not—use discretion to avoid piracy).
There are, of course, many more aspects to writing, whether prose or script, but these are the core elements for you short story or novel writers looking to branch out. Becoming a name for either the big or small screens takes work, luck, and divine intervention (possibly, if not probably, more than with books, given how cutthroat the industry can be) so I wish you the best.
Oh, and one last thing: do NOT write a screenplay about being a writer. It never works, and when it does, it still doesn’t. Now get back to writing!