You’re a writer. You have story ideas. You yearn to see them come to life. But in print or on a screen? True, you could start with a novel then adapt it into a screenplay. However, not all stories lend themselves easily to production on a screen. If your story does, why waste time flushing out full-blown novel details that will never make the production script?

Let’s go one level deeper to YOU, the writer. Are you a visual thinker or a cerebral observer?

You may think writing a screenplay is no different than writing a novel. The components are the same: your characters must grow and be empathetic; your dialogue must be believable and entertaining; your plot must drive the story forward giving a reason for one to care about the ending. But do you see your story as a string of images in your head or do you concentrate on finding the perfect word?

Creating a three-act, well developed and entertaining story should be the goal for writers in both formats. However, once those foundational similarities are laid down, the mechanics upon which the story is built are completely different.

“Elementary my dear Watson.” – Logical formatting.

A novel’s format is much looser. Open a novel to any page and the formatting doesn’t jump out at you.

Other than following the Chicago Manual of Style guidelines and grammar rules, there are no specific formatting requirements on the placement and length of dialogue, exposition, setting and description – except those required by the publisher. Also there is no page limit.

In contrast, a professional screenplay has a highly detailed and rigid format. When followed, each page quickly communicates the approximate length of the finished movie as one page roughly equals one minute of film time totaling the average of 110-120 pages, or a two-hour film.

A sample of these guidelines include: 

  • The font must be a Courier, 12-point.
  • There are specific tab settings for all components such as dialogue (2.9” from the left), action (left justified), transitions (right justified).
  • Slug lines, a loose setting description, are all caps with details arranged INT. (interior) or EXT. (exterior) LOCATION – TIME OF DAY.
  • Sounds are in all CAPS.
  • Excessive camera directions are seen as unprofessional.

*This list is not all-inclusive.

If your three acts cannot be succinctly condensed into 120 pages without compromising the integrity of your story you have a novel, not a screenplay.

“You Talkin’ to Me?” – Intentional Dialogue.

In a novel, characters can wax philosophic for chapters as long as the musing (with your editor’s blessing) moves the story forward.  There is no such thing as exposition or inner thoughts in a screenplay. Voice over can be used but only when it is true to your story and not simply a means to an end.

In a screenplay, no dialogue should be gratuitous. Your character’s speech must communicate only the who, what, why, when, and how necessary to move a scene forward in the most concise way. After all, each minute is money.

Of course, there are non-verbal ways to communicate too which leads me to…

“Good, bad, I’m the guy with the gun.”  – Narrative Action.

Audiences pick a movie to see something HAPPEN. Screenplays typically follow the three-act structure with the rough division of:

  • Act One, The Introduction of the Problem in pages, 1-30
  • Act Two, The Journey, in pages 31-90
  • Act Three, The Resolution to the Problem, in pages 91-120

In a novel, the author can spend a whole chapter describing the burning down of Atlanta (Gone with the Wind anyone?). In screenwriting, each causal action must have an effectual reaction toward the resolution, or it simply doesn’t belong. The dramatic theory of Chekov’s gun in the first act must be fired by third act is a dramatic principle that applies to all story-telling, not just novels.

A good screenwriter will also use visual cues and non-verbal communication as sensory details to divulge story elements on multiple levels all at once – which is next to impossible in the print format of a novel.

‘Show me the Money!” – The Challenge of Marketing Your Genre.

Novelist or screenwriter, the end goal is to sell your work. In order to do that, there must be a defined market. Which market is driven by the genre of the story. Novels can combine three or more, think Young Adult Sci-Fi Thriller Romance. Novels are the final product, sold to the public.

However, screenplays are sold to the studio and must go through production to make money. The more mixed the genre, the less well defined the market. The less defined, the harder it will be to sell to a studio and produce the movie. Also the more simple a screenplay genre is, the better defined the budget. (“Five Major Differences between Writing Novels and Screenplays”, Rebecca Williams Spindler). A rom-com is much less expensively produced then a Young Adult Sci-Fi Thriller Romance.

“Just keep swimming.” – Beyond “The End.”

Writing “The End” brings a novelist much closer to the finish line then it does a screenwriter. A novelist ends with a finished product to publish with the help of a small team. A screenwriter ends with a blueprint to hand over to a large team that will continue the creation process. A novelist is typically a bigger fish allowed a weightier opinion in the publishing pond. A screenwriter is a smaller fish that must join a larger creative collaboration school of fish in order to see their story come to fruition. As a writer, which pond best suits you? How much control of your story do you desire?

“May the Force be with you.” – Take action now!

If you decide screenwriting is the way to go, there is no time like the present. As streaming content has continued to expand across every electronic device, the demand for more content, which was already being pushed by the big guns of Amazon, Netflix, and Hulu, has only increased. As Americans doubled their streaming time in March, due to stay-at-home orders for Covid-19, new platforms joined the market that will need original programming.

Netflix is the leader with a whopping 85% of its $17 billion budget going to originals this year in addition to it’s current 1,177 original titles. The appetite is growing for entertainment whenever and wherever we want it. With Hollywood and sports indefinitely on hold, the demand for original streaming programming doesn’t look to slow down. “What’s postponed in 2020 will come back to us, even bigger, in 2021…so now is the time to write!” said Matt Strauss, chairman of Peacock, the next digital streaming platform to launch in July 2020 from NBC.  (“NBC’s Peacock Streaming Service Launches, but only for Xfinity Customers”  Joe Supan) 

It’s the perfect time to jump in as a screenwriter. Contact us here at Kismet Writing and Development for professional formatting and screenplay development assistance.

Additions to this screenwriting series will be added every other month on the following topics:

  • The three act structure
  • The basics: creating drama from plot and characters
  • Translating exposition into dialogue or action
  • Screenplay adaption
  • Animation vs. television vs. film script
  • And others
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