You should write a novel.
I know, I know, you’re a screenwriter. You’re a movie person. Why write anything that doesn’t have a chance of appearing on the big screen?
Here’s why: you can learn quite a bit from studying different mediums. (This goes for novelists, too!) There’s power in crosstraining. That’s why professional football players do ballet and yoga in their offseason.
Not to mention that dabbling in a different medium can help you strengthen your story skills:
- Screenwriters can learn from novels in terms of pacing, building suspense, character development, and strong narrative structures.
- Novelists can learn plenty of lessons from studying great screenplays, such as: story structure, showing instead of telling, and creating atmosphere.
Writing a novel can also open more career doors for you. I know several screenwriters who, after writing their first novel, decided that they enjoyed novels more than screenwriters. Same thing happened to a novelist I know who tried his hand at a screenplay.
In all honesty, there are pros and cons to both mediums:
- PRO: Screenwriting isn’t a writing competition, it’s a storytelling competition. That means there is less pressure to use impressive verbage, because it will look like you’re trying to obfuscate your readers from your plot holes with your grandiloquence.
- CON: Screenwriting follows a very rigid structure. Unless you’re Cormac McCarthy, you can’t write a script in Times New Roman and completely disregard all traditional formatting if you want people to take you seriously. You have to be creative within the limitations of the three act structure.
- PRO: You have structure to your story. Writing a script the right way forces you to examine the mechanics of storytelling. By taking each beat seriously — from the inciting incident to the midpoint to the act breaks — you begin to notice these structures in your favorite stories. I know after studying the different beats, all I could think about in a movie theater is, ‘hey! That was an emotionally riveting all is lost moment! The transition into act three is going to be way more powerful and rewarding.’ All nerdiness aside, screenwriting helps you focus and sharpen your story to fit within the boundaries. This is something you don’t learn from writing novels.
- CON: Screenplays aren’t meant to be read. They’re meant to be seen. If I write 30k words worth of fanfiction, I get adoring emails from my readers imploring me to continue my epic saga. When I write 30k words worth of a script, I get insightful feedback telling me to use “VO” instead of “OS” and I/E instead of two separate slugline headings. One medium is tough and detail oriented, and the other hobby is rewarding and praise oriented (and a procrastination method of choice!) Sure, there are great scripts out there that are great reads. But they will never reach audiences unless they are made into films, whereas novels require less hurdles. If you self-publish, your words can reach an audience today.
- PRO: More flexibility. Novels are more free form and you can get away with inner monologues and flashbacks — which are pretty much forbidden in screenplays. You don’t have to break into act two on page twenty, have your midpoint on page 55– none of those kinds of rules exist in novel territory. You serve your story — not a formula — first and foremost. That’s a liberating feeling. And if you decide to self-publish? Sky’s the limit.
- CON: They take longer. I can knock out a rough draft of a screenplay in a week if I’ve got all of the heavy lifting done beforehand (research, outlining, character worksheets.) But novels? The rough draft barely gets done in a month, and revisions stretch on for what seems like forever. There are more than triple the word count of scripts (100k+ words instead of a screenplay’s 30k) and you have to agonize over every word because this medium is a writing competition.
- PRO: You can actually delve into the minds of the characters. In screenplays you have to rely on visuals and dialog to show the audience what the main character is thinking, but in novels? It’s like a one-on-one counseling session between you and your characters. Feel like delving into the psyche of your villain? Go ahead. Want to flesh out internal conflict through the way your character illustrates the story? Sounds like a plan. Characters in screenplays have to be set up and developed so quickly, that writers often throw in cliches to cut down on some of the heavy lifting. The result? Cardboard cutouts that bore the audience. In novels, you have more time to create multi-layered characters with intriguing backstories. I’m not saying it can’t be done in film, I’m just saying you have more time to do it in novels.
- CON: It’s not Hollywood. Let’s face it, writing is fun. Seeing your writing on the screen? Seeing it come to life? Watching your words turn into sets, props, a movie? There’s nothing like it. Even making short films comes with a certain thrill.
So you should write a screenplay if…
- Your idea can be explained in one sentence
- You like being creative within structure and rules
- You don’t want to write over 30k words
- You’re a visual person
- You love movies and want to get into the film industry
And a novel if..
- You have a more rich, complex storyline
- You want to fully explore your characters
- You want total control over the structure
- You love books
But if you give the other format a try just to see what it’s like, you might be surprised at what you discover. I know I was.
Whichever medium you choose, never stop writing.
Also– if you decide to write a novel, join me this November for the insane adventure known as National Novel Writing Month!