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Panel of Experts: How do you feel fiction-writing and screen-writing compare?

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Question: How do you feel fiction-writing and screen-writing compare?’s Panel of Experts weight in on the ways fiction-writing and screenwriting compare. Some of our experts feel writing fiction allows for more intricate character development and internal monologues, while writing for the screen requires a tighter focus on action and dialogue. Some find that writing for film or television requires more collaboration with directors, producers, and actors, while writing a novel or short story allows for more solitary creativity. Some find it all comes down to the differences in paycheck. Some have discovered that writing in one medium has helped develop skills and techniques that transfer well to the other.

Way too long a question at the end of an interview. But writing is writing. The process of storytelling is the same. You can cheat as a screenwriter – in a novel you have to give your reader every second, every experience in the whole story. But screenwriting is a lot harder to do well than people think.

Alexandra Sokoloff, writer

They require two completely different skillsets, as far as I can tell. I’ve only written one produced script for a short film, but it was a vastly different experience than anything else I’ve done.

Bev Vincent, writer


Bob Johnson, writer

They compare in that with both you need an ability to plot and allow plot to grow logically out of character motivations. But screen writing is a unique exercise where you don’t get to use ANY of the prose craft you develop as a fiction writer. You are limited to only what the viewer can see or hear. What makes prose fiction is all the other stuff, the implications, the internal monologues, the indirect discourse, the voice of the narration and the authority of the prose. All that’s gone in a screenplay, filled in by the artistry of the actors and cinematographers.

Cecilia Tan, writer

I’ve checked “screenplay” off my bucket list, and I hope I never have to do it again. My screenwriting instructor, Dan Decker, hopes that, as well. Poor Dan struggled with my tendency to write “long.” “TWENTY-THREE WORDS!” he’d say. I’m not cut out to write screenplays and, besides, you have to be a certain age or they won’t hire you, even if you’re terrific.

Connie Corcoran Wilson, writer

As a screen writer you have to be much more descriptive with the character’s emotions, their MO’s. The scenery is well noted, the interaction between characters must be made clear. You generally have less time to impress things upon a watcher than you do a reader.

Corrine De Winter, writer

They’ve both done well for me. I got into screenwriting five years ago and found it exhilarating – and fast. I started with converting a few of my short stories into screenplays (the short format makes it very comparable), then went on to adapt two of my novels. I try to write at least one of each per year.

David Sakmyster, writer


Del Howison, writer

They are very different. I have seen the screenplay for one of my books and they are world’s apart. I prefer to take my time to set out a scene where a screenplay limits the writer to how the scene looks.

Derek Gunn, writer

Most great stories, whether they’re on screen or on the page, boil down to the same basic concepts: they throw compelling characters into compelling challenges with compelling outcomes. The main difference is how those stories are conveyed, mechanically and aesthetically. Screenwriting demands an entirely different format than fiction writing, and the writing style itself tends to be very cut-and-dry. In that way, I like to think of scripts as story outlines with dialogue: the experience isn’t complete until the screenplay is made into a movie. Novels, on the other hand, are whole; the author is solely responsible for shooting, directing, lighting—all of that.

D. L. Snell, writer

I think it’s like comparing cats to dogs. They’re both mammals, but are very different in many way. Cats (fiction-writing) are aloof and sexy. Dogs (screen-writing) are friendly and lots of fun.

Elizabeth Blue, writer

Never tried a screen play, so can’t say.

G. O. Clark, writer

Good writing is good writing. As Alexandra Sokoloff so succinctly put it, you can learn to write a good novel by paying attention to how a good movie is structured. And vice versa, I suppose.

Gene Stewart, writer

I think screen writing is of course a different format, but it’s still partially writing fiction. Except for documentaries, I can’t think of purely factual screen writing. Even when writing about a historical/real-life fugure, there has to be fiction in the shape of imagination – even if the writer doesn’t like it! I’d be amenable to that if someone took one of my present books for the screen.

Helen McCabe, writer

They are two different genres and shouldn’t be compared. I am not sure that readers who want to immerse themselves in a horror story would pick up a screenplay to satisfy that craving. Reading a screenplay is not the same experience as seeing a movie.

Jameson Currier, writer

Completely different disciplines. The former is far easier to sell than the latter, however.

Jean Graham, writer

Not at all. Two entirely different mediums each with their own form and structure.

Jeanne C. Stein, writer

I don’t know; I’ve never written for the screen (or written a play). I’ve tried and can’t do it. Different parts of the brain are used.

Jemiah Jefferson, writer

They’re both writing. And then you have to try and sell it.

J. G. Faherty, writer

Mostly the former pays far poorer than the latter; the latter is more collaborative.

John Shirley, writer

They’re different equally fun forms of storytelling. Fiction has the responsibility of providing stimulating text that shows the living movement of the story, whereas screen writing tells everything as efficiently as possible so that the filmmakers can capture with film the same concept. There are infinite examples of the two merging. Often it works and we get a Jurassic Park or True Grit, but just as often it doesn’t. Fiction and Screen-writing are like kissing cousins, it’s cute until they have a twelve-fingered kid.

J. R. Parks, writer

They are just two different ways of telling a story. What many new writers do not notice–I myself took a while to figure this out–is that what people want is to be engaged in a story that makes them feel things; usually, they also want to be able to share the story and the way it made them feel with others.

That story can be delivered via books, movies, videogames, comics, or podcasts, but if the story isn’t engaging the audience in the way they want to be engaged, you’re done. We have many more options for getting our story-itch scratched nowadays than in, say 1911. And there has been an explosion in story-products since then. People, being lazy gits for the most part, naturally migrate to the ones that are easiest to experience and share, like TV and movies. But at the end of the day, it isn’t the medium that matters near as much as the story, the emotions, and the sense of having shared the experience with others.

Lon Prater, writer

I don’t have any experience with screenwriting.

Loren Rhoads, writer

They are different techniques but they employ some of the same mechanisms: good visuals, great dialogue.

Lisa Mannetti, writer

Screenwriting is MUCH easier! And more lucrative (when you can get it)…but ultimately infinitely less satisfying.

Lisa Morton, writer

They’re two totally different disciplines, with totally different mindsets. I love both, and when the words fly there’s nothing better; but they’re very different.

Marie O’Regan, writer

The latter is very compact, with specific terminology and format…. It’s hard to get back into prose after writing a lot of screenplays – you find you want to give short shrift to descriptions and sensory impressions, because you’re dead if you do that in scripts… In prose, it’s just the opposite.

Mark Onspaugh, writer

Screen-writing is a form of fiction-writing that is as valid in our time as any other writing.

Matt Kennedy, writer

I wrote two screenplays but haven’t sold them yet.

M. F. Korn, writer

There are many similarities in terms of story, but the execution is so incredibly different. I have done both. Both have structure, but the script structure is far more rigid. You can play more loosely with a novel structure, as long as you get there eventually. If you wander in a screenplay, you’re penalized by the audience. Wander properly in a novel, you’re rewarded.

Also, setting a scene is very different. With a script, you’ve got 2 or maybe 3 short lines. With a novel, you have so much more room, but to me that’s even more difficult because a script will eventually be turned into a visual. The novel will only be visualized in the reader’s head. Difficult!

You can get into your characters’ heads in novel as well, whereas with screenplays, you must rely on character action and dialogue almost entirely.

Michael J. Hultquist, writer

Very different and because you can do one doesn’t mean you can do the other

Mick Sims, writer

I refuse to answer that on the grounds that I will just piss off screenwriters, and they keep them locked in little rooms with coffee pots and boxes of donuts. The last thing I need is union card carrying, caffeine and sugar stoked, bleary-eyed screenwriters mad at me.

M. R. Sellars, writer

Entirely different. Screenwriting is dialogue and action. Fiction requires scene building and description and a lot of interior life to get across the notion of reality. On screen, the actors bring the words to life. In fiction, the writer has to do that on paper.

Nancy Kilpatrick, writer

Aside from the fact that they both involve imagination, they’re two completely different forms of writing. The screenplay remains a mystery to me.

Nicholas Kaufmann, writer

It’s far easier to whip out a 90 page screenplay than write a 400 page novel. I’ve written both, but can’t decide which I enjoy doing most.

Owl Goingback, writer

It is a different skill set. Adapting my work into audio plays was a challenge- as you have to use the narrative and sounds to fill in a scene.

P. S. Gifford, writer

They’re completely different disciplines, and not every writer can do both, or do it well at any rate. I’m only just starting out with script work and it takes some adjustment from prose, to think more visually about scenes and what dialogue is important. I’m lucky enough to have the background in Film Studies, though – I did an MA in it after the BA – and also think quite visually when writing my prose. It’s been said in reviews that I have a film editor’s eye, in particular one reviewer compared my battle scene between Robert and the Tsar in Broken Arrow to those in Lord of the Rings, which was high praise indeed. But I know I’m still new to it and have a lot to learn, so I read scripts as much as I can to see how the pros have done it. Joss Whedon’s are especially good for this. I’m also fortunate enough to have Marie, who I can ask advice about scripting. She’s much more skilled than I am, as she’s been doing it a lot longer – her stuff is amazing. She’s working on a pilot now that would blow your socks off. So I always go straight to her for any help and am very thankful for it.

Paul Kane, writer

They don’t. Period.

Rain Graves, writer

I’ve done both and I think they’re not particularly similar. Screenwriting is a far more rigid structure and is, in some ways, far more competitive than fiction when it comes to its marketability. When you consider that fiction is probably one of the most competitive areas in which to write, that’s really saying something! If I enjoy anything about writing, it’s that fiction let’s you play with the English language—to push whatever talents you have to their maximum capability. While I think that can happen with screenplays, I think that it’s far less common than it is in fiction.

Richard Dean Starr, writer

I’ve written one screenplay that sits in a drawer. Not really my thing.

Ryan M. Williams, writer

They’re very similar. The difference: one is internal, the other visual. But I don’t see any reason why a writer can’t do both.

Sarah Langan, writer

Two completely different animals. Screenwriting has to take into account actors, special effects, what can be created, the budget, etc. Fiction can go anywhere. Characters can talk in their heads more. Language is more available. Two completely different animals.

Shade Rupe, writer

It’s all fiction really, but screen-writing is done a little differently. The one leaves you with a manuscript, the other with a script. When you have a manuscript that is your baby and nobody interferes with it, but with screen writing the story is moulded to the director’s interpretation of the story.

Steve Calvert, writer

Fiction writing for me is easier. Wish I could do better at the other, for I’d find a way to make my stuff profitable as movies. But I’m Old School.

Steve Burt, writer

Screenwriting is much harder because you can’t just write out what people are thinking. You have to find a more creative way to get it across to the audience, which can sometimes be limiting in terms of character development.

Steve E. Wedel, writer

Screenplays are quicker to write. Fewer words.

But screenplays also force greater discipline onto the writer, because every word counts all the more, and your words can only express action and dialogue. Showing, not telling. Voiceovers are generally regarded as a lazy crutch; telling not showing. (Although some of my favorite 1990s indie type films use voiceovers: Clockwatchers and Girl, Interrupted.)

Novels take longer to write. Not only do they use more words, but there’s a temptation toward self-indulgence. You can go anywhere with a novel, off on any tangent, into any character’s head, unconstrained by budgetary considerations. (Explosions are expensive to film, but cost nothing to write.) So it takes longer to shape a novel; to reign in one’s self-indulgence.

My last screenplay, written in 2006, was Pentagon Possessed: A Neocon Horror Story. An X-Files parody (with borrowings from Orwell) which suggests that the Iraq War, the War on Terror, the Patriot Act, the TSA, et al, are turning us into the enemy. In the name of freedom, we are destroying freedom.

In 2007, Pentagon Possessed: A Neocon Horror Story was a quarterfinalist in four script contests. Here’s what Slamdance’s coverage report said:

“The writer’s awesome research into the details of the disinformation generated by the Neocon cabal within the government, in order to justify the invasion of Iraq, suggests strongly this should be a television docudrama, as the genesis of the Vietnam War was treated in John Frankenheimer’s HBO presentation, The Path To War (2003). The scenes in the script based on this research are quite good, with a strong accent of mockery of the participants that is quite entertaining. For entertainment value, such a docudrama would beat Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 all to hell.”

Pentagon Possessed: A Neocon Horror Story was never produced, but it’s available, in book form,

Thomas M. Sipos, writer

That’s a big topic — I’m not sure I’m qualified to comment on it. My screenwriting experience has been limited at best.

Thomas S. Roche, writer

I think screenwriters can get away with more than novelists – lots of details glossed over. Lots of scenes can be inferred that in a book would have to be shown. Clearly, screenwriters need a better ear for dialogue (though that would also be helpful to novelists!).

W. D. Gagliani, writer

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