Three Reasons Writing a Screenplay Differs from Writing a Book

You have achieved your dream and published your novel. Everyone who has read it loves it and keeps telling you “this story should be turned into a movie!” You agree, of course.

But how do you go about it? How do you turn your manuscript into a screenplay? The first thing you must realize from the outset is that the best portrayal of your story on screen requires a totally different approach than the one you used to write your book.

Writing a book and writing a screenplay require two completely different skill sets. Okay, you already have the story, but the expertise comes in telling that story through an entirely different medium. The creative processes differ as much as those used by a painter and a photographer.

Books Are Written by the Author. Films Require a Collaborative Effort.

Your book is a complete, polished article ready for your readers to enjoy. Therein lies the fundamental difference between a book and a screenplay. A book is the final work of art, whereas a screenplay is the first stage of a collaborative movie-making process than involves dozens of people.

The screenplay you write is a blueprint for the movie that will finally play on the big screen or television. It is the first step in the creative process.

Now let’s look at three of the major differences between book writing and screenplay writing.

  1. Actions Speak Louder than Words

    Your readers connect with your book’s characters as you open a window into their minds and unlock their emotions. You have the ability to paint detailed explanations of what your characters are thinking and provide insights into past experiences that have shaped their personalities and have culminated in their present behavior.

    Whereas your book will use a running narrative to describe events in detail, your movie will focus mainly on dialogue and action. Moviegoers are not as privileged as your book’s readers when it comes to discovering the inner workings of your characters’ minds. They can only interpret your characters’ feelings and emotions through the dialogue, their facial expressions, physical gestures, and actions.

  2. Actors Hate to Share the Spotlight

    Several of your book's characters will likely share your story's limelight. However, a movie's focus is generally set around an individual's tale. Whereas your book may be more about a situation or an incident and how it has affected a group or a whole community, your screenplay will need to focus more on how that incident has made an impact on an individual within that community, how they have been changed by it or how they have grown to rise up and fight against it.

    Your characterization will probably require a shift in your storytelling. You will need to focus on a single character and decide which others need to be toned down or eliminated entirely. There are a number of examples from movies adapted from books where two of the book's protagonists have been combined to create a new character for the movie.

    It is quite common for the story in the movie to become vastly different from the original book it is "based on" or "inspired by."

  3. Less Is More

    We all know the old saying, "A picture paints a thousand words." Well, that is a pretty good measure of how much your manuscript will need streamlining. The basic rule of thumb is that one page of a movie script is equivalent to one minute of film.

    Figuring that most movies today run at around the two-hour mark, that equates to around 120 pages of screenplay (and that is leaning toward the absolute maximum length). How many pages are there in your book? Now you have an idea about the scale of the task ahead.

So now we know the differences between the creative processes, where do you start with your book? Read our Editing Tips article, "Five Steps to Turn Your Book into a Screenplay ," to find out.