What is the difference between writing plays, screenplays, and novels? I have written all three, and, in one instance, I wrote the same story in all three formats, so I have learned some important lessons along the way.
Creating A MONTH OF SUNDAYS was a years-long process. I began writing novels when I was 20 (actually 17, but I didn’t finish that first one). But after 10 unpublished novels, I decided to switch modes. Screenplays were a good fit for me because I write dialogue-heavy anyway. I joined screenwriting groups (one in Austin and one in Richmond, Virginia when I moved there) and learned the craft. But in between, when I lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area (an unglamorous town in the middle called Euless), a colleague told me about a playwright’s group, and I decided to try my hand at plays.
This was a fairly professional group that had a dramaturg and staged readings attached to it. Having a staged reading was a tremendously gratifying experience. I loved hearing my lines re-enacted (and finding out which ones got laughs) and seeing the physical personification of my characters The director was an older, Irish man, who claimed to be classically trained, and he was always screaming at the actors during rehearsals. We were all terrified of him. The person who played the protagonist was older and frumpier than I had envisioned, but I suppose it fit everyone’s stereotype of a social worker. The actress mentioned to me that she had a difficult time asking so many questions in dialogue, but when trying to solve a murder, there naturally has to be a lot of questions asked. I loved the person the director chose to play the victim – she had long, red hair and wore a skimpy top under her overalls (yes, overalls were in style then).
The feedback I received on my staged reading was that there was too much action for a play and that it would make a better screenplay. Never daunted by the prospect of hard work, I immediately set to work on making it a screenplay and then tried to sell it without success. At that point, I decided to turn it into a novel. The story represented a particularly trying part of my life, and in therapy terms, I was still “working through” so all these versions helped me do that.
What have I learned from writing screenplays (I have about half a dozen in total), plays (I went on to write two more after this), and novels (mainly what I write)? What is different and what is the same?
Basically, a play has to be scaled down to only a few characters. The action should be small (no chase scenes, for instance) and contained to a few defined locations (because of the difficulties of set changes). Dialogue plays a heavy role and character change is often a central focus rather than plot events.
A screenplay is where all the big action can happen; it can scale several locations and have a panorama of characters. If dialogue is the center of a play, action is the center of a screenplay, although you also have to be comfortable with writing dialogue as it is one of the mainstays of the form. A screenplay is the epitome of “show not tell” because you can’t write about a character’s inner motivations and feelings. A screenplay is almost an outline of a novel as it is short (120 to 200 pages), and, indeed, many screenplays, for this reason, are based on short stories. The formatting, however is very strict (as it is in plays). If you’re going to write a screenplay, it is worth investing in scriptwriting software because of the challenges in formatting otherwise.
In novels, everything (characters, plot, dialogue, inner thoughts, feelings, and motivations, description, setting) has to be fleshed out. You have more freedom because the structures of the form aren’t as strict, but that means you are also responsible for filling in all the details as well. To sum up it, writing is not easy, no matter the form!
Jacqueline's mystery, A MONTH OF SUNDAYS, is available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble.com and Whimsical Publications. Jacqueline’s website is http://www.jacquelinecorcoran.com/ where she blogs about book-in-a-month writing challenges.
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