8 Major Differences Between Screenwriting and Novel Writing

It’s interesting to be in Hollywood right now, where so many projects are being adapted from books, news articles, comics, podcasts, and all other kinds of IP (intellectual property).

And I admire anyone who’s able to take a novel or other non-screenplay material and translate it into a screenplay that even makes sense, let alone is amazing (which many are).

Given that there are a lot of differences between novels and scripts, I wanted to take a moment to go over the 8 major differences between screenwriting and novel writing.

There are probably more than 8. But these are the main ones I’ve found.

1. Verb Tense.

In a novel, you are free to use whatever verb tense you want, whenever and however you choose to do so. Yes, okay, there are ways in which certain choices can be more practical or logical, but there’s a lot more freedom on the page.

In screenwriting, everything that happens on the page happens in the present tense. Even if it’s a flashback – the verbs used within the text of the script are still present.

So, you wouldn’t write:

Tom was walking down the street. He looked both ways, then crossed at the light.

Instead, you would write:

Tom walks down the street. He looks both ways, then crosses at the light.

That’s not very interesting action, but you get the idea. The verbs are all present tense, because the script is being written for the action to be viewed as it’s happening.

Businessman crosses the street

2. Say Goodbye to Internal Thoughts.

In a script, there are a variety of ways to express internal emotion – action and voiceover are the most well-known and practical.

But, you can’t say, for instance:

Tom was thinking about last week, when he really messed up in that meeting. He was stressed that someone might bring it up again at work.

Unfortunately, because that can’t be visualized on-screen, you don’t really do that in a screenplay.

There are other ways you might show Tom’s stress, and context clues can show why he’s stressed. Or – voiceover could do some heavy lifting here, though that can be tricky.

But – what you can do on the novel page with internal thoughts and feelings, you can’t (in the same way) in a script.

Write what you see (and hear) is a base-level rule, and though it can be played with, bent and twisted around a bit, it’s pretty much adhered to. Lengthy Proustian internal monologuing would be tough to translate to the screen.

Stressed Man Holds head with one hand

3. Format.

Screenplays (within a professional setting) adhere to a pretty firm set of format rules: 12 point Courier font. Margins. Transitional elements. Sluglines. Parentheticals. All sorts of different rules play a role in screenplay format.

In novels, you can choose a totally different font, you don’t have to use 12 point if you don’t want to – hell, if you’re Mark Z. Danielewski, you don’t even have to write straight.

I’ve talked more about how to tackle screenplay format in this comparison of screenwriting software. 

4. Length.

A novel, I’m told, is around 40,000 words at the short end, up to however many words you want at the long end.

Scripts aren’t really counted by words. Because, depending on how much action vs. dialogue there is on a page, script pages don’t contain the same amount of words on each page (even on average).

Scripts are counted more by page length.

So, a feature film is 90-125 pages (give or take).

A one-hour TV show is around 45-65 pages.

A half hour TV show (single camera) is around 25-40 pages. 

Here’s why that’s the case:

One page is said to equal about one minute of screentime. 

Because, of course, scripts are time translated to a page. Novels can be as long as you want – you’re not counting on things like theatrical screenings or network regulations.

stack of books

5. Character introductions.

In screenplays, there are some basics around character intros that don’t really come into play in novels. Most commonly, you’ll see a character introduced in a way similar to the following:

TOM, 15, walks down the street.

There might be a little more description about Tom, like TOM, 15, meek and shy, walks down the street. 

Or TOM, 15, the type of kid who always gets beat up after school, walks down the street.

So – you’ll have a hint of who Tom is, and his age, and his name (capitalized on first introduction).

That’s obviously not the case in a book. Often, I’ll read 10 pages before I even find out the narrator’s name. Sometimes they don’t even have a name, and they’re never introduced at all! 

6. Deadlines.

This is interesting, because sometimes there’s similarity, but sometimes there isn’t.

For instance, a pilot might take years to write, just like a novel might. But, it also might take a few months or a few weeks. The bigger deadline comes when a project is purchased. Obviously, novelists have to hit deadlines, too! But deadlines in TV tend to be a lot tighter than in novel writing.

7. Location.

This is a weird one! Because it’s not a rule so much as it’s common.

It’s more common for professional, working screenwriters (especially in TV) to live in specific cities. Novelists can pretty much be anywhere, and while there are certainly creative hubs, we’ve all read the bios of popular novelists who live all over the world.

Meanwhile, popular screenwriters tend to live (or, at the very least, take meetings) in places like Los Angeles, New York, Atlanta, Vancouver, London – the cities where development on films and TV begins. 

8. The Amount of People Involved in the Final Product.

In a screenplay, the goal is to get it taken from page to screen (hence the name). So, you want a production to make the thing. And, yes, there are some screenplays in the independent space that have been shot, directed, produced, and edited, all by the writer. Of course that happens (and, man, am I envious of people with the stamina and skill to make that work well).

But it’s not a common occurrence.

Here’s why:

More commonly, to get a project produced, you’d need at least a dozen people, and often hundreds or thousands of people might work on one film (especially if VFX are involved). 

In a novel, it might just be a few people, or even just one, if you’re self-publishing. If you’re not self-publishing, again, you might end up with a few dozen people working on a project, if you count the editor, their staff, publisher, cover designer, agents, marketing – whoever helps make the project come to life! 

And that’s definitely not just a one person job. 

But – it’s still not the high numbers of people it takes to make a movie or TV show.

So – what other differences do you see in the two? Post below and let me know what I missed!