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Seven Things Novelists Should Know About Screenwriting

Mar 21, 2011 in Film, Guest Posts, Writing

ScreenplayI was thinking about creating a Top Ten list of things novelists should know about screenwriting because everyone loves Top Ten lists. However, since I’m contrarian by nature, I decided to come up with seven. Also, less work. So here they are… the seven things you should know as you make the switch.

1. You Give Up the Copyright. This is the number one thing you should realize if you want to be a screenwriter. As soon as you sell your screenplay to a studio, you give up the copyright on that screenplay. They can change anything and everything they want. Remember how your main character had a wife? Well, they changed it to a plucky teen-age sister to bring in the younger audience. Remember that pivotal scene when the main character hanged himself? Now, he has a change of heart and swears off alcohol and rides off into the sunset. And you have zero control over it.

2. You Can Be Fired From Your Own Project. This goes hand-in-hand with number one, but once you sell a script, you can be fired at any time. Understand, there are many reasons you can be fired from your own script that have nothing to do with your merits as a writer. The lead actor might have a screenwriting buddy who has helped polish all of his scripts. The studio might want to go in a different direction you resisted. The director might want to write it himself. You might simply be too expensive. Screenwriting is a far greater collaborative experience than novel writing and if you resist collaboration, they’ll replace you with someone who is more agreeable. If you think the subsequent writer will come in and tell them, “this is great! Don’t touch it! Don’t do these ridiculous notes!” you are wrong.

3. If You Think Sitting At Your Computer and Writing is Your Job, You Only Understand Half of It. Yes, you have to write a great script, and it is the most important part of the job. But, after you type Fade Out, the real work begins. You will meet with producers, producer’s assistants, directors, director’s assistants, studio executives, executive’s assistants, junior people, senior people, actors, cinematographers, and they’re all going to have “thoughts” on the script. You have to be able to present yourself well in the room. You have to be able to articulate your thoughts and your reservations and your themes and your revision ideas on the fly and with clarity. They will judge you as they think, “do I want to work with this person for the next six months to a year?” If you’re an introvert, or you have thin skin, I suggest sticking to novels.

4. Collaboration Can Be Excellent. As novelists, you are used to deference from your editors and publishers and that can be comforting, which makes the collaboration requirements jarring when you move over to screenwriting. Still, if you can get over those feelings, you’ll find that often, a true, honest collaboration can make the results better. A good idea is a good idea, my partner and I often say. The best idea should win. We don’t care if it comes from the most green person in the room or the head of a studio… if they have a plot point or a character suggestion or even a line of dialogue that elevates the movie, then we should absolutely include it. There is a pervasive mentality around novice screenwriters that the studios are filled with dumb hacky executives who just want to screw up our brilliance. We’ve found that it’s simply not true. Yes, there are some bad ideas and bad execs who will derail your material… but there are many smart creative executives and producers on the other side of the table who do understand story and characters and what makes audiences respond. The more you do it, the more you’ll grow adept at spotting and listening to the good ones.

5. Dialogue is King. Some novelists write beautiful poetic prose that paints pictures on the page. They find just the right word to describe a thorn bush, or they spend twenty pages on the thought process of how a spy enters a room. They write pages, sometimes chapters, with very little dialogue. And when they do write dialogue, it only serves to stimulate more inner thoughts from the character or leads to more flowery prose. You can’t get away with that in a screenplay. Yes, you have to describe the settings and the characters and properly pace the action, but more than anything, you better write cracking dialogue. Most scripts are eighty-percent dialogue… often, the studio readers will skip all of the action-descriptions and just read the dialogue when they judge whether or not the screenplay is good. And the dialogue has to do the job that the freedom of writing thoughts and making active commentary in the novel’s prose usually serves. You better have those characters sounding distinct and complex.

captive audience6. Movies Don’t Happen Quickly. You just optioned your book and they’ve hired you to adapt your screenplay! You think you are a month or two away from sitting on set with Brad Pitt and Tom Hanks speaking your dialogue under the direction of Martin Scorsese. Let me tell you… it doesn’t work like that unless you wrote HARRY POTTER or THE DAVINCI CODE. It may never happen, actually. Studios usually have some 70-80 projects in active development and the biggest studios only make 10-15 movies a year. Even if you wow them with your script and the creative execs love it, you still have to get an A-list actor and director to say “yes,” just to get the greenlight. A marketing guy then has to come on and input the numbers and decide that your movie with that cast and that director at that budget makes sense for the studio. And then you have to rely on the director’s and actor’s schedules, which might be booked over a year in advance. Of course, one actor drops out, or the director attaches himself to another project… or worse, a movie comes out that has a similar idea as the one in your script… and the whole thing can unravel.

7. When It All Comes Together Though, It’s Fantastic. Every now and then, the movie gods smile on you and your screenplay gets produced. If you’re fortunate to have this happen, and the movie mostly reflects what you set out to write, then it is extremely gratifying to see something that originated in your head acted out on the big screen. As novelists, occasionally we get letters and emails from readers who praise our work and that feels great… but nothing compares to sitting in a theater with a full audience who are laughing or gasping or crying at the exact moments you created for those responses. It’s like getting to read over their shoulders but without feeling like a voyeur. It truly is one of the greatest feelings in the world, and I hope someday you’ll experience it. I’m pulling for you.

[Editor’s Note: We are proud to announce today that Derek Haas is joining Mulholland Books with his novel THE RIGHT HAND, a fresh spin on the espionage thriller. Stay tuned tomorrow for a list of what screenwriters should know about writing novels.]

Derek Haas is the author of the bestselling novel THE SILVER BEAR and the Barry Award-nominated COLUMBUS. Derek also co-wrote the screenplays for 3:10 TO YUMA, starring Russel Crowe and Christian Bale, and WANTED, starring James McAvoy, Morgan Freeman, and Angelina Jolie. His forthcoming film, THE DOUBLE, starring Richard Gere and Topher Grace, is directed by his screenwriting partner Michael Brandt and will be released in 2011. He is also the creator and editor-in-chief of the acclaimed website Popcorn Fiction. Derek lives in Los Angeles.

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21 Responses »

  1. Oddly, I never wanted to try my hand at scriptwriting until now, Derek. You list all the difficulties and managed to make it sound intriguing.

    And we’d LOVE to have you come up to Seattle Mystery Bookshop and sign THE RIGHT HAND when it comes out! Just sayin’. . .

  2. My favorite bookstore! You guys are prominently mentioned in tomorrow’s article right here on the same site… tell Janine hello for me. I will definitely come up there for a signing. DARK MEN (which is the third Silver Bear book) is out in December so maybe sooner rather than later.

  3. Thanks for this, Derek. Once or twice a year I think I want to write a screenplay, and sort of start….then I veer away from the learning curve and write another novel instead. Killing time between my own sessions at a writer’s conference last year, I attended a workshop aimed at screenwriters wanting to cross into the novel market. It was amazing to hear their questions and see their surprise at some of the answers. Book and film writing are distinctly different endeavors. Congrats on mastering both!

  4. “Mastering” is awfully generous.

  5. Derek,

    Regarding #5, how often will an actor say to the screen-writer, “I don’t think my character would say that.” , and how do you overcome his objections?

    Thanks for taking my question. I will listen to the answer off the air.


  6. I hope Darden see this! Such great info. Although, as you know, novelists can’t be introverts these days either. Best of luck with your new novel and all that you have in the works! I’m looking forward to that “full audience in the theater responding to the moments I created” thingy. 🙂 Hey, a small town girl can dream.

  7. Coolclay… that’s a very good question, and I say that not because you’re cool, but because you’re my brother. An actor will say that occasionally. The trick is to look for the note behind the note. If a line isn’t working for him or her, why is that line not working? Is it because of a logic breakdown inside the scene? Would his character not say that because we didn’t properly set up his character thirty pages prior? Or is something else not tracking? You have to probe the reason why the actor is uncomfortable and then try to figure out the fix. Sometimes, just deleting one or two words from the bit of dialogue will make it better.

    This question does remind me of something else… in my first book, I had a critic note that my main character wouldn’t do a certain thing. He beats up this preacher late in the book and the critic said it was “out of character.” That made me chuckle. Says who? I’m defining his character for you as you read him. He’s the kind of guy who WOULD beat up that preacher in that situation. On top of that, people do things “out of character” every day. For instance, my son actually cleaned up his room this morning. Go figure.

  8. Jill… this town is built on small town dreams! No reason why you can’t achieve that dream.

  9. Derek,

    Congrats on all your success and here’s to much more.

    Concerning collaboration. How do you handle notes that go against your beliefs or outlook on the material. You get a note that says “this character isn’t working,” “the second act needs work,” yada yada, but you don’t agree.

    How do you handle it?

  10. D–I’m passing this on to my class tomorrow. Thanks so much for this.

    And I too am chuckling. Since I’m the preacher your character beat up. It seemed totally believable to me.

    See you soon–


  11. Lin,

    I think the first thing you have to remember in notes meetings is not to be defensive. If you immediately get your back up, then the note giver is going to dig in or belabor his point. I think you have to take a genuine look at the note and give it some thought. This might require for you to say in the room, “I hear you. Instead of trying to solve this here, this is going to need some more thought… let me think about this and then we can talk more about it later.” I think you then do need to give it more thought, and if you still disagree, you need to be able to articulate why you disagree. You have another conversation the next day about it over the phone or in emails, laying out your rationale. If you are still at an impasse, you can either hold your ground and not do the note, or you can attempt to satisfy the note in your best version of giving them what they want while maintaining the integrity of what you wrote. After all that, they may still decide you are wrong and fire you and hire someone else to give them what they want.

    It happens to all of us. There’s a “loom of fate” in WANTED after all.

  12. Greg,

    I named that character with nothing but love! (Greg Garrett, who is an accomplished novelist himself, was also my creative writing professor in college.)

  13. Hi Derek:

    I think I met you a while back in one of Al Watt’s classes when you were a guest speaker. I could be wrong, but I don’t think I am. 🙂 Btw, I loved “3:10 to Yuma”. That was one of those movies I had no desire to see when it came out, but then I rented it one night or something because it got good reviews and I absolutely loved it. So thanks for that.

    Anyway, I am a novelist and screenwriter and have worked professionally in both areas. I am about to start my second novel and all I have is a concept (which Al actually likes, so that’s a good thing :)). The thing is, I have nothing else regarding the story at the moment. I am more of a “blank pager”. I don’t really outline. I wrote my first novel based on two things: I had the idea for the beginning and the end and the rest I filled in as I went along (because I had somewhere to land in the end), so I could discover the characters’ actions at the same time as the reader. I like working this way. However, with my new novel, again, all I have is a high level concept. I have no beginning and no end in mind and when I started to write the novel, I got stuck 11 pages in.

    So what I am trying to decide now is whether my concept is a novel or a screenplay or both, and, if both, which one should I do first? I know that this is mostly a matter of personal choice, but I wanted to get your thoughts on how you decide what is the best vehicle for your story.

    Thanks in advance,


  14. I think you should really sit with the story and try and crack it. Take a couple of weeks with pen and blank paper and spool out the major beats of the story. You don’t have to solve every last scene, but you should really try to close in on what makes this story compelling from start to finish. Identify some major plot points and try to string them together. Then you’ll know if you have a story that will survive either format. After you finish, it’s up to you to decide whether or not you want to tackle it in prose or in screenplay format. It’s a noble goal to go into it without an outline, and I’m not immune to that temptation, but you have to at least know your beginning, middle and end.

  15. I know I’m late but. Thank you so much for this.

    I just started writing screenplay but did some quick pros and cons, and oddly enough I had noted all the things your post did. I think I actually want to change it to a novel.

    Thank you so much for this again!


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