I 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.
6. 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.