Posted On September 11, 2009 by Print This Post

Story Is Story, Right? Novels Versus Scripts

Good morning, everyone! Today, scriptwriter Cindy Carroll explains the difference between writing a novel and script. I found the differences fascinating and hope you will too. Cindy lists an amazing assortment of her favorite  scriptwriting books on her website. Be sure to check it out.

Please join me in welcoming Cindy back for another exciting lecture. If you missed her first post on loglines, click here to learn how to boil your story down to 25 words or less.

Take it away, Cindy!

If you write books switching over to screenplays may seem easy. You already know how to tell a story. You know about goal, motivation andCindy Carroll conflict. You know that your characters have to be sympathetic. Show don’t tell is a constant mantra you play in your head. You know the story needs to have a beginning, middle and end. And you know the dangers of the sagging middle. Some of you have even taken courses to apply three act structure to your novel. Or a course on applying Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey to your book. And don’t forget the W method of plotting. Piece of cake to switch sides and write movies, right? WRONG. 

Screenplays and books are two very different animals.  While they share a lot in common they are different disciplines.  But ones I think complement each other.  Learning scriptwriting can help you improve your novel writing.  And I believe that writing novels first can give you a head start when it comes to writing screenplays. 

So what are these differences?  While a good story is a good story, there are formatting differences.  In a book an editor or agent probably won’t bat an eyelash if your manuscript is Times New Roman or Courier New.  Margins won’t be a huge concern to them either.  In screenplays formatting is essential.  That’s why, before you sit in front of that computer and type FADE IN: you should read as many scripts as you can.  In the genre you want to write.  There’s a reason for the 1.25 inch margin on the left side.  There’s a reason slug lines (scene headings) are capitalized. A script page does not look like a manuscript page.  And they need to be written in Courier, 12 pt.  Know how to format your script so it looks like a script at the very least before you send it anywhere. 

Which brings me to the whole read, read, read.  The first thing you probably heard when you announced you wanted to write a book was to read, read, read.  Same goes for scripts.  But you need to know what kind of screenplays you’re reading.  By what kind I mean is it a Spec script (a script written on speculation, no contract)?  Is it a shooting script (with scene numbers in the margins)?  Was it written on contract?  Did the director write it?  Was it written by someone with a track record like Robert Orci and Alex Kurtzman (Transformers)?  All those types will be slightly different.  For example some things a director will put in his script (camera angles, shots, transitions) you should not if you’re writing a spec script.  Robert and Alex don’t have to worry so much about the rules. 

Let’s talk about length.  Size matters.  Books generally come in around 400 pages for a 100,000 word book.  For screenplays the general rule of thumb is 85-120 pages.  But you have a fantastic 300 page script you say?  Like almost any rule in writing this one can be broken – once you’ve established yourself.  That means having writing credits (screenwriting writing credits) or production credits under your belt.  If you don’t have the credits and you send in that 300 page script, even if it’s formatted properly, it will most likely be introduced to the trash can before anyone gets past your cover page.  The reason for the strict page limit?  The general rule of thumb is one page of script equals about one minute of screen time.  So that 120 page script is a two hour movie.  And that 300 page masterpiece is a 5 hour epic. 

Let’s move onto the most obvious difference.  No chapters.  While most books and scripts have a three act structure the script has no chapters.  It has scene headings.  When I started writing scripts I stressed over how to “do” things.  I knew what I wanted to show but I didn’t know how to write it down.  It’s actually not that hard.  You need slug lines.  Those tell the director if the scene is indoors or outdoors and the time of day.  And there’s no need to get fancy.  Just day or night will do.  If it’s actually in the afternoon you can put that in the description part under the slug line.  Think of a scene as being any time the director has to move that huge camera.  So a sequence of events in the living room, dining room and kitchen would actually be three scenes with three separate slug lines.  While in a book that might be all one scene.  For example: 


John sits on the couch, beer in hand.  He takes a gulp.  Shakes the can, crumples it and tosses into a pile on the floor. 

With his gaze still clued to the TV he gets up and walks towards the… 


John yanks the fridge door open, frowns.  Slams it closed again and stalks to the… 


A note on the table.  John picks it up, reads, crumples it.


                        She took my beer again.

 One thing that is the same is the need to show instead of tell.  However, in screenplays it needs to be all show.  You can’t put in the script what you can’t see on screen.  The director needs to be able to set up the shot.  So no introspection.  The only time you have a little leeway with telling is when you introduce a character.  Everywhere else you need to show because movies are a visual medium.  As I said before, if the director can’t set up a shot for it, it doesn’t belong in the script.  Quick telling sentences won’t work the same way they do in books.  

Sure you can show someone is inquisitive by having them always ask questions, constantly researching facts.  Writing screenplays forces you to really focus on how you show something.  Instead of saying – she was surprised by his sudden appearance you have to show that.  

Another example:  

CAROLYN, 17, smartest girl in high school but also the loneliest.  

You can’t set up a shot for the smartest girl in high school.  How do we know that?  How do you show that instead of just telling the reader?  You could show awards for scholarly excellence on the walls.  She could drop her keys by the phone and you could show no new messages.  No pictures of her and her friends.  She could check her computer and see she only has two emails.  One from her mother and one is spam. 

At first it seems overwhelming and some people just give up.  It’s always hard to learn something new.  But the actual structure isn’t that different from books.  You still need an inciting incident.  You still need turning points.  You want to make sure your sagging middle is tightened up so it’s full of action.  Because of the visual nature of screenplays it’s vital that you show instead of tell and keep everything active. If you want to try your hand at writing a script I recommend downloading some from a website, get a free script writing software just to try and go for it. 

RU Readers, have you ever tried your hand at writing a script? If so, tell us about it!

Cindy Carroll joined RWA in 1992 and started out writing novels but turned to scripts when an idea for one of her favorite television shows wouldn’t leave her alone. That first attempt, and her second teleplay for the same show, garnered her honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest 76th Annual Writing Competition in the screenplay category.  She graduated from Hal Croasmun’s screenwriting ProSeries intensive in June of 2008.  Her interview with David Rambo, writer/producer for CSI appeared in the summer special edition of The Rewrit, the newsletter for Scriptscene, Romance Writers of America’s screenwriting chapter.  Currently working on the rewrite of her second feature, Cindy is also developing two new television pilots.

On Monday, medical suspense author CJ Lyons stops by to give us pointers on brand building. You don’t want to miss this!

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13 Responses to “Story Is Story, Right? Novels Versus Scripts”

  1. Cindy,
    Thanks for joining us again at RU! I love the examples you gave for script writing. Do you find it hard going back and forth between script and novel writing, or do you have yourself trained to write in each mode now?

    I’ve never given much thought to script writing before, but your article has me intrigued. What’s the process for submitting a finished script?
    Thanks again, Tracey

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | September 11, 2009, 5:38 am
  2. Cindy –

    Thanks for being at RU again today! Could you tell us anything about the process of a novel becoming a script? Why does the novelist often have little to say about the script writing?


    Posted by Kelsey Browning | September 11, 2009, 6:32 am
  3. Hi Tracey! Thanks for having me back. It is hard going back and forth but I find I visualize my books more.

    Submitting scripts are a little different. They go to producers, managers or agents. You still need to research to see who produces the kind of movie you’re writing. And you still have to write a great story.

    Posted by Cindy | September 11, 2009, 7:51 am
  4. Hi Kelsey.

    Usually the producer will approach the writer, the writer’s agent or the publisher about getting the rights to turn a novel into a script. So writers should make sure they check their contracts carefully to make sure they retain the movie rights not the publisher. Once the novelist sells the rights it’s up to the producer to hire a screenwriter to write the script. Some novelists will be producers so they can retain control. Some novelists have it written in the contract that they have some (or a lot) of control. But you have to be a big name author for that usually. Usually, once you sell the rights you don’t have a say.

    Posted by Cindy | September 11, 2009, 8:08 am
  5. Fascinating blog, Cindy. I can see where script writing can be tricky withut introversion.

    My question is – who do you send your scripts to? Are there agents specifically for script writers?

    Posted by Liz L. | September 11, 2009, 8:28 am
  6. This was really interesting. One thing I envy screenwriters is actors. We see the emotion on their faces and don’t have to describe it in words. Of course, first screenwriters have to sell their script, just like novel writers. There’s always a catch. 😉

    Posted by Edie | September 11, 2009, 8:40 am
  7. Hi, Cindy and thanks for being here. This is a great article. I’m curious how long it takes you to write a script vs. a book? Is it a similar timeframe, or do you find you can do one faster than the other?

    Posted by Adrienne Giordano | September 11, 2009, 8:55 am
  8. Hi Liz.

    Most agencies for novels don’t represent screenplays. There are agents who specialize in scripts. The WGA has a list of agents that conform to their standards.

    Posted by Cindy | September 11, 2009, 8:57 am
  9. Hi Edie.

    Yes, there’s always a catch. And it’s much harder to sell a script than it is a novel.

    Posted by Cindy | September 11, 2009, 8:58 am
  10. Hi Adrienne.

    It depends on the person. But it took me two years to write my first book. And it took me two months to write my first script. I find scripts are much faster to write. Revising them, that’s another story.

    Posted by Cindy | September 11, 2009, 9:00 am
  11. Hi Cindy…

    Sorry, I’m late! The dog ate my homework, the alarm didn’t go off, I forgot it was Friday. =) Actually, it’s a long story involving cat claws and an exploding waterbed, but no one really needs to hear THAT story. =)

    Anyways, thanks for being here! A friend of a friend of mine (yeah, I know I know) is a screen I kind of have an “in”…lol….yeah, it’s really distant…but something that the friend of mine and I have talked about doing – someday. I am hoping first to get published as a novelist, then work my way around to screenwriting…so thanks for your helpful hints, I’ll be looking at your website and other information you popped into your article! Something definitely to think about!

    thanks again!

    (always late to class)

    Posted by carrie | September 11, 2009, 11:32 pm
  12. Thanks for blogging with us, Cindy, and introducing us to this wonderful topic!

    RU Readers, if you’d like to learn more about screenwriting or loglines, be sure to check out one of Cindy’s workshops. She has an amazing assortment listed on her website

    Have a great weekend!

    Posted by Tracey Devlyn | September 12, 2009, 7:01 am


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