Screenplay vs novel: what’s the difference, really?

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The question of writing a screenplay vs novel is a big one. Maybe you have a story to tell and aren’t sure how you want to approach it, or maybe you are experienced in one format and are interested in branching out. Regardless of your goals and experience, let’s dive into the difference between a screenplay and a novel, and how to know which you should be writing.

What’s the difference between a screenplay vs novel?

When we’re looking at a screenplay vs novel, there are several key differences to keep in mind. Of course, neither is better or worse, but they are different skill sets and different projects are suited better for each format.

  1. The format is different. While there are best practices for formatting a novel, screenplays use a highly specific format, from the specific font you use to how big the margins should be. Most screenwriters draft in a screenwriting software like Final Draft that does this formatting for them, although if you learn the rules it’s possible to DIY it. Novelists, however, are more likely to write in a wider variety of word processors, from Word to Scrivener to Google Docs.
  2. The length is different. A feature screenplay needs to be the length of a feature film. Feature films can vary in length, but typically hover around the two hour mark. As you write, you need to keep in mind that you want this to be a real movie that people watch. Unless you’re Martin Scorsesee, it might be tough to get folks to sit still for something that’s three hours plus. With novels, there is a lot more flexibility, although if publication is your goal there are still word count conventions to keep in mind. They vary according to your target audience (a middle grade novel should be shorter than an adult novel, for example) and your genre (a romance novel should be shorter than an epic fantasy.) Regardless of if you’re writing a screenplay or a novel, do some research about what your target word count or page number should be.
  3. Both screenplays and novels are collaborative, but in different ways. Screenwriters need to be prepared to collaborate with producers, cinematographers, actors, directors… the list goes on. When your screenplay is produced, it is often out of your hands, and it’s necessary to make compromises. When you’re traditionally publishing a novel, it’s collaborative as well; you as the author will work alongside your agent and editor to make the book as good (and as marketable) as it can be. However, as long as you are willing to compromise, you have a bit more control over the finished product than you would with a screenplay.
  4. The inner lives of the characters are different. In a screenplay, you rely on your actors to reflect the inner lives of your characters. You can make suggestions, but ultimately you aren’t going to be writing long paragraphs about your character’s thoughts and feelings. In a novel, depending on the point of view you’re writing from and your chosen genre, you may spend a lot of time exploring the interior lives of your characters.
  5. Screenplays have to actually be produced. Say you want to write an epic fantasy. You want it to include dragons, epic battles, castles, other fantastical creatures… the point is, a fantasy story includes a lot of big elements. When you write a novel, you can put anything you can imagine on the page, free of charge. When it’s a screenplay, however, all of those elements cost actual money and time to produce. The dragon that you can picture so vividly in your mind actually has to exist in real life, using special effects, which can be difficult or expensive. For a big budget movie, they might have the money to put into it, but for a smaller, indie production, they probably don’t have that level of funding. 
  6. The process of getting it out into the world is different. If you want to traditionally publish a novel, there are many steps you need to take. First, you need to find an agent through a process called querying. This is a process that for some authors takes many years and many manuscripts, although of course for some people it’s quicker and easier than that. Then, once you have signed with an agent, it’s time to go on submission to publishers. Your agent will make a sub list and reach out to editors they think would be a good fit. Again, for some people this is a quick process, but for many others it can take months or even years to get a publishing deal. Pitching a screenplay isn’t entirely different; you create a query or pitch and then try to get it in front of producers or screenplay representatives, who then decide if they want to move forward with the project. Like with querying a novel, it can take a lot of time and effort to find the right fit, and a lot of people end up trying to produce their screenplay themselves. This is an option with novels too–many people have amazing careers self-publishing their novels–but, like producing a movie, that’s a totally different skill set beyond writing that you have to learn in order to be successful.

Screenplay vs novel… which should I write?

When you’re debating between writing a screenplay vs novel, it’s important to think about your goals, your specific skill set, and the story you want to tell. First of all, is your goal to learn something new, have fun, or pick up a new hobby? Or do you want to make a career out of this, get your story in front of audiences, and make some money? If you want to get your story out into the world, how do you want to do this? Would you like to self-publish or produce your own movie, or do you want to hand it off to a publisher or production company and just focus on your craft? Take some time to hammer out your goals before you proceed.

Next, think about your skill set. Do you already know how to format a screenplay, or would you have to learn those conventions? Do you understand things like novel age category and word counts, or will you need to do a lot of research? Obviously it’s always great to pick up new skills, and no one path is “easy,” but think about the amount of time and resources you have to dedicate to this project. If your goal is just to have fun with a new hobby, things like word count or genre conventions don’t really matter, but if your goal is to be paid for your work, you need to think carefully about these things. Take the time to read some craft books (here are the ones I recommend as someone who writes both screenplays and novels) and spend some time learning more about the publishing or production process.

You also need to think about your specific story. If you have your heart set on dragons, it might be a challenge to get your screenplay produced, and writing a novel might be a better bet. If you want to write a comedy that brings people to tears, maybe you’d benefit from working with a comedic actor to bring your story to life. Really weigh the pros and cons and learn about the conventions of each format before you dive in and commit a lot of time and energy to the project. But remember, if you feel like you’ve got it wrong, you can always pivot. 

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Molly Stein-Seroussi

Author

Molly is an author, screenwriter, blogger, and brand manager for New 32 Productions. They are passionate about sharing content that helps filmmakers live a more productive, informed, and well-balanced life. They live in North Carolina with their spouse and way too many dogs.

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