Monday, October 6, 2014

GUEST POST: "Screenwriting vs Prose Writing" by Dale Kutzera

Having written quite a few screenplays and teleplays, I looked forward to trying my hand at prose. I hadn't written a short story or novel in years and thought it would be a snap compared to the minimalist haiku of screenwriting.  Best of all, I'd have the final word (well words) on the story, without any pesky meddling from actors, directors, and editors. But there are differences between screenwriting and prose writing. Now that I've finished my second novel (the kid's adventure Andy McBean and the War of the Worlds) I thought I'd make a list:


Screenplays tell a story with images and dialogue. Those are the main tools in the utility belt, and the screenwriter conveys visuals in very sparse prose like, "The sun rises over the city." A prose writer can't rely on a great director and cinematographer to turn that simple sentence into a visual masterpiece, and must describe it.

Screenwriters also skip the description of characters unless it is integral to the story. A character may be introduced as  "tall, thirties, heavy-set" and that's it. There's a practical reason for this: anyone reading the script can imagine their preferred actor in the part. Novelists aren't writing a story that will be cast later, and I still have to remind myself to describe each character as they are introduced.

Screenplays are written in the present tense.  Events happen as you are reading them, just as they happen as you are watching the movie. While some novels use present tense, most are written in past tense. Novels have a lot in common with oral storytelling and we're used to being told stories as something that has already taken place ("How was school today?" "What did you do at work?").  I've found some agents and publishers won't even look at a novel told in present tense. I used it in my first novel "Manhunt," but I'll never do it again.

Prose does perspective better than any medium. A reader can crawl inside a character's mind and understand his or her every thought. Many novels are written in the first person where the reader is inevitably linked to that character. Films can approximate this with POV shots and voice-over narration, but it's not nearly as effective. 

One thing a movie can do is shift focus from one character to another merely by changing who the camera is pointed at.  I learned from the beta-readers of Manhunt that this is called "head-hopping" in the prose-world and can give readers perspective whiplash. The general rule is stick with the same character's perspective for the entire chapter.

This has nothing to do with writing…and maybe everything to do with writing. A screenwriter is but one contributor to a film or TV show that may or may not be made. Even a script written entirely on spec, from an original idea, is just a blueprint that other people follow faithfully or ignore completely. Unlike a theatrical play, a screenplay is typically bought completely, including copyright, so the writer is powerless to influence the final product.
Not so in novels, where the writer retains copyright. More importantly, the writer retains responsibility. There are no collaborators to muck up your work, but neither are there any to spot your mistakes and offer better ideas. A prose writer can't slack off and hope someone will "fix it in post." It's all on you.

Here's something books and movies have in common: they have to be marketed to an audience of buyers. I'm pretty sure a falling tree always makes a noise, but a book or movie that isn't marketed won't. While there are more media-opportunities than ever before, this makes marketing more difficult. Studios prefer to make films about characters the public is already aware of like Godzilla or Spider-man. Publishers seek celebrity-authors who can promote their books on the talk-show circuit.
Independent authors are getting wise to marketing in the same way movie studios have. Writing in a series is one tactic. Branding your author name within a popular genre is another. Smart writers know the book cover is just as important as the movie poster. With "Andy McBean," I'm well aware that the story plays on the widespread name recognition of the H.G. Wells' story, and that the cover image of a boy chased by a giant alien tripod "sells" the story at a glance.

It's strange to think of an author as a programmer.  Writers are the folks locked in a room full of books who only come out twice a decade to promote their latest literary effort. That is also changing as writers learn their best chance of making a living is to program their work, much as a studio designs a release schedule, or a network devises an evening of television.
The goal is to develop a consistent product that will entertain a paying audience over time. A series of romance, mystery, or thrillers with the same hero has proven to be successful, and some writers are taking this a step further and writing shorter works in series, much like a season of a TV show.

In closing, no matter what medium you're working in - novels, movies, plays, comics, operas - a story still has a beginning, middle, and an end. Characters still have goals and face obstacles. If you have the skills to tell a story, today's transmedia world offers more outlets than ever. You just have to learn the rules of each particular road.

Dale Kutzera has worked as a screenwriter for both film and television. His credits include the VH1 series “Strange Frequency,” “Without a Trace” for CBS, and the independent comedy “Military Intelligence and You!”

He is a recipient of the Carl Sautter Screenwriting Award, the Environmental Media Award, and participated in the Warner Brothers Writers Workshop. In his youth, he won the National Scholastic Writing Competition.

His first novel, Manhunt was set in the absurd world of show-business. Andy McBean and the War of the Worlds is his second novel. A graduate of the University of Washington, he currently resides in Seattle.


  1. Interesting guest post, so nice to be able to draw from both perspectives in your writing. Or to wear two different hats.

  2. Cool beans to read about both sides of the storytelling practice.


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