Film School 101: Screenwriting vs. Narrative Writing

When writing a creative story, there are a few things to think about that differ between scripts and novels. The writing style is vastly different. Here are a few things that can trip up the new screenwriter.

1. Length of the writing

When writing a novel, it’s all about getting the words out and the word count. Not so, in a script. One page of a script is, on average, one minute on screen. For a new writer, aiming for 90-100 pages is the place to start.

2. Descriptions

When writing descriptions in a script, don’t paint the reader a picture of the person or place. Keep the descriptions simple, and keep the visual descriptions to a minimum. Only include visual traits if they are vital to the story.

For characters, you want to give the casting director and any potential actors an idea of who your character is, but you don’t want to say things like “blonde” or “short” because they can limit your acting pool and you may lose out on the perfect actor that doesn’t quite fit.

It’s the same for your wardrobe and set. You can give the aesthetic you’re looking for without telling exactly how they look. This allows for the various departments to have the freedom to build the world without being limited by the script.

If there is an aspect of a character physically that is important to the script, like white hair or a tattoo, that can be listed. Also, if there’s something specific in the wardrobe or the set that’s important to the story, like an heirloom necklace she’s always wearing or a sword on the wall that will play a part later in the story, those can be listed as well. But only if it’s important to the story.

3. Tense and Characters

Novels allow you the freedom to write however you want. First person present tense, or third person past tense, or some other way. Scripts are always third person present tense. Always. 

When introducing a character, jump straight in with their name or how you’re going to refer to them. Avoid being ambiguous as it can be confusing for casting. If you change how you’re referring to a character, make it clear the two “characters” are the same.

4. Show don’t tell

In a novel, you have the ability to see the inner workings of a character. But with a film, the audience is an external observer. Monologuing and voice overs can be used to convey information but can be overused and cheesy. Emotions can be challenging. Don’t tell the characters emotion, show it. Don’t tell us the inner workings of a character’s mind. We can’t see that. Find a way to show us through the actions.

Don’t tell how a character says something. It should be clear in how you write the scene how you want it to be said. This allows the actor to have a bit of freedom to play with the lines. The one exception could be sarcasm, but only in rare cases.

Writing scripts and novels have a number of differences, but the one thing they have in common is a great story. For your first draft, just get the words down on paper, and in your rewrites, get to fixing it up. So, sit down and get your creative story started.

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  • Connor Sassmannshausen is a screenwriter, video producer, and social media organizer with the Initiative Production Company. She loves watching movies, nerdy t-shirts, travelling and taking broken things apart (but not necessarily putting them back together).

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