Five Major Differences Between Writing Novels and Screenplays

writing a novel vs screenplay

First off, let me start by saying if you’re a writer, you can write novels and screenplays, if you have the undying ambition and drive to do so. I say this because I was once told by someone within the TV and Film industry experience that you cannot. This person advised me to, “pick one and stick with it.” As if a mother could only pick one of her two children to raise. Sophie’s Choice , anyone? No, thanks! My stories are my babies and how I choose to write them is my choice.

The trick is to know which avenue to choose when you get an inspiration to write a story.

Is your story visually adaptable to be on screen? Sounds like a simple question, but it’s not. Writing prose is definitely visual, yet it’s also aesthetically detailed. Lots of detail. Lots and lots of detail. In both novels and screenplays, you really need to delve your reader into setting and character.  

The main difference is a writer needs to accomplish that feat quicker in a screenplay versus a novel. A typical feature length screenplay is 110-120 pages whereas a novel could be several hundred pages long.

In a novel, a writer can take their time to build up chapters of details and characters leading to major plot points, obstacles, intricacies, climax and resolution. In a screenplay, each scene is a chapter per say, following the 3 Act structure and often incorporating the Hero’s Journey to get to your climax and resolution.

Put some serious thought into how your story enfolds. Is it intricate, are their multiple story lines? Do the story lines intertwine? Which POV drives the story? Does your story involve inner thoughts of your Main Character or other characters? Can you boil all this down to one hundred and some minutes (pages)? If so, go ahead and outline your screenplay. If not, your story may be better suited for a novel.

What’s your story about? When writing for the screen, the industry prefers you pick a specific genre — and stick to it. Now, we’ve seen this rule bend quite a bit especially when books are adapted for screen. Let’s take Harry Potter for example. In the print world, JK Rowling’s books were labelled Young Adult, however, within the Young Adult realm there are several sub-realms HP falls into: Coming of Age, Romance, Suspense, Fantasy, Supernatural, Horror, Adventure, Family Drama, Contemporary Realism. These same sub-genres also exist in screenplays, but as a screenwriter you usually pick one for your story, maybe meld two together — Romantic Comedy.  

Novelists have a much greater freedom of crossing genres within their works. Screenwriters, usually, do not. If you were to sit down and pitch your screenplay to a Hollywood producer as a Coming of Age, Suspense, Adventure, Sci-Fi, Drama, Romance. The producer would raise a confused eyebrow and from their WTF expression, your meeting has hence ended in their eyes.


Movies of the early 20 th century were called “talkies” for a reason. In a screenplay, your dialogue carries as much weight of the story as your action does.  

Writing meaningful and story-progressing dialogue can be a daunting task for a novelist. They take pride in writing dialogue between characters to signify emotion at a given time. Aha! And so do screenwriters! However, for a screenwriter, they construct dialogue within and around a scene. It’s all encompassing. On screen, when a guy walks into a room, as a viewer we need to know what he’s going to do next. Why is he in that room? We can’t read his thoughts (like you could in a novel) so we anticipate his dialogue or his actions.

In screenwriting, there are no internal thoughts. Sensory details need to come across in the character's actions as well as visible/audible emotions.

Which brings me to…

To create your story into a screenplay, you need to boil down the detail, make your visuals vivid and succinct and put in some emotion punch. Here’s an example comparing novel writing to screenwriting:

Novel Writing

Night falls as Sam stands over a fresh grave hidden deep within the woods. He kneels beside, a worn-out child’s blanket clenched in one fist. His heart thumping in his chest, lungs clenching with every breath. His open hand reaches for the overturned dirt, but hesitates. His mind wanders, could this be the final resting place of his little lost daughter? Slowly, his hand reaches deep into the damp soil as he digs and weeps.



Sam stands over small fresh grave. Falls to his knees in agony. Grasping child’s blanket in one hand, while other hand quivers as he digs. Weeps.

Oh Kimmy, don’t let this be you.

Sure, a screenwriter could write tons more detail into this setting description and action. Why would you need to? The key takeaway from this scene should be "Did your reader/viewer have a VISUAL and EMOTIONAL experience?" If the answer is “yes” — DING! Your work is done!

5. Budget/Setting

I combined Budget/Setting into the same category because in the screenwriting world one relies on the other. In writing a novel, there is no budget. A writer is free to create a story that covers the globe — starting in Buckingham Palace, venturing the Alps of Switzerland, sailing the Atlantic to North America to arrive in New Foundland where the main character enters a dog sledding race across Canada. Wow! Expansive! Spectacular! For a movie producer, the first word that comes to mind — EXPENSIVE!

As a screenwriter, you need to have a keen sense of budget when creating your story because it does affect how your screenplay is accepted. How many set pieces are in your screenplay? Could they be reduced? Are there any special effects? Explosions? Car chases?  Having a car chase in downtown Lincoln, Nebraska would cost a lot less than having one through the heart of Atlanta, Georgia. Is it a historical period story? Would the producer need to round up a bunch of horse-drawn wagons, period costumes, and detailed sets?

All this information might be a bit much to digest at first, but don’t get discouraged. As writers, the key to our sanity is write what you want to write. Put words to page. You can always tackle the conversion process later if you decide your story would be better suited for paperback or screen.

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writing a novel vs screenplay

Writers Store

Writing Screenplays vs. Novels: A Tough Love Guide for Writers

Posted by James Bonnet on November 24, 2020

Learn the difference between writing screenplays vs novels and where you should invest your writing energies in this expert guide by author James Bonnet.

The novelist creates and describes everything that appears in the novel -- the characters, the emotions of the characters, their actions, their thoughts, the plot, the costumes, the atmosphere, the environments, etc. And many of the early filmmakers and movie moguls were like novelists in that they were the primary creative artists (filmwrights) who had the responsibility for creating everything that would become part of the film. But they didn't have the time to do everything themselves, so they had to hire others to do the costumes, design and build the sets, act the parts, operate the camera, direct the action, create the special effects, and so on - all things which novelists would do on their own.

So the large and small production companies or studios were built around the filmwrights. Charlie Chaplin, Irving Thalberg, Steven Spielberg, and Walt Disney, among others are filmwrights. All of the other disciplines, including the writers and directors, have to come to them for approval. And today what we know of as the screenwriter became one of the many functions that served the interests and needs of the primary creative artist, the filmwright, the one who was really making the creative decisions.

The way I see it, the filmwright and the novelist are equivalent and have similar creative experiences, except that the novelist is a one man or woman band doing everything themselves, while the filmwright delegates many responsibilities to others, is generally more sociable, and can handle a great deal more stress.

Looked at in this way (realistically), a screenplay is one facet of a multi-faceted, collaborative artistic endeavor which is governed by someone else and contains lots of dialogue, descriptions of the action (which is divided up into scenes and shots), sparse descriptions of the characters and their emotions, the locations, camera angles, costumes, etc. Everything else is left to some other discipline. The end result will be the visual experience of a film or theatrical motion picture.

Looked at in this way, the novelist is a primary creative artist who transforms imaginary or artistically treated true stories into a fictionalized form of varying lengths from the novella to the epic and beyond. A feature film is generally somewhere in the neighborhood of two hours long. The novel is, by the way, also a visual medium, except that the author uses words to help the reader reconstruct the visual images in their head.

The novel and the screenplay do have one very important thing in common, however. They both have the same underlying story structure. The same story principles apply to both. And, in fact, the screenplay can be an excellent first draft for a novel. The screenplay takes a lot less time to create and you can use it to test the characters and the structure. If it works as a screenplay, you can then transform it into a novel by changing the tense from the present to the past and adding and describing everything else that would be added by the camera, the actors, costume and set designers, including your special artistry and the underlying psychology of the characters.

Now a little tough love for screenwriters. The screenwriter is definitely not the primary creative artist on a film (unless they also get to direct, produce and executive produce) - and they are often not even allowed on the set. They decide what goes on paper and that's about it. The director decides what goes on film, which is far more significant. But let's not forget the producer because he decides who gets to direct. And the actors pretty much do their own thing, at least as far as the writer is concerned. So the screenplay, including a screenplay written by William Shakespeare, is only a suggestion to higher-ups. The producer and then the director get to decide what parts of the script they will use and what parts they will throw away - and what parts they will let someone else rewrite. In other words, you can easily end up being the first of many writers and live to see your script completely changed and perhaps even totally ruined. Then, to add insult to injury, if it doesn't go straight to video and does finally reach the silver screen, you may end up getting no credit at all.

The novelist, on the other hand, who is a primary creative artist, doesn't have these problems. Once you find a publisher and are working with an editor, you are much more likely to end up with something that is close to your original idea. Plus there are many more niche markets available to novelists. You don't have to write to please a general audience or some studio executive who thinks you should be writing to please males between the ages of 18 to 25 or females between the ages 12 and 22.

In any case, when you, as the novelist, pick up pencil and paper or sit down to your computer to write a novel, you already have the money, so to speak. You don't need someone else to put up forty million dollars so you can actually create it, and you don't need Brad Pitt to commit in order to get the studio to make the deal. And you don't need a high powered agent to get the script to Brad Pitt. You are the head of the studio, the filmwright, the director, the primary creative artist. You make all of the decisions and conjure everything yourself down to the last detail, including all the leads. And when you're done, the finished novel is a finished work of art.

Having a finished novel under your arm looking for a publisher is the equivalent of having a finished film under your arm looking for a distributor. And there are very few middlemen between you and your book deal. Even some of the top Eastern agents will respond to your query letters and ask to look at the first two chapters. You can also approach many publishers on your own, even without an agent, if you can present yourself in a credible manner and write a good query letter.

On the other hand, if you're a new screenwriter - i.e. not a professional working writer who already has good credits and an agent - it is very difficult to approach the studios or major independent companies on your own without having an agent or good contacts on the inside. And, generally speaking, for the new writer, the top literary agents in Hollywood are very hard, if not impossible, to get to. They're not really in the business of discovering and nurturing talent. They don't need to be. After you've managed to be discovered or make it big on your own, you'll come to them anyway. In short, there are many thick layers of resistance and obstacles between you and getting your screenplay actually turned into a film.

And then there's the question of money. If you compare the potential a writer can make from his hit movie or his best selling novel, it's no contest. The current WGA low budget minimum for a theatrical motion picture is $53,000, the high budget minimum is $100,000. Occasionally, a screenwriter gets high six figures or even a million dollars for his spec screenplay or as a writer-for-hire. A few writers have gotten as much as three million. And the chances are, no matter how successful the movie is, aside from residuals and other ancillary rights payments, you will never see anymore money than that.

Dan Brown, the author of The DaVinci Code , has made over fifty million dollars in U.S. domestic royalties alone and God knows how much worldwide. That's equal to 50 to 100 super lucrative movie deals. For one project. Plus he gets all the benefits of a movie deal anyway with much more favorable terms than any spec scriptwriter could expect.

Then there is the unkindest cut of all, the question of self-expression. For, in truth, and this is another no contest, there is a much greater opportunity for self expression in a novel than a screenplay. That's easy to demonstrate. Toni Morrison, Ernest Hemingway, William Faulkner, Balzac, Dickens, Jane Austin, Willa Cather, D.H. Lawrence, Mark Twain, Dostoyevski and countless other great authors all have a unique and recognizable style and are as distinguishable from one another as painters like Rembrandt and van Gogh or composers like Mozart and Beethoven. But try to guess who wrote the screenplay without looking at the credits - if it isn't Charlie Kaufman or David Mamet you're going to have a really hard time.

So I guess the point of this article is that, these days, if you're a talented and serious writer / storymaker, and you're trying to decide whether to write a novel or a screenplay, you should give serious thought to writing a novel. In fact, if you really weigh the advantages and disadvantages, you will probably conclude that writing a spec screenplay, when you don't have a great agent and a solid career already in place, may make almost no sense at all.

In any event, as I indicated earlier, the most important thing the novel and screenplay have in common is story. The forms of both are different but the underlying principles and structures are the same. Story is at the heart of all the different media and all the different genres and if you plan to write novels or write, direct or produce story films, it is important that you learn as much about story as you can. There are six billion people in the world with a desperate need for real stories which isn't being met, and if you take the trouble to learn what a story really is, it will give you a tremendous advantage. (See my other Writers Store articles: The Essence of Story, What's Wrong with the Three Act Structure, Conquering the High Concept, and The Real Key to a Writer's Success )

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writing a novel vs screenplay

The Writing Cooperative

Tom Farr

Aug 2, 2020


Should You Write a Novel or a Screenplay?

It depends on the level of control you want to have over your story.

Storytelling has been around for as long as the human race has walked the Earth, and the shape a story takes has changed and evolved as more and more methods of telling a story have developed. The ancients only knew how to tell a story orally because it’s all they had. As soon as humanity discovered the ability to scribble lines and shapes onto a flat surface, though, people learned how to tell a story with written words and often with pictures.

Today, people know how to tell a story with photos, written words, videos, sounds, music, and any combination of the above. You can watch a webisode, read a short story, play a video game, or listen to a podcast. The shape of storytelling is ever evolving, but one thing remains true: No matter what medium or shape you choose, the story isn’t the medium. The medium is only a container. It’s the vehicle through which the story is told.

A story is not a video game. It’s not a novel. It’s not a movie. Stories are told through videos, novels, and movies.

How to tell a story is up to you

This, of course, leaves writers with a very important choice. How do I tell the story I want to tell? Do I write a novel or some other prose method of telling a story, or do I use a more visual method, such as a screenplay to be filmed?

This is the dilemma I often face. I love storytelling and I love writing. I love writing novels and short stories, but I also love writing screenplays. I have a lot of ideas that I think would make great movies, but they would often make great novels or short stories as well. The Silence of the Lambs is a great movie, but it started out as a great book.

So how do you choose how to tell a story? Well, it depends.

How much control do you want over how your story is told?

Novelists will spend months and even years writing a story and getting every detail of their narrative exactly the way they want it. Then comes editor comments and revisions that almost always make the story better. In the end, the story will be published, the author’s name will be on it, and it will, for the most part, look like the story he or she wanted to tell.

Screenwriting is great. You get to write something that will be filmed and turned into a story people can watch. But screenwriters will spend the same amount of time perfecting their story in the form of a screenplay, but what happens after the script leaves their hands and gets into the hands of a producer and a director?

In the film industry, the director is the storyteller. He may be bringing your vision to life, but he’ll have his own ideas of how to do that, which often includes script rewrites, which may or may not involve the original writer. If you want creative control over your story, screenwriting probably isn’t the best way to go unless you plan on producing and directing the film yourself.

Christopher Nolan, for example, gets to see his stories come to life exactly as he wants them because he both writes and directs his films.

How to tell a story your way

If you want to maintain creative control over your story, writing a novel may be the direction you want to take. But there are many screenwriters in Hollywood who think the risk of having their story become unrecognizable is worth taking. Although it is a risk, many of Hollywood’s best screenwriters have worked hard to prove they’re great storytellers and more than capable of writing a solid story that translates well onto the screen, and many screenwriters have taken more creative control over their projects .

For my screenplay The Following , which I wrote about four years ago, I think it’s a great story and would make a great movie, but I think it would make a great novel also, which means I’d be able to control the story the way I want it. Which is why I’ve been slowly re-outlining it as a novel in my notebook.

How you tell your story is ultimately up to you and how much control you want to have over it.

Tom Farr is a writer, teacher, and storyteller. He writes regularly about teaching at Teaching ELA and his love of Star Wars at The Force Analysis . His work has also appeared on The Writing Cooperative, The Startup, and The Unsplash Book. Check out his fiction writing portfolio on Medium.

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Tom is a writer and high school English teacher. He loves creating and spending time with his wife and children. For freelancing, email [email protected] .

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should i write a book or a screenplay?

Differences between writing a book and writing a screenplay, is writing a screenplay or writing a book a better vehicle to sell a movie.

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Which comes first, the book or the screenplay?

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What if I write a book and it becomes popular? A book can become very popular but does not always happen. Sometimes screenplays are made into movies so the author of the original idea could make money from both sources as long as they were appropriately credited for each source.

In order to know whether or not you should write a book or screenplay, you need to ask yourself some questions before you start writing; many of which have been included in the post. Others will be more personal to you and your long-term goals or aim with the particular idea you want to put out there.

There's Still So Much More To Learn! 👇☺️

Related posts, what is the average time it takes to write a book, how to write a zombie book: 8 easy steps, pdf template for writing a book, how to write a story with dialogue, about the author.

writing a novel vs screenplay

Arielle Phoenix

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Neil Chase Film

Last Updated on February 24, 2023 by Neil Chase

Should I Write a Book or Screenplay or Creative Stageplay?

Years ago, I was an unhappy engineer working at a job I hated.

I knew that I had so many stories in my head, but I wasn’t sure how to get them down on paper. I also kept wondering, should I write a book or screenplay or stageplay?

As a new writer, I’d written short stories before, and I had a few unfinished novels gathering dust on my computer, but overall, I felt unfulfilled as a storyteller.

I also didn’t know exactly what I wanted to write – I love movies, so maybe I should write a screenplay? I enjoyed reading thriller and horror books, so maybe I’d work on writing novels or finishing one of the books I’d started already?

When I thought about writing a script, I started wondering about how writing a screenplay for a movie was different from writing a stage play?

should i write a book or a screenplay?

In general, any long-form written work can be broken up into three platforms – novels, stage plays, and screenplays.

Anything else is a variation of these three. For example, short stories are just truncated versions of novels, much like short films are shorter versions of feature films.

In the end, thanks to an acting class I was taking at the time to expand my creative horizons, I decided to try writing a screenplay.

But, like all new writers, I still needed to understand the differences between these storytelling platforms before I got started.

Written descriptions are crucial

white book on brown wooden table

Novels let us see the world through the eyes of the characters within that novel.

Through the descriptions provided by the author, we let the words on the page create a mental picture for us. We imagine the world of the characters by reading about their thoughts and feelings, and we live their experiences by proxy.

There’s no limit to the physical senses involved – through the written descriptions, we can see, hear, taste, feel, think, dream, imagine, and remember along with the characters.

We are subject to everything the character experiences, as long as it is described in words, and how well it is described. A novel lets the readers experience the life of the main character and supporting characters, which is driven by written descriptions.

Conflict and character development is driven through a character’s inner thoughts and inner struggles, rather than mainly through action.

Since we are able to see into the minds of the characters, it is easy for us to understand their struggles, flaws, hopes, dreams, and difficulties in life.

“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.” ― W. Somerset Maugham

Overall, the reader creates the world in the novel through the use of their own imagination. 

The downside (or upside, depending on your viewpoint) is that no two people will imagine the same descriptive passage the same way.

In other words, a novel paints a different picture for each reader.

Also, a novel is a finished product, and once we have finished writing the novel , it is ready for its introduction to the world!


Dialogue is key.

red and yellow stage

In a stage play, conflict is driven through dialogue, rather than through descriptions of a character’s thoughts.

Stage plays primarily revolve around the spoken word, and are by their very nature, less “real”. 

That is to say, the world of a stage play is an artificial one, where the set depicts a small physical space or room where, at most, there are three walls.

The fourth wall is always open to the audience and is how the viewer is allowed to observe the story unfold before them.

“The world is a stage and the play is badly cast.” ― Oscar Wilde

The spoken word is so important because audiences are limited in the amount of detail they can see onstage in terms of expressions, gestures, and nuances. The farther away you sit, the less detail you can make out.

Thus, actors have to always “go big” and play for the rafters or back of the theater as much as for the front row.

In addition, as outlined in this article from , stage plays typically have fewer characters than novels or screenplays.

So, you may have more time in a stage play to provide deeper character descriptions for the main characters you do have.


Show, don’t tell.

differences between novels, stage plays and screenplays

As my good friend, Geoffrey Calhoun (founder of ), writes in his wonderful book, The Guide for Every Screenwriter: From Synopsis to Subplots: The Secrets of Screenwriting Revealed (2019) , a screenplay is “a visual medium conveyed through the written form.”

Film allows for nuance and an emphasis on any part of a person or object that is the focus of attention. It shows us exactly what we are meant to see and doesn’t rely on the other senses to make its case.

Film is a medium of two senses – what we see and what we hear. A good screenplay should limit the other senses to these two, and conflict within a feature film is typically driven by only the senses of sight and sound . 

I can’t emphasize this enough.

When you write a novel, you imagine yourself in the character’s shoes, and you describe their experiences and senses with omnipotent knowledge.

But when you are writing scripts, always remember to write based on what the viewer in the movie theater can see and hear only.

Rather than being in your character’s shoes, imagine being in a movie theater, and watching that movie in your head as you write, as if you are watching the movie play out, and are simply describing what you see on the screen.

This will mainly include the action that happens in the movie (written as action lines in a screenplay) and the words the characters speak (written as character dialogue ).

When you are writing scripts , frame the other senses (i.e., smell, touch, and taste) around only what you see and hear.

For example, if you want to convey that something tastes amazing, you can have the character eating it tell us about it and describe the flavors and sensations it elicits.

Or better yet, show us !

“To make a fine film, you need three things: a great script, a great script, and a great script.” ― Alfred Hitchcock

Film is a visual medium, so make sure to show the build-up of pleasant surprise at the smell of the dish, which transforms into delight at the first bite, and finally into pure pleasure as the character chews and savors the complex and wonderful flavors. 

A great representation of this is in Ratatouille (2007) when Anton Ego tastes the dish of Ratatouille, and we see how it transports him back in time to his mother’s kitchen.

writing a novel vs screenplay

We see how the dish brings back all the wonderful childhood memories he relates to this otherwise simple dish.

We see taste, smell, memory, pleasure, love, and loss shown through a purely visual medium. No words are spoken and yet we understand everything that transpires. 

That’s the power of film.

A great film is at heart just a great story.

Conclusion: Should I Write a Book or Screenplay or Stageplay?

What I learned from looking into the differences between novels, stage plays and screenplays is that while novels are primarily a description-focused written medium, stage plays are mainly dialogue-focused, and screenplays rely solely on the senses of sight and sound. 


Novels typically have more words than a stage or screenplay, so they often take longer to write. However, screenplays often need more revisions in order to get the story structure, plot, dialogue, and characters just right, so they may take just as long as a novel to revise and perfect.

In addition, novels and short stories are completed works in and of themselves. Once you have finished writing your novel or short story, it is ready to be submitted to competitions, production companies, or self-published. 

In contrast, stage plays and screenplays are blueprints for the filmmakers and actors to use when translating your words into the finished product, either on stage or on film.

If you write a stage or screenplay, your work will be changed and adapted by other people when it is used for its intended purpose (a visual production of some sort). You will need to be okay with your work being modified, shaped, and revised by other people. For some, this can be difficult to accept! 

Overall, knowing these differences can help you decide which medium to use for the story that you know you have within you.

I believe that each of us has a story to tell.

differences between novels, stage plays and screenplays

I ended up first choosing screenplays as my preferred medium for the written word, as I enjoyed the challenge of translating the story into a condensed form relying on two primary senses, and I’ll admit, I loved the thought of my work being turned into a film.

But as my experience level grew and I became more confident in my writing, I returned to the world of novel writing to complete my first novel as well.

Since then, I’ve written many screenplays and short stories, and am currently working on my third novel. But who knows? There just might be a stage play or two in my future as well.

That’s the beauty of writing – the platform doesn’t matter as long as we tell our stories. We are only limited by our imaginations!

Is Screenwriting Easy?

Anyone who has ever tried to write a screenplay knows that it is far from easy. Not only do you have to think about creating compelling characters and an intriguing plot, but you also have to format your script correctly and make sure it fits within the industry standard of 120 pages (give or take!). In addition, you need to be able to visualize your story in terms of how it will look on the screen, which can be a challenge for even the most experienced writers in the film industry. Using screenwriting software can help beginning screenwriters create a great script more easily.

Can You Write a Book as a Screenplay?

Only if it’s a book you wrote yourself! If you have the rights to a book, then yes, you can turn it into a screenplay! It’s not an easy process, but it can certainly be done.

Where Can I Find Story Ideas?

You may have a great book or movie in your head, but getting it down on paper can be difficult. One way to get started is to brainstorm ideas for your movie or story . First, think about what kind of story you want to tell. Is it a comedy? A drama? A romance?

Once you’ve decided on the genre, think about the main characters (especially the protagonist and antagonist ) and what their goals are. What conflict will they face? How will they resolve it?

Next, consider the setting of your story. Where will it take place? What time period will it be set in? By answering these questions and building a world for your fictional characters, you’ll start to develop a clearer idea of your story and what happens in it. Don’t be afraid to let your imagination run wild!

The more ideas you come up with, the easier it will be to find the ones that work best for your book or movie. So get brainstorming and see what you can come up with!

Should I Write a Book or Screenplay?

You’ve got a great story idea. There’s just one question: should you turn it into a book or a movie? Both writing novels and writing screenplays have their pros and cons. On the plus side, writing a book gives you complete control over your story. You get to decide what happens, how the characters develop, and what the ending will be.

On the downside, writing a book can be a lonely endeavor, and many novels can take months or even years to finish. The main advantage of writing screenplays is that they tend to be less time-consuming than writing novels, and the fact that you may get to see your vision come to life on the big screen! The downside of writing screenplays is that you need to focus your ideas and make your writing more concise. You may need to learn new techniques, ones that are unique to screenplays.

So which is better? In the end, it all comes down to personal preference. There are pros and cons to both writing a book and writing a movie. It’s up to you to decide which one is right for you. Always try to consider using a different medium to the one that you originally thought of – keep an open mind!

should I write a book or a screenplay?

Next Steps:

If you are ready to stop letting the fear of your writing not being good enough stop you from actually getting your story finished, contact me to set up a free, thirty-minute clarity call.

Working with me can help you take your story from unorganized thoughts in your head to a well-written, entertaining story on paper.

Enjoy this article? Check out these ones too!

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I’m Neil Chase, and I’m a story and writing coach, award-winning screenwriter, and author of the horror-western novel, Iron Dogs.  I believe that all writers have the potential to create great work. My passion is helping writers find their voice and develop their skills so that they can create stories that are entertaining and meaningful. If you’re ready to take your writing to the next level, I’m here to help!

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John August

Should I write a novel or a script?

May 18, 2007 Adaptation , Genres , QandA , Words on the page

My question is: Which format should I pursue?

Through your site, I now understand the plus and minuses of writing a screenplay. And, I take heed into delving into the business end of screenwriting. (I enjoy living in Florida and have little desire to pack up for L.A., at this time.) Also, some of my ideas just seem easier to tackle for a first time screenplay than a first time novel, such as my quirky rom-com outline rather than my existential mind bending sci-fi epic. Finally–not to belittle the screenwriting process–there are some stories that I feel more comfortable sharing credit on the final product compared to other stories I feel so strongly about that I want to collaborate with no one.

I know your personal answer would always be a screenplay. But, have you ever read a friend’s or fellow professional’s script and advised her material is best suited as a book? For what reasons? And, what format would be best for a (semi) unpublished writer? (For some reason, the Premiere magazine feature on Rex Pickett and his struggles to sell “Sideways” as a screenplay keep popping in my head.)

I searched your archives and could not find a similar question to answer my query. If I missed it, I apologize.

— Mike Rabinowitz Head Writer REAX Music Magazine

I know that seems like heretical advice for a blog about screenwriting, but I think the numbers support me. In the U.S., more than 3,500 novels are published each year. Compare that to film: For 2006, there were 607 movies released theatrically.

If you’re looking to put your story out into the world, paper beats film, hands down. 1

Beyond the hard numbers, consider the relative levels of authorship. Novels are a final art form — you write a book and that’s it. It sits on a shelf with your name on it. Screenplays, on the other hand, are one link in a long process leading to the final art form: a movie. While it’s your name on the script, the movie is the result of a huge collaboration. Right or wrong, the director will get most of the credit for what makes it on screen. 2

So why would anyone write a screenplay?

Based on questions my readers send in, a couple of scenarios come up frequently:

To get rich. Often, when you read about a new script, the story has a dollar figure attached: “Joe Smoalan sold his spec MONKEY BUTLER to New Line for high six-figures.” One you figure out that “high six figures” means more than $500,000, you realize that there’s a lot of money to be made in screenwriting. Most of the authors you find on the shelves of Barnes and Noble aren’t making that much money.

“I could never write a novel, but…” Because screenplays have fewer words than a novel, they should be easier to write, right? Besides, everyone’s seen bad movies. It can’t be hard to write one better than The Grudge 2 .

“I could never direct a movie, but screenwriting is just words.” So much of moviemaking is esoteric and intimidating. Just watching the end credits scroll by is bewildering to anyone outside the industry — who rated the men to pick the Best Boy? But it’s not hard to imagine writing a script. It’s just words and margins.

It will surprise no one when I point out that these are three terrible reasons to write a screenplay.

We’ll start with the money. I get frustrated when journalists treat screenwriting as a kind of lottery, emphasizing the payday rather than the work. Most scripts never sell, and most scripts that do sell, sell for a tiny amount. The reason why you read stories about million dollar sales is because they are pretty infrequent.

In terms of the “I could never write a novel” excuse, yes, some writers seem better suited to one kind of writing than another, just as most painters aren’t sculptors. But creating characters, shaping storylines, and stringing together words in a pleasing fashion are prerequisite skills for both novels and screenplays. I would lose respect for any working screenwriter who professed an inability to write traditional fiction.

It’s true that the learning curve for screenwriting isn’t as steep as it would be for, say, directing. And it costs a helluva lot less. But a screenwriter quickly finds that maintaining a willful ignorance about the moviemaking process is impossible. In order to get your film made, you’re going to have to learn about the physical and political ordeal of production. You can do that in school or on the set, but you’ll soon know your grips from your gaffers.

So back to the original question: Should you write a screenplay or a novel?

The answer is a question: What does your idea want to be?

Do you envision an intimate psychological profile of a half-Korean woman trapped in a mediocre marriage who imagines an affair with her co-worker? That’s probably a novel. The story is largely internal; the action is minor; the stakes are low. In the novel version of your story, you can spend a paragraph detailing her decision to buy percale sheets, describing the different textures and comparing them to the geography of her homeland. In the movie version, she buys sheets, and maybe has a conversation during the process.

Are you looking to write a comedy about a deposed crime boss who goes into witness relocation at a fat camp? That’s a movie. Here’s a test: Can you envision a one-sheet poster? It’s a movie. Could it star Martin Lawrence? It’s a movie. Could you describe it as “something meets something?” (e.g. SOPRANOS meets SISTER ACT) It’s a movie.

What happens if you have a novel-worthy idea, but you’d rather write a screenplay? Tough. Don’t make the mistake of trying to force it into screenplay shape. Yes, some books can be adapted into great movies, but it’s because they inherently had enough cinematic content to make the leap. If yours doesn’t, you’ll only frustrate yourself and your readers.

Related Posts

writing a novel vs screenplay

Novels & Screenplays: What’s The Difference?

In this post, we look at the differences between novels and screenplays. We look at collaboration, costs, and choices, and we answer your question: Should I write for the screen or the page?

What’s The Difference Between Writing Novels & Screenplays?

First, let’s start with what these mediums have in common. Both are concerned with storytelling and both entertain us. But how they tell a story is quite different. Crucially, the way these two mediums is written is different.

Both, however, deliver an emotional impact. What we see on the screen affects us emotionally. What we read affects us on an emotional level, too.

Another way to simplify the distinction is to think of it like this:

The novel is written for the theatre of the mind.  The screenplay is written as a visual outline and is really a form of shorthand.

Stripped to its most basic elements, it is a document for the director, producer, and actors. If we go one step further, it is a point of reference for the costume designer, director, and production designer. These talented people build out the world of the story. Composers will also add in music and sound to the mix.

Of course, a line producer will also strip it down to determine how much the screenplay will cost to film.

Costs Of Screenplays Versus Novels

As you can tell from the above, making a movie or TV series is a costly business. Even a relatively low-budget TV movie can cost up to 2.5 to 3 million dollars to complete.

So, while it may just take a couple of weeks to write, to realise a screenplay on the screen demands a major investment. It is probably the reason why fewer films are released than books. The cost is simply too prohibitive.

Producing a novel is, of course, not without costs. There are editors working on your manuscript, graphic designers creating cover art, PR agents promoting it, not to mention the costs incurred to ship it to bookstores around the world.

But, compared to the cost of making a movie, these costs are significantly lower.

How Much Collaboration Happens In A Screenplay Versus A Novel?

Movies, by their very nature, are collaborative projects. They bring together multiple talents and skills to bring a single story to the screen.

You only have to look at the credits scrolling at the end of a feature film to grasp just how many people are involved in its production.

While novels can be collaborative, specialised editorial and marketing skills are usually only brought in once the author has completed the manuscript.

How Are Screenplays & Novels Written?

Perhaps the most important distinction between these two creative disciplines is how they are written.

The Screenplay

The screenplay is a specific document with a specific format and comes with its own conventions and common screen language.

It must conform to its conventions because so many different people must read it and interpret it correctly.

As mentioned before, the screenplay is a blueprint rather than a complete product. It sketches the story in broad outlines but with enough detail to be able to convey the mood , the characters , and the plot in a coherent way. It is told through screen or visual descriptions, action, and dialogue .

Often, new writers will say, ‘I’ll just write a screenplay because it is shorter and will take me less time.’

This is not necessarily true, because it takes time to write something that is lean, tight, and complete.

To be able to write with such economy and still retain the essence of the story is a skill. To write something in 90 to 120 pages means mastery of the craft of reduction and rewriting. Sometimes screenplays take as long as a novel to complete.

True, the experienced screenwriter can take as little as three months to write a script , but you can safely bet that their first attempts were not churned out with such efficiency.

Top Tip : Buy our  Visual Storytelling Screenwriting Workbook

The novel, on the other hand, has fewer formal restrictions. Its very form encourages experiments in form, structure, and length.

writing a novel vs screenplay

There are fewer restrictions that tether the novel to the limitations of film. As a writer of fiction, you don’t have to worry about budgets or temperamental lead actors.

You can create vast kingdoms, you can give your billionaire villain a hundred classic cars on his estate, and your character’s beauty is only limited to your skill at description .

Of course, this is a clue to one of the most seminal differences between the two creative formats.

In a novel, you can’t rely on a charismatic actor to bring a cardboard character to life. That complex, dynamic, and fascinating character must be on the pages of your novel.

In a novel, you can’t depend on good photography to capture the atmosphere of a big city on a hot summer night. That description must be threaded into your narrative.

And in a novel, you can’t rely on a script or dialogue ‘doctor’ sitting in a campervan on a movie set to fix any clunky dialogue. You must carry over the authentic voices of your characters on the page.

In short, in a novel the author is the puppet master and controls everything and decides everything. The work stems from one imagination and a singular vision. The success of the story will hinge on the style, the plot, and the characters.

Should You Write A Novel Or A Screenplay?

This is a tricky one to answer. It’s a true that a novelist can write a screenplay and many authors adapt their own stories for the screen.

Others are adept at both artistic disciplines.

writing a novel vs screenplay

Which One Should I Write As A Writer Starting Out?

The short, and probably ambitious, answer is to do both – or at least try both .

If you have a love for movies and TV shows–if you got up early on Saturdays as a kid to watch cartoons, or stay awake late to binge watch the newest Netflix series–then this is probably the direction you would naturally gravitate towards

And if you have an affinity for visual storytelling – if you see your stories in your imagination rather than hear their rhythms or sense their metaphors – then you would probably be good at writing for the screen.

If you are the type of the writer who gets fuelled by reading and feel a sympathy with the lives of your favourite novelists, then prose is probably better suited to your talents.

If you are starting out and unsure of the direction to take, try this simple exercise.

The screenwriter, Ron Bass says in The 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters : ‘By being a screenwriter, you are choosing to be in a medium that is genuinely collaborative, but one in which you do not have the final vote.’

William Goldman echoes this in his memoir Adventures in the Screen Trade : ‘You do not, except in rare, rare exceptions, get critical recognition. But you do get paid.’

A friend of mine, who is a director, often sums up the different mediums like this: the stage is the actor’s medium, the novel is the writer’s medium and film is the director’s medium.

In other words, when it comes to the world of film and television, the writer is very seldom, if ever, going to the ‘star’ of the show. But as William Goldman says – you do get paid.

Top Tip : Buy our Visual Storytelling Screenwriting Workbook

Anthony Ehlers

If you enjoyed this post, read:

Top Tip: If you want to learn how to write a screenplay, sign up for our online course:  The Script

© Writers Write 2022

Novel writing vs Screenwriting

writing a novel vs screenplay

I feel like this question has been asked before, but here is my situation:

I am 26 years old and love to write stories. Ever since playing video games, reading books, and watching movies, I have always loved creating characters in my imagination. After graduating from SJSU in 2016, I foolishly thought my English degree would immediately propell me into a successful author/editor. Long story short, it hasn't. Although I still enjoy the craft, and I have self-published an extreme horror novella (but with the little attention it has gotten, even with social media, Idk if I can call it a success). I have also written a short script that was produced into an award winning short student film, but I havent done much screen writing asides from that.

Time passes and just recently married to the woman of my dreams and starting to build our life together. I am (for now) finally putting my creative writing as just my hobby as I acquire a technical writing degree for better job prospects.

I want to continie my creative writing as well and investing in my success towards that as well, but I feel that I should only either write books or write screenplays. I have heard the advice to do both, but up to this point I feel that I have been wishy washy between the two and not putting real effort into either and not coming up with hardly any manuscripts. I have been researching about which would be more worth my time and efforts especially simce I live in the SF Bay Area and hope to stick at least close by.

I want nothing more than to live off of creating good stories and characters set in exotic places, but I feel that I need to make a set decision to start pushing out drafts while working on my certificate and trying to boost my own freelance editing side gigs.

I have read the pros and cons of both novel and screenwriting, but which do you think might be worth before me to do, at least for now? Even if no one replies, thank you all for reading my rant.

Have a wonderful Xmas/holiday season!

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If you love writing flowery dialogue and super-descriptive scenes, lean towards novels. Scripts are all about ECONOMY and compacting as much as you can in 90-120 pages. Novels you have SO MUCH to work with, so much flexibility.

My recommendation is to stick with the prose if you’re not sure you’ll be pursuing this as a career. Your finished novella is a finished work of art that people can consume for entertainment. A screenplay will never be that unless millions of dollars and dozens/hundreds of people come together to make it.

Although I don’t think one form of the craft is better or easier, it IS easier to get prose out to an audience, whether that’s novels or short stories.

If you want to pursue a career as a writer, then I think it comes down to what your passion is. Me? I write screenplays and supplement with short stories, because I love that form as well. However, I also have a family and a day job and so don’t have the bandwidth to write a novel - that would be too much of a distraction from my primary goal, which is making movies.

Same boat here...minus the family (just a dog lol)

Hey. Ignore this if it's irrelevant but I'm a 3D animator and I'm getting some writers together to write some short scrips for some animations. Well it was a big group but I became inactive but I'm trying to get the wheels turning again and would love some more writers. And it's all volunteers btw.

Can I also get a DM with info for this? I’ve been working on an animation script for a little while. I’d love to meet more animators and animation writers.

What kind of scripts are you looking for? Comedy? Drama? Action?

drop me a PM, curious about the project, see if i can help

I'm interested to learn more as well :) send me a pm about the details!

I'm also interested.

There's no need to focus on one form to the exclusion of the other. Plenty of writers work on both.

Here are a few things to think about:

A book draft will take significantly longer than a script draft, since the former is a good four to five times longer than the latter (assuming a feature).

Books have the unique ability to get introspective; with scripts, everything has to be externalised.

I've personally found it useful to have two projects on the go - one script, one book. I alternate drafts to give me some distance from each project (and get feedback during that time).

I do both as well. This is good advice. I would add that you will learn a lot about story when screenwriting, which can hurt and help fiction writing. Unless you're writing commercial genre fiction, you need to be careful of that when you're starting out and allow yourself freedom when writing. There's no right way to write fiction so have some fun and try things out. Remember it's process, process, process. Results will come but concentrate on building your practice. Good luck!

Sure, you could do both. But, if someone comes from the future and tells you which one is going to make you successful. Are you still going to write both or just focus on the one that will make you successful?

Many people pursue many things hoping one of them will make them sucessful because they don't know the answer. I did the same til i found the answer.

This Bible verse was my aha moment:

Proverbs 18:16 - A man's gift makes room for him

It means, play to your strenghts. If you're going to compete with so many people, you better go with your strenghts, not just with what you love. If you look back on your life, you should be able to find clues to help you figure out which one is your gift.

I always preface replies to "what should I do" questions with this quote from James Baldwin:

If you are going to be a writer there is nothing I can say to stop you; if you’re not going to be a writer nothing I can say will help you. What you really need at the beginning is somebody to let you know that the effort is real.

Okay, now that I got that out of the way, here is the truth as I've seen it:

If you want to make a living at writing, pick self-publishing novels. It is hard. It is grueling. You'll be writing a novel every couple months. You will be swapping promotions with other writers. You'll be doing research into Facebook advertising and Amazon advertising. You will be doing a lot of work-work alongside your writing, and you'll be writing a lot. If you network, make the right friends, and get support and invest a tremendous amount of time in, you can make six figures a year self-publishing. There are no guarantees, of course, but it's a known path with real opportunity. And here's the key: It is a way faster path than screenwriting.

Screenwriting is much, much more of a marathon. Even if everything is going right and all the world is aligned in your favor, you still may not make a dime. Now I'm being overly harsh. You *can* plan for a career as a screenwriter, but you have to assume that it will take non-stop work and a long time. Ten years or more is not at all unusual. So... put ten years of real work in and don't give up, and you have a real shot.

So, it is real work. And the key--in anything, really--to being successful is loving the work you do. Why? Because then you stick with it. You're working hard, working longer, and you don't give up because doing it is actually what you like doing. The reward is almost beside the point. And working a long time for no reward is part of the deal you're making with yourself.

Which brings me back to James Baldwin. No one is really going to change anything with their advice, including me. You'll either keep going because that's who you are, or you'll give up because it's too hard, too frustrating, and that's a price you don't want to pay... because that's not who you are.

Good luck. Not giving up in 90% of the battle.

I really needed this. What a lovely, well-put together statement. Thank you. And rest in peace James Baldwin. How much better the world might be if he were still with us today.

So in short, I probably shouldn't be so discouraged with my abysmal debut novella. Haha. I don't mind self-publishing, but I feel like never had a grasp of the marketing aspect. The book was an "extreme horror novella with lots of gratuitous sex and gore." So I think maybe I need to change my genre.

Just do both and see which you like better. I thought I’d like writing a book but it took a lot out of me and wasn’t as good as I thought it’d be. But with the fat trimmed off it made an excellent feature.

Actually, if I was in your position I would try to get a short story published on that horror short story site (no sleep subreddit) -- a lot of them are being bought for possible production.

Adding on to the great comments below - I write both scripts and "novels" (prefer calling them manuscripts until that beaut day they get officially published but potato potahtoe), so I thought I could weigh in on this.

Both go through different layers of satisfaction and frustration:

Arguably a novel/prose writing is its own reward: what you've written (all editing aside) is what the reader will see and interact with. So you're not reliant on budget, actors, set etc to bring your piece to life - it's largely already there. And you don't have to wait for anyone. That's why I've been prose writing for much longer; you are completely your own boss. On the other hand it takes very long to be noticed and even your 'it' idea (the piece that's going to put you on the map) will have to go through an obscene number of rewrites. Aka, it's a long fucking road.

Scripts are much more bare bones as you know - it will take a long time to find the right people to do it for/with and you have to trust in them not to turn your idea into shit. But on the other hand second third drafts of the script will probably be a collaborative process with whomever you're working with - meaning it's not as much the Mario-tunnel that prose writing is.

Obviously work on both if you've got a knack for both. For starting projects I'd recommend telling the stories for each that the medium does better: for prose, stories that are introspective, that maybe span time, places, belief systems; film, dialogue reliant, character limited pieces. See how you get on

Merry Xmas!

This depends on your overall goal. If you want to make a living from writing, its easier to self publish a book series (depending on how saturated the genre already is), build up a following by understanding your audience and doing lots of marketing, and develop your world building and character development. Writing a screenplay based on a successful fiction series with a guaranteed audience will also be easier, but although screenplays are shorter, they’re also a much tougher discipline to master. The success rate of selling a spec script is extremely low, so writers often have to get lots of short films produced in order to prove they’re worth investing it. That said, it depends on if you want to write features, tv series, web series, shorts, or even delve into podcast fiction.

Maybe decide what type of stories you want to write and consider which format would suit best.

I originally wanted to write 1980s style "cannibal holocaust" extreme horror novels. I published my novella with this genre, but it aint doing so well. Now I'm thinking more thriller/historical/crime with maybe elements of horror. I feel maybe I'll have better lucl with a publisher too instead of self-publishing.

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