Screenplay Writers and Playwrights


My AKA (Gwen Hunter) is writing a book with a co-writer pal, who is also a screenplay writer and a playwright. He has never had a book published and frankly never knew why until we started hanging out. I’ve worked with screenplay writers and playwrights (hereinafter to be referred to SPWs) over the years and the ones I’ve worked with tend to have several weakness that make it difficult for them to get published in the novel market. They also have strengths that most novel writers don’t have, and I thought I’d share them here, with commentary and opinions, based on my experience. It’s my experience alone, and I am fully aware that such experience may not apply to all SPWs.

  1. Write in universal POV, as if a camera is moving around the scene. Obvious, yes? I know that many of our lurkers here at MagicalWords.Net write in universal POV, moving from character to character throughout a scene. This is seldom something that works well in a book because the reader gets confused about whose point of view he is supposed to be in. Some (very) few novel writers can pull it off. And (very) few editors will buy a book written in universal POV. For my pal, one of the hardest things for him to do is to limit himself to one character’s eyes. He’s getting much better, but he still flips over to the SPW universal POV fairly often.
  2. Plot-heavy writing. SPWs, are interested mostly in *what* happens, not *why* or *how*. The what of the story is the plot, and plotting—and dialogue—is what they do best. They can weave a plot better than I can. When I started out writing, my greatest weakness was plotting (storytelling). I figured that out on my own after I finished my first book and, to correct that weakness, took a short story course at the local college, taught by a critically acclaimed writer. I learned how to plot. If you think you have a weakness, think about taking a course. It can gear your mind into different areas. I once had an agent tell me that he can teach a writer anything except voice, that voice is a gift. I totally agree with him.
  3. Not sharing the why (motivations). For a SPW, the character motivations are in the hands of others. The most a SPW will do in that regard is create a totally different piece of writing—a character background piece—and that is provided only for the main characters to the headlining actors. It is used by the actors to understand the characters they are interpreting for the audience. It is usually short and pointed and full of holes that no self-respecting novel writer would leave in place. We want our main characters to be fully understood by the reader, and we don’t have other people (actors) to interpret them for the audience.
  4. The how of writing is full of holes. For SPWs, the way a scene is set up is a director decision. The lighting, the camera angles all belong to someone else. For instance, in giving scene directions the SPW might say, “A graveyard; old, crooked headstones, blackened marble angels. Nighttime, full moon.” Then it is up to the director to create ambience that fits the scene he wants to be viewed and experienced by the audience. When my AKA was writing a screenplay all this good stuff was hard to leave in the hands of someone else. It really hurt! For my writing pal, it is hard to be both SPW and director. And actor. And set designers. And wardrobe designers. And….on and on. It is a different way of writing.
  5. Dialogue is different in novel writing and screenplay writing too. A SPW has to tell a *lot* of backstory in dialogue. A writer can go inside the head of the character and just show it. For a SPW, showing (filming) backstory means setting up and shooting a different scene entirely, which applies directly to budget. It can be a lot easier and cheaper to just show it in dialogue. SPWs often use a device called “dialogue at cross purposes” to impart a lot of information in one scene. Dialogue at cross purposes is a device where two or more characters are talking about one subject on the surface, but the undercurrents reveal that they are talking about totally different subjects. Very effective in imparting information that the viewer needs and adding to the conflict. When it is used in novel writing, it is an unexpected device and therefore very effective. SPWs do it well.

I could go on (and on), but I’m on deadline for page proofs for Blood Cross.

Faith Hunter


9 comments to Screenplay Writers and Playwrights

  • I don’t seem to have a problem with switching between writing screenplays and writing novels. Then again, I’m not coming into novel writing after writing screenplays. I’m coming from the other side. I’ve been writing short stories, essays and novels (or at least the beginnings of them) for a long time and just started working on screenplays in the past few years. I picked it up fast too. Though it does help that I did a bunch of research on writing for screenplays first and then got a program that does all the formatting for me. If I had to do all the formatting as well it would kinda bite.

  • Very interesting post, Faith. I’ve always wanted to write a screenplay (and will at some point) but have wondered how my skill set as a novelist will translate to screenwriting. This list is a good starting point for thinking about those issues. I would imagine that as novelists we could learn a lot from screenwriters about pacing, beat, transition — basically the more narrative-related issues that come up as we write.

  • Daniel, I got Movie Magic, and it made the process very easy. It took me a few days writing to make the mental switch from novel writing (wordy and full of discription) to SPW (sparse prose with tight dialogue). But it did a lot for my dialogue and for my mental writing processes.

  • David, yes, doing the mental switch to SPW format did a lot for my pacing and transitions. I am just now learning how to do outlines they they do, and how to plot out a book with the pacing they way they do. It is very clean and easy to follow, a lot more professional (better) than my own rule of thumb for outlining and writing, which is: something plot-conflict-based has to happen every 10 pages.

  • QUOTE: Daniel, I got Movie Magic, and it made the process very easy.

    Cool. Yeah, I use Final Draft for mine. I tried a freeware program recently for screenplay writing called Celtx, but I wasn’t very happy with it. The people I was doing revisions for used it and I didn’t care for it. So I used Final Draft and then copy-pasted into Celtx for them, which was a hassle in itself because it messed up the formatting every time and I had to go back into Celtx and fix it all so it didn’t look like total rubbish.

  • Yeah, I hate that about the formatting, but the word and line positions, spacings, and indents are all so important that they can’t be ignored. Movie Magic is easy to use when you are writing book-to-screenplay, as the copy and paste format translate very well. I never tried moving text between two movie writing software programs. Bet it was a real pain.

  • Yeah, all the action lines were pushed into the dialogue parts and if I used parenthetical it also pushed it into the dialogue instead of keeping it on its own line. Also, some of the shots I added or things that were in all caps were either turned into scene headings or character dialogue headers. It was a mess. Those two programs are pretty much not very compatible.

  • My ears perked up at “Dialogue at cross purposes.” I would love to see examples, and think it would make a great subject for a blog post.

  • Hi Tom. Good idea. I can do that.