Chapter One: Basic Differences
I’m sure you know that a lot more book (non-fiction) and novel (fiction) manuscripts get published than screenplays get made, even in this golden age of TV writing that encompasses all the online venues like Amazon Prime. That’s a big reason it pains me to see people struggle to get a screenplay noticed, much less optioned, sold, or filmed. Compared to making a movie from your own screenplay, self-publishing your novel is a summer breeze.
I’m not assuming you’ll self-publish. My aim is to help you turn out a novel that a good publisher will buy, if you want that.
Literally for decades, I’ve helped people all over the world break into Hollywood. That began when the first edition of my Writer’s Guide to Hollywood books came out. The Hollywood industry remains a field of dreams for aspiring scriptwriters everywhere, all hoping for a million dollar screenplay sale.
The truth is, you have a better chance of winning the lottery than selling a script, unless you’ve already worked in “the of the hopefuls who contact me, however, won’t get a screenplay optioned, won’t find an agent (or manager) for a long time.
So I remind them of Samuel Johnson’s statement. He was an English writer described by the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography as "arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history." Most distinguished, and he said write for money.
To write for money, you have to strip away certain pretensions and prejudices. You have to get to the soul of the matter. And with regard to novels, the ones that last have a fluid spirit. It’s like Mark Twain said: “My books are like water; those of the great geniuses are wine. (Fortunately) everybody drinks water.”
A good novel, like a great movie, is a bit of a soul’s journey in the classic sense. Unfortunately, a lot of people these days think they can write them movies because screenwriting software makes formatting seem automatic. This fosters an “anyone can do it” attitude, which quickly disappears after enough rejections.
Getting stuck in the “it’s simple” conceit, you can get caught in a bit of a writer’s hell. In the past, I’ve called this not getting past the first act of your own career.
Here’s what I mean. I’ll assume you’ve gone about studying screenwriting wisely, that you’ve read Poetics by Aristotle, are familiar with the structure outlined in Syd Field’s Screenplay, know something about Robert McKee’s methods, and have delved into the serious story analysis in Joseph Campbell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces. Maybe you’ve at least thumbed through Chris Vogler’s Hollywood movie version of the Campbell matrix in The Writer’s Journey. Or you’ve read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, or you studied one or several of the many online video Master Classes from successful screenwriters like Aaron Sorkin and Charlie Kaufman. There’s a lot of instruction out there.
Have you done that but still can’t get your script sold?
Well, I’ve sold numerous scripts. And I’ve sold novels and gotten them published, too, before I studied any of the people mentioned above. So what did I learn that you haven’t?
Mainly, I learned how to get out of my own first act. Let’s take the normal structure of a Hollywood movie and examine the protagonist’s actions in a screenplay, and I’ll explain.
Let’s say I’m fairly certain I have an idea good enough for a script or a novel. I have a degree of certainty based on my experience of having people buy what I came up with. Still, once my writing is on the page I have to leave the somewhat comfortable world of sitting around thinking up ideas and enter the “new world” of taking my pages to the marketplace.
Therefore, my “big opening” or “inciting incident” has to establish what the movie is about and get people hooked on the story. In script terms, there’s the all-important “first ten pages.” In a novel, that might be the first chapter. If people don’t “keep turning the pages” to the next chapter, you’re sunk.
Many successful novels these days have chapters that are the equivalent of a movie scene or two. James Patterson, whose novels have been turned into movies, has short chapters as a general rule. His novels made over $80 million in one year alone.
Next on my story checklist is what I call “the Shaping Force.” It arrives in the middle of the first act in the good movies, with usually a hint or two of it before it openly appears. It is then revisited at various points of the film, helping keep the “spine” of the story aligned. The Shaping Force is something I discovered on my own. It doesn’t have to be a mentor like Obi–wan Kenobi in Star Wars. It can be a villain, like Kylo Ren in Star Wars. It can be what legendary director Alfred Hitchcock called a “Macguffin” – that thing everyone wants – like The Maltese Falcon in the classic movie of the same name. Or it can be a concept that the movie is truly about, like Time in Cast Away.
The Shaping Force establishes the theme. To illustrate, let’s take The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, which has been made into a movie repeatedly, though probably never done just right.
What’s Huckleberry Finn about?
Freedom from oppression, a concept that speaks to the soul of America. Small wonder that Huckleberry Finn has been described as the greatest American novel of all time.
It takes six chapters for the narrator hero, Huck, to “light out” for the territory up the Mississippi and escape the oppression of his crazy father. Chapter 7 begins with the title I Fool Pap and Get Away. The adventures that follow are in a “new world” out from under the domination of a crazy parent.
The novel was written a long time ago, but the story structure I teach works with it. That’s because my Shaping Force is flexible. It doesn’t lock you into a rigid Campbellian structure, requiring a “mentor figure” in every story. It doesn’t confine you to a three–act Aristotelian matrix. It does, however, firmly establish the soul of the tale. It is the concept that makes the movie worth making, the novel worth reading, and the life worth living.
So what is it about you and your writing life? Do you know the soul of what you, as a writer, are all about? Do you even know what it is about your story that needs to be shared with the world, what it will provide for people once published?
It doesn’t have to be a world-changing idea. It could simply be something that fits within an established genre. Hollywood might not currently be in the mood for a detective story, but they’re bought and published all the time in New York and elsewhere.
Still, your story’s Shaping Force had better appeal to as many people as possible. That gets down to basic human wants and needs, like “freedom from oppression,” which works in many stories, like The Devil Wears Prada, both a hit novel and movie.
I’ve written in the past that a screenplay that sells to Hollywood needs to have a concept that is simple, easily stated, and hopefully reflected so well in the title that any moviegoer easily gets it, as in Black Panther. That movie came from a comic book, but a fascinating story well told translates across media.
If you have these elements in your script and execute the writing well, you have generated the Shaping Force, which will allow you to get noticed in Hollywood. When your screenplay is taken on by someone in Hollywood that people will listen to, you’ve reached the end of the first act in Hollywood for selling that script.
The second act is the selling of the script, and the third act is getting paid for it and hopefully seeing the movie get made.
The same concepts apply in writing a novel. The first acts of good Hollywood movies end with a transforming event that thrusts the protagonist into some kind of new world, even if the remainder of the action takes place within the same geography where the protagonist began. The action with the endangered family in A Quiet Place mostly takes place on their farm. Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour never leaves England, but his world surely does undergo a major transformation.
Here’s how “new world” transformation might work with regard to you writing novels. A novel can help you discover what you’re all about as a writer, but it might not be easy. Stephen King started out wanting to write Westerns like Louis L’Amour, master of that craft. He threw away the manuscript of Carrie only to have his wife rescue it and talk him into not giving up on it. Later, he got a letter saying the paperback rights to the novel had sold for $400,000 and King knew his wife would never have to work again. Talk about good karma on her part, paid back!
So how do you get to the end of your first act as a novelist?
You have to write a novel. And it had better be about something that people will care about. The same story steps usually apply.
You need a strong opening. Think of this – would you buy the book if you liked it after standing and reading the first few pages in a bookstore, or from reading part of it on an Amazon page? It needs to grab your imagination. The concept of your movie should be something you’ll discuss with friends after seeing it.
You’ll need a great main character, and in the case of a novel this largely depends on you as a writer and your “voice” – that particularly unique way that you put words on paper.
So now let’s talk novel and screenplay differences. In a script it’s easy to shorthand description, and in fact it’s encouraged. For example, in a screenplay…
INT. MOTEL ROOM – DAY
A shitty room at the end of the road to nowhere.
Set dressers could have fun with that. For a novel? More…
The Sunset Motel was a decade past rundown. As Bill wiggled the key to make the lock work, he had a sinking feeling, like something had gone wrong that could never be put right. Inside the room with the sketchy lock, he stepped into a dusty purgatory that had probably been sliding downhill from the minute the last sloppy paint roller was slapped on the walls. Bill sank onto the creaky bed and wondered, How in heaven did I reach this hell?
That’s not from any novel or screenplay I know about, just me writing differences. I used bold print for emphasis here, although I wouldn’t do that in a script or manuscript.
What’s the difference in the two? Instead of drawing the viewer in with pictures as in a movie, you draw the reader in with personal emotion as we get inside the main character’s head. On film, one shot of Bill’s reaction and a pan around the room he’s entered could show you what you have to describe in a novel – but don’t describe it so much there’s no room for the reader’s imagination to be exercised. You don’t want to overdo it.
In writing a screenplay, you stay away from what the director or actor or someone art director might think would be imposition on their territory. Motion picture production is a collaborative medium. With novels, you collaborate with no one unless you have a co-writer, or perhaps a good editor, pre-publishing. If you write alone you’re God, calling the shots, and it might help to pray to God that you get them right.
So, you have to educate yourself about novels. Is the story you’re looking to convert into a manuscript something you could personally get lost in reading? Try taking a simple scene from your screenplay – maybe your opening scene – and develop it into manuscript pages as I’ve done above. You might like it!
When you’ve fully educated yourself about the type of writing that works in currently selling novels, success won’t look so much like a game of chance. When you know the formulas, you see the craft. You will have researched the genres in which many titles are published, and you won’t think that your artistry is being assaulted by tailoring your novel to fit within a genre.
Anyone who attempts to conquer Hollywood or publishing with an untested design that flies in the face of everything that came before, usually fails. That attitude is called hubris, and that’s a guarantee you’ll never get out of your own first act. In writing novels and in screenwriting, as with any profession in which the competition is highly skilled and fierce, you need to learn the craft before you attempt artistry.
And you must know the soul of your story. Could you tell me that, right now, without hesitation? If you can’t, you have no Shaping Force. What is your story about? If you can’t tell me easily, you have some work to do on your concept.