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Writing a Screenplay vs. Writing a Novel: Learn the 4 Key Differences

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Oct 2, 2020 • 3 min read

Writing a novel and writing a screenplay are both time-intensive processes that involve extensive story and character development. However, there are major differences between scriptwriting and novel writing to be aware of if you are diving into a new format. Whether you’re writing your first screenplay or tackling a novel for the first time, keep these distinctions top of mind.



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4 Differences Between Writing a Screenplay and Writing a Novel

Although writing novels and writing screenplays both involve developing characters and a storyline, they are fundamentally different because of how the audience or readers will consume them. When writing a screenplay, you are writing for a feature film, which is a visual medium meant to be experienced by an audience in a movie theater. While many novels are turned into screenplays, they are initially intended to allow readers to imagine the story in their own heads.

There are a few other key differences to keep in mind when writing a novel versus writing a screenplay:

  1. Format: Novels don’t have a rigid structure to abide by, though most writers split their novels into different sections or chapters giving the reader places to break away from the story. Though there’s no definitive step-by-step guide, good screenplays generally adhere to a three-act structure, with short, to-the-point paragraphs written in the present tense. Screenplays that adhere to this approach are often often modeled on the beat sheet outlined by Blake Snyder in his book Save the Cat. There are more rules for the industry standard screenplay format than there are for novels. Script format dictates that the page should be full of white space, with each new scene clearly introduced with a scene heading. Screenwriting software, like Final Draft, is essential for both aspiring screenwriters and professional screenwriters and will help you quickly format your first draft. Learn more about formatting your screenplay in our guide here.
  2. Dialogue: Novels typically rely heavily on an omniscient narrator or on the inner thoughts of a main character. Script writing involves a heavier reliance on spoken dialogue (the exception is voiceover, which filmmakers tend to use sparingly). In novels, characters are revealed through description and internal monologue, whereas screenwriters develop their characters through action and dialogue. Formatting for dialogue is different in both mediums, too: In a movie script, dialogue appears under a character’s name, sometimes preceded by a parenthetical describing the character’s feelings or gestures. In a novel, the speaker is often implied through context. Learn more about writing dialogue in screenplays with tips for writing better dialogue here.
  3. Length: Since a novel has to convey with words what a movie can convey with images, novels usually contain many more descriptive passages, and are therefore longer. Screenplay page count will vary depending on if you’re writing a short film, TV-show, or feature, but spec scripts are typically around 90 pages long—approximately one page per minute of screen time. Your first draft might be longer, but you’ll ideally trim it down as you work towards your final shooting script. Novels, by contrast, are typically hundreds of pages long.
  4. Pacing: The pacing in both films and novels can vary wildly—a thriller, for example, will generally be more quickly paced than a character study. Compared to novels, screenplays for major Hollywood films will be faster-paced with more action lines, engaging the audience from fade in to fade out; they have to be the sorts of stories that can be easily pitched and succinctly encapsulated in a logline or slugline. Pacing a novel is its own art. Novel format leaves room for experimentation, meaning that the pacing can be slower and can allow for more exploration of the characters and the plot. Learn more about pacing for your novel in our guide with tips here.

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