The Novel vs. the Screenplay (Guest Blogger: Lisa Lutz)

Lutz_lisa_250 Thank you for the comments and suggestions. It looks like a number of people are curious about the topic of screenplays vs. novels, and since I have a number of things to say on the subject, I’m going to focus on that topic. Keep in mind that there’s so much information that I’m unlikely to do more than skim the surface, but feel free to post comments and questions, and I’ll try to respond to what I can.

Note: For about twelve years before I wrote my first novel, I wrote screenplays. I have written about my saga for Salon and since it’s easy to access online I won’t rehash it here, but will try to address other issues.

Before I become completely subjective, I want to begin with some objective differences between novel-writing and screenwriting, which might be obvious to some people, but still worth mentioning.

  • If you have a completed novel and a completed screenplay, your chances of getting the novel published far exceed your chances of getting a screenplay produced.

This is an obvious statistic when you think of how many books are published every year vs. how many films are made.

  • In terms of money, the scales tip in the other direction. If you have a major Hollywood film made you’re bound to make more money off the script sale than you would from a novel.

According to my agent, the average advance for a first novel is somewhere between $5,000 and $50,000 dollars, depending the type of material and the format in which it would be published. Most novelists have a second job. Obviously there are exceptions to that rule, but we’ve all heard the common lament about how people don’t read anymore (unless Oprah tells them to), so novelists struggle to find an audience—and therefore an income.

141653240401_mzzzzzzz_ I then asked the screenwriters currently adapting The Spellman Files for some rough estimates on what a film script might sell for. Let’s forget about option money for now, which can start at $1, (an option is like renting a script for a period of time) and just focus on the script sale amount. For the most part, the bottom number (for a non-independent film) would be around $50,000. But the numbers shoot up much, much higher based on track record and demand (i.e. if more than one studio is interested in the script). It’s true that the numbers for a big Hollywood movie can often reach into the millions of dollars (which would rarely happen for a novelist). But, like I said before, the chances of that happening are not unlike winning the lottery.

  • A screenplay is approximately 20,000 words (much of that filler—character names, scene headings, etc.); a novel can be anywhere from 70,000 words on.

The obvious point is that you can tell a lot more story in a novel. I mention this because my novel The Spellman Files, about a family of private investigators who solve their personal problems using their professional tools, was first envisioned as a screenplay. In the screenplay, the family has reached a point of crisis in which they’re essentially playing a game of cat and mouse with one another. I showed the crisis, but I didn’t have time to explain how they reached that crisis. The novel, on the other hand, was essentially about how a family could reach that point of conflict. For me, writing a novel meant that I could tell the story I wanted to tell and not just the story that there was room to tell.

  • When you write a screenplay you tend to write by committee. You can get notes from anywhere between five and twenty people. (My screenwriters both estimated that they’d get notes from an average of ten people per project). When you write a novel, there may be some revisions that your agent requires, but primarily you work with one editor.

It might seem that five or six or twenty heads is better than one, but I don’t think so. In my experience (so now I’m getting completely subjective), concurrently receiving notes from several people fractures the consistency. Not all those notes will jibe, not all the people providing notes are as invested as an editor often is. Notes can be tossed around without much consideration for the big picture. It used to drive me crazy that a note that would suggest a change in Act I would not take into account that it disrupts Acts II and III.

My editor, on the other hand, lives with the book for a while. She knows it; she understands the causal effect of small changes. I can’t argue that all movie industry people are reckless with their notes, nor can I argue that all book editors have my editor’s skills—but this is my experience. While revising screenplays from producers’ notes, I’ve often been unconvinced that I’m making the project any better. (There’s that old joke where a producer asks the writer “Can you make the nun a hooker?” which rings truer than you might imagine.) However, working with my editor, there is never any doubt in my mind that we are making the novel better. Now let’s remember something: I was an unsuccessful screenwriter, so I’m happy to admit that I too could have been doing something wrong.

By now my bias is obvious. But let me finish by explaining the primary reason that I prefer writing novels to screenplays. There are a lot rules and limitations structure-wise to a screenplay. For years I always felt comfortable with these rules. I liked writing dialogue; like most people I’m an avid film consumer and so that language felt natural to me. However, at some point, at least ten or so years after writing my first screenplay, I began to feel stifled by the rules. So when I finally resorted to writing a novel, I decided there were no rules. If I could figure out a way to hold the reader’s attention, it didn’t matter to me how I did it. What I didn’t anticipate was how much more I enjoyed writing when I was free to do it the way I wanted to. It is now hard for me to imagine returning to the screenplay; I imagine it would feel something like writing with one hand tied behind my back.  --Lisa Lutz

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Comments (3)

Who are your influences?

Posted by: Richard | Monday April 14, 2008 at 12:47 PM

Any thoughts on where you see book publishing going? Are e-books for real? Movies are flourishing (say what you want about their quality), but reading is dying so the critics say. So what keeps you excited about continuing on as an author?

Posted by: David | Wednesday April 9, 2008 at 10:59 AM

Lisa, great post, and the Slate essay was also highly entertaining. Although you got paid a decent amount of money for your screenplay, it sure seems they made you work for it. At the end of the day, was the "finished" product anything close to your original story?

I'm also curious to know how much input you are getting into the adaptation of your book. A lot? A little? Seems like you've been in touch with the writers, but it was hard to tell whether you're participant or just a resource for them to maybe answer key questions about the characters.

Any plans to write outside the Spellmans series? Or are you going to keep plugging away with these characters for a while?

Posted by: Tracey | Tuesday April 8, 2008 at 4:57 PM

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