Dennis Lehane on novels vs. screenplays

Scriptnotes listener Eric in Boston pointed me towards this quote from Dennis Lehane on the difference between writing novels and screenplays:

They’re apples and giraffes. Completely different, outside of their core narrative DNA. When you write a novel you’re God, in charge of the whole universe, from the farthest galaxy to the smallest pebble. When that book is published, everything in it was filtered through you and you alone (with some nudging and advice from your editor, of course).

When you write a script, you’re like a house painter in a large mansion. You give the rooms their color but you don’t build the house or concern yourself with the plumbing. A screenwriter is one of, say, 140 people who contributes to the film. And your script is just a schematic to be interpreted by a director, actors, the director of photography, the set designers, costume designers, editor, producers, studio execs, and on and on and on.

It’s much harder to be God; novels take way longer to write than scripts and are much more emotionally and psychologically taxing but they’re also—by a longshot—more fulfilling.

I largely agree with Lehane, but want to caution that screenwriters shouldn’t take his house painter analogy too far. You’re not just decorating the rooms; you’re deciding where the walls need to be so that the whole thing doesn’t collapse.

Particularly when working on their own original projects, screenwriters must be just as invested in every galaxy and pebble. They may not include these details — screenwriting is an art of extreme economy — but you have to know what you’re leaving out.

I’m writing book two of the Arlo Finch series right now. The process is rewarding and exhausting, but the level of responsibility I feel to the story’s universe and characters is not fundamentally different than when writing the first draft of a script. In both cases, I’ve moved into their world, and am writing what I see.

The biggest shift comes later, once I’m ready to show the work to others.

With a screenplay, I need to coordinate my vision with dozens of other decision-makers so we can make a movie. That’s the psychologically taxing aspect of the job: writing as if it’s all yours while knowing it’s ultimately not.

With a book, I’ve made decisions down to the comma and conjunction, knowing they’ll persist. Arlo Finch isn’t a blueprint; it’s the thing itself. No matter what happens down the road, my choices are preserved on the page.

Lehane’s right: books and screenplays are like apples and giraffes. I like both of them, and hope to have more of each in the years ahead.


Logic and Gimmickry

Scriptnotes: Ep. 309
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John and Craig step up to the whiteboard to look at the story logic in our scripts, then examine how tricks and gimmicks can help keep scenes interesting.

We also answer listener questions about paying experts for research help, and whether hiring a writing consultant ever makes sense.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.


Chekhov’s Ladder

Scriptnotes: Ep. 308
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Craig and John discuss the concept of affordances — player expectations for what videogame characters can do — and how writers can apply these principles to their film and TV scripts.

Teaching the audience to know what is and isn’t possible can be hard to do artfully, but often makes all the difference.

Also this week: reducing sexism in screenplays, plus answers to listener questions about writers on set and giving feedback on friends’ terrible scripts.

Tickets for the July 25th live show are on sale, GET YOURS!

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

UPDATE 7-18-17: The transcript of this episode can be found here.


Teaching Your Heroes to Drive

Scriptnotes: Ep. 307
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John and Craig explore how story develops from a synthesis of character and plot, and why writers need to continually shift their frames of reference between “inside” and “outside” the experience of their heroes.

We also tackle the idea of “you can’t teach funny” and what to do when you share a famous person’s name.

The Scriptnotes Listeners’ Guide is out, and fantastic, and free! Plus we now have 300-episode USB drives in the store. Links below.

Plus, don’t miss our live show in Hollywood on July 25.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

UPDATE 7-10-17: The transcript of this episode can be found here.


DRAMA!

Scriptnotes: Ep. 306
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Craig and John take a look at what happens when the drama is behind the camera, and the difference between what’s reported and what’s really going on. We also offer some advice on what one should do, should they find themselves caught up in the crazy.

Finally, we answer a listener question on writing for specific actors and the challenges/opportunities this presents.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

UPDATE 7-10-17: The transcript of this episode can be found here.


Forever Young and Stupid

Scriptnotes: Ep. 305
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Craig and John take on a new Three Page Challenge, looking at three listener scenes to see if they follow the exacting rules set by Screenwriters University. (Ahem.)

We also answer listener questions on vintage screenplays, maturity, Smash Brothers and writing with a budget in mind.

Links:

Email us at ask@johnaugust.com

You can download the episode here.

UPDATE 7-10-17: The transcript of this episode can be found here.