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.