You know the feeling. You’re reading back through the start of a new project, admiring the first 10 pages of what might be your next novel. Yet, you recognize that something isn’t quite right. You can’t put your finger on it, but it’s there – daunting and taunting you. So, you read through your words again, determined to find the culprit. Often, the obvious is overlooked. The problem plaguing you could be this: you’ve written your story in the wrong narrative. Instead of telling your tale in first person, you’ve opted for third person, or vice versa. The struggle is real, as they say.
While there’s no golden rule that a specific genre should be written in a specific narrative, this choice is often determined by novels that have come before yours. Take a peek at the first paragraph of the top-selling novels in your genre. What narrative are they being told in? The same as yours? Maybe you’ve decided to break the rules and change things up by heading down a third person path when first person is the genre go-to. This is a risk worth taking, but only if its true to your story.
The question of which narrative to use can be answered by determining the most important elements in your work:
- Whose story is this?
- Who is your narrator?
- Whose perspective does this story need to be told from?
This choice is ultimately yours, my fellow writer. Yet, it can be one of the most difficult to make. I recently suffered from this very issue while working on a new short story of mine. I was three paragraphs away from finishing the first draft when I came to terms with the fact that the manuscript was fighting back. It took a few read-throughs over a few days to identify the problem: this was not a story that needed to be told in first person — it needed to be told in third. So, I rewrote the story with a third person narrator, and it worked.
I encourage you to to do the same, especially if the story and the voice aren’t working. Make the change. See what happens. You’re the voice.
Nancy: Books rely heavily on description and dialogue to reveal character. How does that differ in a screenplay?
Wren: This is one of the greatest challenges when it comes to screenwriting. You not only have to rely on the actor’s intuition to convey the emotion but also on the director’s overall vision for the film. This is why it’s so important to write the best screenplay you can because you’re really creating a blueprint for the production team and the cast. On the screen, visual elements are really what’s telling your story. Yes, exposition comes through dialogue, but the audience is responding to what they’re seeing on the screen.
Nancy: How long do you think it normally takes to write a screenplay from a novel? Is it common for an author writing a novel to create the screenplay simultaneously?
Wren: The length of time really depends on the complexities of the novel. One of mine went through 32 rewrites while going from stage play to film. In the end, only 10 pages remained from my original script. Many of the changes were required based on production limitations and budget issues. Yes, many writers write both a novel and a screenplay simultaneously. They really inform one another during the creative process.
Nancy: When you write a screenplay, how do you know when you are done? Do you hear fireworks or are the angels singing?
Wren: I would love a choir of angels to announce the end of a screenplay. That would be wonderful. I feel like the screenplay is done when I’ve told the best version of the story I can — when I feel I’ve done the characters justice. It’s tough to know when you’ve reached that point because it’s hard to be objective about our own work. At some point, you have to force yourself to get up and walk away.
Nancy: From horror to romance, what differences does genre make in an effective screenplay?
Wren: Genre is everything in a screenplay because each genre comes with their own set of rules, their own set of audience expectations. For this reason, I think some of the best screenplays are genre hybrids. Kelly Fremon Craig’s screenplay for Edge of Seventeen is a great example of this. That movie successfully fit into multiple genres.
Nancy: How important is the format?
Wren: The format in screenwriting is critical because it’s industry standard. It’s one of the biggest challenges for a new screenwriter.
Nancy: Can a screenplay be reviewed and edited in the same way a book is edited, or should you find people who specialize in screenplays?
Wren: I recommend that screenwriters have their work critiqued by other screenwriters, or someone in the entertainment industry that is familiar with the format, such as a producer.
Nancy: I have been a fan of Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat for several years. Are there other screenwriting books you would recommend?
Wren: Yes, I really recommend The Screenwriter’s Bible. I use this book each time I teach a screenwriting course. It’s a terrific resource for many reasons, including learning the rules about formatting a screenplay. I also recommend Syd Field’s classic book, Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. Both of these books are resources for most screenwriters. I also recommend checking out a wonderful program called The Script Lab. They offer a low-cost online program called Screenwriting Summit that is fantastic. They have a tremendous library of videos that are conversations with executives, agents, producers, and screenwriters. Each is filled with very valuable information about the industry and your life as a professional screenwriter.
Nancy: Once completed, polished, and ready for publication, my guess is that a screenplay requires an entirely different approach for marketing, compared to books. Is that true? What should the author be focusing on at this point?
Wren: Once your screenplay is finished, the next step is getting it into the hands of someone who can get the project to the screen, whether that’s a producer or an agent, or even an actor. It’s almost impossible to sell a screenplay without having an agent. If a screenwriter has finished a script that they feel has potential, I would recommend securing an agent. The Writer’s Guild of America publishes a list of reputable agents for screenwriters.
Nancy: For me, I think the real work of writing a novel is perseverance coupled with humility. I have to work on it every day and be willing to recognize where I am wrong. You are such a prolific writer of books, plays, and screenplays. What would you say is the ‘real work’ of it for you?
Wren: Disciplining myself to write every day has been a challenge for me over the years. I love the end result, of having written something, but the actual writing process is tough for me. Any writer can talk about the many sacrifices required to be a writer in this world but the finished result makes each of them worth it. Before I became a professional writer, I didn’t realize how much work each step of the writing process required. The writing itself is hard work, but so is the planning, marketing, and business side of what we do. Writing takes more stamina, dedication, and discipline than most people realize. It’s a demanding career, but it’s also incredibly fulfilling.
The manner in which our small group of friends helps one another with thorny writing problems is one of the roots of Amelia Indie Authors. From time to time we’ll share a Founder Chat — one of the founders interviewing another author about an area of particular interest or expertise. Enjoy!
Upon completion of a recent blog post, I realized I had the core for a new book set in the 17th century. I began blocking the content right away and began the first chapter. Starting a new project like this is an exciting time full of outrageous dreams and marvelous promise. As I watch historical programming on BBC, Netflix, Amazon and elsewhere, I think my story could be a movie at least, if not a series like Poldark, Outlander or Versailles.
But I have never tried writing for the screen before. Am I crazy? Should I just go wash the dishes and get a hold of myself?
Fortunately, a dear friend introduced me to someone who has some answers. Wren Valentino is the award-winning author of several novels and collections of stage plays and poetry. He has written over 50 stage plays that have been performed in three languages in nine countries. His work has appeared in over 100 publications.
And so, I am deeply honored that he has agreed to answer some questions about writing screenplays, which I share today with Amelia Indie Authors. Thank you, Wren, for sharing your knowledge and experience. Here goes:
Nancy: First of all, how do you know if a story idea has potential as a screenplay?
Wren: Screenwriting is really a form of visual storytelling. When I start working on a project, one of the first things I do is determine what form suits the story the best. When a strong visual component is there, that’s a big indicator that the story needs to be told on a screen, instead of on a stage or page.
Nancy: Some film or series productions are based on novels, while others are developed directly for the screen. Either way, there has to be a screenplay. Other than length, what are the main differences between a book and a screenplay?
Wren: There are many differences between books and screenplays, all of which can make the adaptation process difficult. In most cases, when audiences reject a film version of their favorite book, it’s related to the difficulties the screenwriter had in adapting from one form to another. Novels and screenplays are written so differently, that they’re not always compatible when it comes to adaptation. One of the biggest challenges is adapting a novel written in first person narrative into a cinematic story. In a book, we have insight into the characters internal thoughts and emotions, but translating that onto the screen can be tough.
Nancy: When would it make sense to start with the screenplay, instead of a book?
Wren: I recommend writing any story in multiple forms and then deciding, as the writer, which form is the strongest choice. Some stories will only work in one form, so then the decision is made for you. I often know immediately that a story is a screenplay when I visualize the story more than I hear it.
Nancy: What if I already have a novel that has potential for the screen? What is the best starting place for an author to adapt a book into a screenplay?
Wren: This can be a really helpful exercise for any writer who thinks their novels has cinematic potential. By adapting your novel into a screenplay, they will inform each other. For example, whenever I adapt a novel or play of mine into a screenplay, I always end up going back to the original story with new discoveries I’ve made by writing the same story in a different form. Writing a screenplay is a challenge, especially because the format is so specific. I really recommend that if a writer is considering a screenplay, they should take a screenwriting course. If anything, this will help with learning and understanding the complexities of the format, the rules and why they’re necessary.
Nancy: Is it common for authors of novels to do their own screenplays or is it better if done by another writer?
Wren: I highly recommend that if a novelist has an indication that there’s interest in adapting their book into a screenplay, that they write the screenplay. I know many writers who will write the screenplay version while they’re writing the novel simultaneously. Emma Donoghue did this very thing with her novel Room. When producers came to her wanting to adapt the film for the screen, she already had a screenplay ready for them. Who knows the story better than the person who created it?
Nancy: It is my understanding that all good screenplays follow the same basic structure. Is that true in your opinion? Have you tended to follow any particular guideline or does the idea that ‘rules are made to be broken’ apply in this case?
Wren: Screenplays for most American made films do follow a fairly similar three-act structure, with significant plot points happening at prescribed times in the film. This has a lot more to do with the attention span of an audience, rather than storytelling. For this reason, I tend to watch and admire foreign films and foreign TV shows more, as they tend to not only break these rules but demonstrate a greater devotion to true storytelling, especially where character development is concerned. I’m all for breaking rules, but it’s important to learn the rules first so you know how and when to cross those lines.