Thursday, September 20, 2007

Telling Write From Wrong (Part 8)

Filmsy Excuses? Not In Hollywood, Mate

Photograph copyright: DAVID McMAHON

I was delighted to hear from US blogger Mushy, a gifted chronicler, that he has a project up his sleeve. Mushy's been told that what he intended to be a book would actually be better as a screenplay. That’s a perfect question to deal with today.

Is my book really better suited to a screenplay?

Let’s start at the very beginning - it's an approach that worked for Julie Andrews, so it should work for us as well. First of all, I’m inclined to say, ``Get a second opinion’’. That’s not to discount the advice; rather to reinforce it. You wouldn’t rush into surgery (which is kinda funny, because Mushy recently had shoulder surgery) without a second opinion, so let’s take the same approach here. Don’t abandon the notion of the book until you know definitively that it can only work as a screenplay.

My honest advice is to keep going simultaneously on two parallel paths, each linked by continuing creativity and the need to finish the entire manuscript. Path #1 would be to start getting in touch with literary agents (see the post A Monopoly On Query letters for details of how best to do this) and Path #2 would be to investigate the ground rules for writing screenplays at the same time. Even if a literary agent is interested in your manuscript for a book, it doesn’t prevent you from making your own judgement about its potential worth as a screenplay. Hence the idea of parallel progression.

The biggest distinction between a novel and a screenplay is that the latter is a totally visual and aural medium. Instead of taking readers on a written-word journey, you take the story to a theatre audience instead. Instead of reading, they will watch and listen to your plot. In essence, that is the major difference. It is a different discipline, but that’s not to say a novelist cannot write a screenplay. That said, a novelist would have to completely modify the approach to turn a story into a screenplay. (Remind me to tell you the story of Thomas Keneally and the film Schindler's List.)

There is something else to take into account. From my (perhaps limited) knowledge of Hollywood and the entertainment industry, you have to deal with agents who are keen to establish the critical element of genre. Is your plot is full of suspense, is it a thriller? If it’s full of go-get-'em elements, is it an action adventure? If it has a lot of humour, is it a comedy? Once you work out which genre you’re aiming at, you’ll find it easier to develop a screenplay.

I’ve also tracked down a few very informative sites for you. Have a look at Screenwriting.Info for some very handy hints. There is further information at BBC World Service, with concise advice from successful screenwriters Shane Connaughton and Robert McKee on how to write an effective screenplay.

For further information go to, while I’m told there is valuable advice in Denny Martin Flinn’s book How Not To Write A Screenplay.


Alexandre Paige said...

Hi there Dave.... This is my first look at your blog - and I'm very much enjoying it! I agree that writing for screen is very different to writing a novel, however I think there is a distinction between writing for screen/film and writing with "theatre" in mind. Film can, as I'm sure you're aware, incorporate more than props, actors and a stage to tell a visual story. When writing for screen I believe the writer should keep in mind things like camera angle, type of shot, style of editing etc to help tell their story in order to add depth to the screen story experience. Thanks for getting my brain thinking!

david mcmahon said...

Hi Alexandre Paige,

Welcome aboard. Thank you for visiting. Thank your for commenting. And thank you for getting my brain working!

As an experienced (amateur) stage actor, I should have made the distinction between theatre and film. You;re so right there.

Hope to see you back here soon ....

Keep smiling


david mcmahon said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
oldmanlincoln said...

I have written books and never thought about screen plays. I usually find things like that not easy for some reason, but was surprised you did not mention television. I was forced by the love of money to do that and found it was a lot easier than writing a book. I only had to deal with 1/2 hour shows and as it turned out I was the host so it worked.

The current batch of hopeful television programming is hopeless. I can't begin to tell you how many times Victory at Sea has been on many different channels sponsored by people with little cash and lots of ambitions.

Nice post, David. I enjoyed it.

Where was I in 1953?

david mcmahon said...

Hi Old Man Lincoln,

Man, you have had one incredible life.

I should interview you for a forthcoming segment on `Telling Write From Wrong' ....

Keep smiling


Victorya said...

Oooh! Screenplays! Finally, something I know something about.

Robert McKee's "Story" is the main book used to teach screenwriting, at least, it was in my film school. It's easy to read, informative, and makes sense.

I have more books somewhere at home. I can probably draw up a list if needed, but Story is a great starting place. Also, the best lesson is to go out and buy a screenplay and see what's in it. They are wildly different then what ends up on screen.

Mushy said...

Thanks David for answering my questions and giving me places to go and learn more.

Let me also thank you here for featuring my "Desk Sergeant" post.

I'm one of a growing number that owe you a lot.


MONA said...

Ah! we see our friend Lincoln here with his camera!

It must be quite a task to convert a novel into a different genre altogether... That would be Drama with all modes of communication!!

Strange, that never occurred to me before I read this post!

Thanks for making me aware of the distinction!

Eve said...

"The biggest distinction between a novel and a screenplay is that the latter is a totally visual and aural medium."

Funny. That's how I tend to write, but I'm not interested in writing for screen. I'm working on developing the rest. :)

Kirti said...

I'd love to hear the Schindler's list it somewhere on your blog?