How to Write a Novel (For Screenwriters)

I started my writing journey as a screenwriter, most notably as the writer of the film Slingshot (Weinstein Co.). When I decided to switch to writing novels, I thought the transition would be smooth…and boy was I wrong about that. Here are a few things I learned while writing my debut novel Nightlife.

Learn How to Tell

“Show Don’t Tell” is a maxim thrown about all too often in the writing world. When you are writing a screenplay, it makes sense. Why would you put a bit of information in a character’s mouth when you can just show it with a quick image? Rather than have someone mention that they are being followed by a shadowy figure...simply include a shot of said “shadowy figure” from over their shoulder.

When it comes to prose fiction, however, all you really have is the ability to tell. Don’t be afraid to use that. With a film all you get are images and sound. It’s impossible to express the other three senses except through the characters reactions. And you aren’t allowed to get inside a character’s head except through an intrusive voice-over. Why would you throw away this opportunity? USE IT!
As Lee Child once said, “Do your kids ever ask you to show them a story? They ask you to tell them a story. Do you show a joke? No, you tell it…There is nothing wrong with just telling the story. So liberate yourself from that rule.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Forget About the Budget
What costs more to film? Two actors having a stand-off in a generic alleyway with a couple of .38s?…or the same actors having the same stand off on an alien world with massive space armies ready to back them up?
The answer is obvious. When you are writing a spec screenplay, the question will usually pop up “how much will this cost to film?” And as day follows night, nagging thoughts about what actors, director and other attachments will be needed to justify a big budget will also arise.
The bigger the budget, the less likely the film is to get produced (and the smaller part the screenwriter has in determining what the final product will look like). This can lead you to determine what you want to write next based on financial concerns alone.
But with a novel you are bound only by your imagination. Ink and printing costs the same if you are writing a grand fantasy epic, or a contemporary domestic drama. Follow your heart on this one.
Learn to Work Your POVs
With a film you get only one POV…the camera. This gives you a lot of freedom and a bit of authority when it comes to what the audience gets to see. But it also forces a certain amount of physic distance.
If you are going to write a novel you are going to have to understand what it’s like to tell a story from inside the head of a character…whether this is the intimate first person or the more removed  third person (or the seldom-used second person). No matter what your choice, embrace it.
Cast It
You need to write compelling characters, that’s a given in any genre. But with a screenplay you also want those characters to appeal to a wide variety of actors that might wish to attach themselves to the project. Is your male lead 35 and blond? Forget George Clooney or Will Smith then. Is the femme fatale a six foot ice queen with crystal blue eyes? I guess Halle Berry and Jennifer Lopez are off the list.
In a novel, you get to write your characters as you see them. And don’t worry about what happens when they make the inevitable movie. Six-and-half-foot-tall Jack Reacher ended up being played by the five-foot-seven Tom Cruise. Six-foot-two (and not particularly hairy) Hugh Jackman immortalized the diminutive and hirsute Wolverine.
Don’t Sweat the Three-Act Structure
Screenwriters (especially those who learned the craft post Christopher Vogler) are almost hardwired to write stories that adhere to a three-act structure. For good or for ill, the “Hero’s Journey” reigns supreme in modern movies.
The artistic merits of this format may be debatable when it comes to film (although it’s commercial merits might not be). When it comes to a novel, however, all bets are off. Tell the story you want to tell…if it involves a “call to adventure” or an “approach to the innermost cave” then that’s great…but don’t be afraid to tell the story you want even if it doesn’t contain a “return with the elixir” or some other such pre-programmed event.
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Matthew Quinn Martin was born in Allentown, Pennsylvania and raised in New Haven, Connecticut. However, it wasn’t until he moved to Manhattan that he realized he was a writer. These days, he lives on a small island off the North Atlantic coast of the United States where it gets quiet in the winter…perhaps too quiet.

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  1. What a terrific post with lots of information about screenwriting in particular and writing in general. Thanks so much for sharing this with us.


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