Switch It Up: Transitioning from prose to screenwriting
Writing is writing, right? Not exactly.
Some of the most difficult scripts to slog through are those written by people who mostly practice in prose. These are novelists, short story writers, and other fiction fans who make the admirable decision to flex their skills in another form. While they are usually studious enough to crack open a screenwriting how-to guide and learn basic formatting for dialogue, margins, and the like, there are several key adaptations with which this group of writers struggles.
I don’t know who needs to hear this, but screenwriters do not need to fully and elaborately describe clothing, hairstyles, furniture, jewelry, cars, houses, cuckoo clocks, the way the sunset glimmers on the surface of an infinity pool, architecture, handbags, or any other physical element of the story.
Also, I’m completely kidding, because I know exactly who needs to hear this, and it’s fiction writers. It’s the person adapting their (self-published or otherwise) novel for the screen, and it’s the person who’s attended a dozen fiction workshops at their local university. It’s the person who adores the immersive sensation of a heavily descriptive novel and has never ascribed to the idea of “less is more.”
It’s the person who forgets what it’s like to actually watch a movie.
Think about it: no matter how lushly appointed and lavishly detailed a scene in film may be, the eye only has time to absorb so much detail. Meanwhile, your eyes (and brain) are also trying to make sense of the story itself: the way the characters relate to one another verbally and physically, the way the editing impacts pacing and tone, and so on. When the novice screenwriter provides too much detail, they make it exceedingly difficult for the reader to visualize the script as a film, with all the constraints on timing and pacing the medium implies. They quite literally get in the way of their own objective: storytelling.
Screenwriting is often an act of surrender in the sense that so much of what another writer might be able to control, a screenwriter cannot. Whereas a novelist might determine that their protagonist has chestnut brown hair, hazel eyes, light makeup, and a green mohair sweater, when it comes to film production, these choices will be made by everyone from casting directors, to the hair and makeup team, to the costume department.
Unless the script itself convinces the production team that any one of these details have critical narrative importance, they’re likely to be altered on the basis of budget, availability, and a number of other real world constraints. So just focus on your job (creating the story) and leave the rest to your future teammates. You can trust them. Probably.
It actually surprises me that this comes up as much as it does for this group of writers. Almost universally advised against, the passive voice (which includes all use of the verb “to be” and its many variants) doesn’t add significant value to most types of writing, especially when used liberally. Whereas the active voice lends dynamism and movement to your writing, the passive voice paints a static picture — like artwork hanging in a gallery, or a thing to be studied rather than lived.
Screenwriters who rely heavily on the passive voice end up doing just that: setting the scene, then abandoning it like a sacred site meant only to be observed from afar. Their scenes don’t move or evolve; the characters take up a position and hold it, no matter how the tensions and subtexts shift around them. These screenwriters write with their mind’s eye, and as brilliant and observant as that eye may be, they seem to forget about the story itself, that ingredient without which every single screenplay ever written would inevitably fail.
Making your scenes more active and less passive is as simple as swapping all your “to be” verbs with dynamic verbs that capture movement, action, or change. So, for example, “Sara is on the couch” becomes “Sara languishes on the couch,” and “Jared is angry” becomes “Jared punches the wall.” As you make these kinds of changes, you might also take a look at your adverbs (primarily the words ending in ‘-ly’). See if you have a habit of propping up passive verbs with frilly adverbs and reorient around more descriptive, active verbs accordingly.
“Show, don’t tell”
When I don’t have to include these three words in a script’s feedback, it usually means I’ve had the pleasure of reading something impressive and, most importantly, persuasive. Believe it or not, persuasion isn’t just for argumentative essays and debate speeches. If your story isn’t convincing, readers will question everything about it. Once believability (note: this is not the same as realism!) goes out the window, you can pretty much count on your script receiving a ‘pass’ and a trip to the trash can.
Every time you manage to show rather than tell, you make your story that much more persuasive or believable. Consider the following example, which is a clear example of telling: “Ayana has big dreams and wants to be a movie star.” No evidence whatsoever accompanies this claim; you just have to take the writer’s word for it.
But what if the screenplay included language like this, instead? “Movie posters cover her bedroom walls. She drops a handful of change into a jar with the word ‘Hollywood’ sharpied on the label.” While it doesn’t directly state that the character in question wants to be a movie star, there’s enough visual evidence to make such a claim, right? Plus, in this case, you’ve actually given the director something to put on screen, which is kind of the whole point of this endeavor, anyhow.
As you might have guessed by now, writers are most often inclined to ‘tell’ aspects of the character’s interior world. Hopes, dreams, thoughts — all of these abstractions can be gestured at in a concrete way with a little practice. Imagine a character named Joey, who thinks about his wife and misses her. You can show the reader he misses her in a number of ways — maybe he fiddles with his wedding ring , maybe he hums their special song — but you need never directly state his emotions or thoughts about her.
If there’s ever a time when you feel that it’s impossible to ‘show’ a detail, it may be important to consider whether you need to include the detail at all over simply giving up and ‘telling’ it. If the audience won’t see it (because it’s not visual), it needs to really serve the reader in some fashion. In other words, make sure it has a purpose other than fulfilling your writerly urges, irresistible as they might be.
When you switch from prose to screenwriting, it’s like learning to play a new game — learning the rules is your first priority. After all, it doesn’t matter if you’re a Monopoly master when everyone else at the table is playing Settlers of Catan. Rules are meant to be broken, of course, but never unintentionally. The key is to know when you’re deviating from the standard approach, and why.
Basically, if you can learn to interrogate your choices as a writer (“Why do I have three paragraphs of description in this scene?” or “Why am I describing this character’s behavior with the passive voice?”), you’ll almost certainly improve your craft. The impulse to question and critique, once stripped of self-consciousness and reframed around persuasiveness, is one that will serve you well, no matter which format or genre you choose.