Today’s question comes from a writer who wants to know the difference between how I go about braining stories for prose writing, as opposed to how I brain for screenwriting:
Question from Oliver: If you haven’t covered it already, I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about how to switch headspace from Prose Brain to Screenwriting Brain and vice versa.
It’s a great question because there is a difference, at least for me. But before I dig into that, a quick explanation of what each kind of writing is, what it’s used for, and how it’s laid out.
What is it?
In prose, it is the writer’s responsibility to report all of the scenery, setting, action, dialogue, and depending on the POV and tense of the prose, the inner-monologue and life of the characters on the page. Prose leads the reader from scene to scene, chapter to chapter, and tells the story in it’s entirety.
What is it used for?
Prose is meant to be seen by the final audience, the readership.
As a prose writer, you are doing the large majority of all of the work that goes into ultimately creating the entire piece of art / artifact that is a book. You are the driving force of telling the story.
Editors (both substantive and copy), proofreaders, interior designers, cover designers, and illustrators will all contribute to the completed novel, of course; but 95% of the work that goes into a novel is your own, and the ‘visual’ elements and ‘performance’ elements of the novel are up to you, the writer, to record for the audience to consume and understand.
You make the character’s motivation choices; you decide what they like to wear and what they look like; you decide their likes and dislikes; you decide their acting choices – that is, when they blink, when the gesture, when the hold hands, etc.; you decide what the action looks like when there’s a fight sequence.
You decide what the buildings look like and how rooms are decorated. You decide the tone and mood of the novel based on your word choices. You decide what time of day it is, what the light quality is like, and what the weather is doing. You decide how long to linger on a moment, or how quickly to zip through a scene, and how each chapter of the story is portioned out.
What does it look like?
Benjamin stood on the other side of the sofa, hands on his hips, frustration writ large in every tense line of his jaw. “He should be listening to you,” he ground out.
From my seat at the kitchen table – completely taken over by my legal files and the detritus of a week’s worth of unhealthy take-out meals – I ran a hand through his hair and then rested my chin on my palm. I was so exhausted my eyes felt gritty and every bone in my body was warm and heavy. All the same, I aimed for a teasing wink that probably came out more like a slow, stupid blink.
“Now I know for a fact that you’re an only child,” I teased.
“What does that have to do with–”
I wagged a finger at Benjamin. “If you had siblings, you’d know how hard it is to make one do anything. If I had a dollar for every time I heard ‘you’re not the boss of me’ I could…” I trailed off, looking around the disaster that was my twin brother’s condo, misery swimming up my spine. “I could hire a damn cleaner.”
I stood, unsteady on my feet, and shuffled around the table to at least tidy up my files. I wasn’t embarrassed that his brother’s hot doctor had seen me at his unorganized, weary, disheveled worst, but it sure wasn’t giving Benjamin the impression I wanted him to have. Of course, in my foggy state I’d totally forgotten about the goddamned cat.
For reasons that I would never understand, Hightower like to nap under the table. I stumbled against his furry side, and Hightower let out a high-pitched yowl as I stepped on his tail. A furious marmalade blur wound around my legs, swiped a scratch at his knee, and then shot off down the hall to James’ bedroom to hide.
I flailed for the edge of the sofa but it was too far away.
Well, at least there’s a doctor here already when I fall and break my wrist, I thought morosely as I started to go down.
But I never crashed. Said doctor had seen the fall coming and dashed forward, to seize me around the waist and keep him upright. I grabbed Benjamin’s forearms, steadying myself, getting my fumbling feet back under me, and trying very, very hard not to notice how big and warm Benjamin’s hands were, splayed along the crest of his waist like that. How firm his chest was against my own. How we were practically nose-to-nose, closer in height they were than Benjamin’s officious nature made him seem. How I could feel the soft puff of Benjamin’s breath against my own cheek.
How Benjamin’s soft, pink mouth was right there.
“Goddamnit,” I whispered.
What is it?
In screenwriting, it is the writer’s responsibility to create a roadmap of how the final film or television production will look, sound, and be structured. It is their responsibility to set the tone of the production through their word choices and descriptions. The script lays out how the story is told. A screenwriter’s script leads the rest of the production team – crew, designers, actors, director, and editors – and is the basis for all of their work.
In film production, the Director and/or Producer is driving force of telling the story.
What is it used for?
Screenplays are not meant to be seen by the final audience, the viewers.
Screen plays are not whole stories in and of themselves, but are blueprints upon which a completely different product – a film or a television series – is constructed. As a screenwriter you are doing only a very small portion of the work that goes into ultimately creating the entire collaborative piece of art / artifact that is a film.
The screenplay is the foundation on which all that work is based, but is often rewritten, sometimes right on the set during filming itself, and is not often considered the enshrined and protected singular vision of a writer the way a novel is. Films are always a collaborative medium, and a screenplay – while the basis of a production – is only a small part of that.
And depending on how the film is edited, cut together, and tweaked in post-production, the final product can sometimes very little resemble what was put on that first page. (This can be a good thing – other people bringing ideas to the table can make a film much stronger).
As a film is just a blueprint of a film, a lot of the choices that you see on the screen were not the screenwriters. The screenwriter is responsible for: the dialogue, ‘setting the scene’ in terms of location and character but not filling in the details, pacing, tone and mood, and any specific or key action moments.
However, actors are the ones who make the character’s motivation choices and acting choices; costume designers decide what they like to wear and casting directors decide what they look like; stunt coordinators decide what the action looks like when there’s a fight sequence.
Locations scouts decide what the buildings look like, and set decorators decide how rooms are decorated. cinematographers decide what time of day it is, lighting designers light quality is like, and what the weather is doing. Directors decide how long to linger on a moment, or how quickly to zip through a scene, and editors decide how each section of the story is portioned out.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
What does it look like?
He should be listening to you.
Now I know for a fact that you’re an only child.
What does that have to do with—
If you had siblings, you’d know how hard it is to make one do anything. If I had a dollar for every time I heard “you’re not the boss of me” I could… (miserable)I could hire a damn cleaner.
Mark starts to tidy up, tired and unsteady. He trips over Hightower. Benjamin seizes Mark around the waist and keeps him from crashing. Hightower bolts into James’ room.
Mark and Benjamin realize that they are in awkward romantic clinch.
As you can see, what ends up on the page between prose and screenwriting is very different. So the three question I ask myself when I’m coming up with a story are:
a) how visuals dependent is it?
b) how dialogue heavy is it?
c) how internal-life dependent is it?
If I’m creating a story that will require the audience have a lot of access to the inner-thoughts and motivations of the characters, then I’m going to assume that I’m going to want to tell it as a novel so I can really dig into the character’s heads. If the story requires a lot of “a picture is worth a thousand words” moments, then maybe it’s best told as a screenplay. And depending on the kind of dialogue and the speed and pace of it, I might prefer one or the other.
The kind of story I want to tell dictates the medium I tell it in. And the medium dictates which writer-brain I tell it from. The one who knows that I will have nearly complete control of the story, or the one that knows that the story will be served by collaborative and interactive creation process, of which my screenplay is just the first step.
There’s also something a bit ‘faster’ about writing a screenplay, in terms of getting it on the page. The thought process and revisions stages are way, way longer than novels, I find, but when it comes to sitting down and just banging out line after line of dialogue, with no need to go in and add all the stuff around it telling the reader what’s happening physically and in the space, I find I can get a draft of a feature film together in about two weeks if I’m motivated. Whereas the first draft of a novel takes me about six months.
But of course, there’s many, many more months of revising, table-reading, and taking notes with scripts, and the collaborative process of filmmaking can go on for years and years. While for writing prose, I can have a completed novel in my hand in twelve months if I am diligent and my design team is super on it.
Two Big Pitfalls to Avoid
If you are a screenwriter moving to prose:
Screenplays can be told from multiple POVs with multiple lead characters that the story follows. Generally speaking, prose should only have one POV per scene – and if you’re going to switch who the POV is, you need to indicate this by putting in a scene separator or text to indicate that the POV has changed.
Benjamin stood on the other side of the sofa, hands on his hips, frustration writ large in every tense line of his jaw. “He should be listening to you,” he ground out. Benjamin’s biggest pet peeve was when people didn’t follow doctor’s orders, especially when it endangered or invalidated all the hard work he’d done in the surgery theatre.
From my seat at the kitchen table – completely taken over by my files and the detritus of a week’s worth of unhealthy take-out meals – I ran a hand through my hair and then rested my chin on my palm. I was so exhausted my eyes felt gritty and every bone in my body was warm and heavy. All the same, I aimed for a teasing wink that probably came out more like a slow, stupid blink. Benjamin was struck between the ribs by how charming that dopey smile looked.
“Now I know for a fact that you’re an only child,” I teased.
What’s wrong with this:
If this is from Mark’s POV, in the first person, how on earth can Mark know that Benjamin’s biggest pet peeve is, or his physical reaction to Mark’s smile? This is what we call “head hopping”, when the reader is suddenly yanked out of the head (or off the shoulder, if it’s 3rd person) of one character to be shoved into / onto that of another without warning.
Ask yourself constantly whose head you are in, and what they can reasonably know as a fact and what they can assume. Mark may not be able to know that Benjamin’s heart has kicked in his chest at Mark’s dopey smile, but he can assume Benjamin’s frustration and upset from outside observation of his body language. So the ‘I’ narrator can speak to those assumptions (“frustration writ large in every tense line of his jaw”), but not to the internal reactions and life of another character (“Benjamin was struck between the ribs by how charming that dopey smile looked”).
If you are a prose writer moving to screenplays:
Basically, when you use the dialogue tags (the stuff in brackets above in the screenplay example above) and the action descriptions (the stuff in italics in the screenplay example above) to tell people what to do. The only stuff that should be there is the stuff that is absolutely vital for the creation team to know.
I have won!
(triumphant and cocky)
Not yet, you haven’t!
GOOD GUY leaps up onto the platform beside the BAD GUY’S ‘Freeze Ray’ – a futuristic, silver torpedo-shaped gun with four glowing blue barrels topped with smoking ports. There are three levers and six buttons. Three are green. Three are blue. Three are yellow. The BAD GUY’S hand hovers over the knob of one of the levers, fingers twitching in delight and anticipation. The GOOD GUY swings a fist at his face, but he ducks out of the way and does a really cool spinning back flip and kicks the lever into the ‘on’ position. The Freeze Ray makes a rumbling sound and starts to smoke harder. Lines of white LED lights up the side of the barrel light up. The GOOD GUY lunges for it, but before he can get to the lever, the BAD GUY does another cool spinning kick and brings his heel down on the GOOD GUY’s wrist so hard that he breaks it.
So why is this example bad? Because the writer is telling the actors how to feel, is telling the art department how to design the Freeze Ray, and is telling the stunt coordinator how to do their job.
I have won!
Not yet, you haven’t!
GOOD GUY leaps up onto the platform beside the sleek and futuristic ‘Freeze Ray’. They fight. The lever is knocked into the ‘on’ position and the Freeze Ray starts to power up. In course of the fight, the BAD GUY breaks the GOOD GUY’s wrist.
This is a better version of that sequence because the writer isn’t doing anyone else’s job. Because, who knows, maybe the stunt coordinator has a much, much cooler fight sequence idea than spinning kicks. Or maybe the props designer has a a totally different but way better design for the Freeze Ray in mind. Or maybe the actor wants to play the lines differently (see: Tom Hiddleston’s delivery as Loki on “Don’t tell me it was that woman?… Oh, it was. Well maybe, when we’re done here, I’ll pay her a visit myself!” It was written as smug, delighted and predatory in the original script, and delivered as heartbroken and lashing-out. Which was, of course, the stronger story-telling choice.)
Now, only the information that is going to affect the future scenes of the screenplay is provided – that they fight, that there’s a Freeze Ray, and that the Good Guy’s wrist is now broken.
Write your screenplay however you want the first time around. But then when you go back to edit, ask yourself whose job you’re accidentally doing, and whose toes you’re stepping on, when you read your screenplay. Look at the action parts and dialogue tags, and make sure you’re not including anything that isn’t completely necessary for the actors, directors, stunt coordinators, set designers, etc. to know.
Braining it Out
So, to answer the original question – how do I go about switching headspace from Prose to Screenplays? Well, generally I only write one story at a time, so I’m not having to switch back and forth between mediums constantly. That’s a big help. Secondly, sitting down and really thinking about why this particular story has to be in this particular medium helps me remember that I chose this medium for a reason, and that I should be adhering to that medium’s rules and tropes because I’ve already made the choice. Thirdly, knowing what and how this text I’m writing is going to be handled, interpreted and used also helps me stay in the right headspace.
And lastly, the character through whom I’m telling the story helps me stay on track. I tend to like telling single POV stories, and I tend to develop very particular voices with very particular speech patterns and word choices. The way that character speaks – to others, inside their own head, and to me as the writer – helps me stay on track, because I develop that voice to match the medium.
I hope this has been helpful!
To hear me speak more about the difference between prose and screenplays, listen to my interview with Three Patch Podcast here.
If you have any questions about this article, please feel free to leave a comment! I’m happy to address specific topics, so feel free to shoot me an email or leave a comment here with your query. You can find the rest of my Words for Writers articles here.