Writer Chat 155: Novel Writing vs Screenwriting

For some bizarre reason, people focus on their screenplay as a written document rather than as a template for a visual project.

Novelists and Playwrights and Poets are bold italic underscore Writers.

TV and Film, Video, Multimedia, Game writers are where the process starts and it’s about creating a framework that other creative people plug into an expand.

This is an exchange on Zoetrope – a peer site form 2005:

Carl Clayton

do you feel it’s interesting and enjoyable to read descriptive narrative in slug or action lines or distracting.

i tend to do this because i spend much time writing prose and feel more colorful descriptions make slug and action lines more interesting. the most enjoyable screenplays i’ve read were where the author had a distinctive voice in descriptions, maybe even an in-your-face attitude or a sense of humor.

case in point — compare the following:

ext: courthouse – day

a car pulls up to the curb and TOM, 45, gets out and walks toward the courthouse.


ext: courthouse – day

a battered lincoln continental, definetly on its last legs, slams against the curb. TOM, 45, stumbles out, his long, stringy hair hanging down his forehead like the long legs of a spider. He absent-mindedly pushes it aside as he slowly makes his way up the crumbling steps of an old and decreped courthouse.

yes, i know the 2nd’s verbs have a more active voice, which is always favorable, but doesn’t it give you more a feel of person and place because of the descriptions?

just curious of what your opinions might be.


Chris Adler

To me, the second version doesn’t add anything important. His long stringy hair is irrelivant to the story. Does it matter that the courthouse is old? Is the age of the courthouse any more important than the number of freckles on his nose? If not, why include it.

You could merge the two versions and come up with:

A battered car pulls up to the curb. TOM, 45, stumbles out and heads up the steps to the courthouse.

All subjective, of course.

Nina Tryggvason

the second one is too novelish

what if the prodco has a deal with another car company?

there’s too much fussy actor business

I’d go with something inbetween the two.

ext: courthouse – day

An American flag hangs limply above a poorly maintained century old courthouse.

A battered car pulls up to the curb, belching black smoke.

TOM (45, unwashed) gets out and nervously orients himself to the courthouse layout.

He walks toward the courthouse and up the chipped stairs.

also, I break each visual into a new paragraph – this adds white space (readability) as well as a backdoor to direct

Carolyn Haywood

I like #2. It’s definitely more visual … I instantly see a movie in my head and have a firm grasp on the character.

I am, of course, assuming that everything in the passage has relevance to the story and character.

William LaRochelle

I disagree with the usual opinion on this, Carl.
The general rule is that the content itself – getting on with the story – should be enough to engage the reader and that novel-worthy descriptions take up space and reading time.

Sure a screenplay should be sparse, but as long as it isn’t bogging anything down I think the reality is that a reading script or selling script often WILL include witty descriptions.

“The Character gets into a Buick Century.” means nothing to me. But if you are pointing out a moment of suspense, it is like writing a fight sequence in that it IS your job and not the director to get into detail. Sure, if there is NOTHING but the above line to work with a great director might break down that moment of approaching the car and how he gets in and what precautions he takes and might be specific about the contition of the car. But if you want SCREEN TIME to dwell upon actions, then spend page space on it.

Shane Black’s Lethal Weapon script famously includes a sentence like “It’s the kind of house I will buy if this screenplay sells.”

Philo T McGriffin

Since this is the FIRST INTRODUCTION of the character, I always feel that it is best to quickly create a memorable and vivid image and impression of that character, and this you have done better in the second example than the first, at least for me.

Contrary to what many “screenwriting-rules Nazi’s” might tell you, for me your second effort is actually much more visual and interesting, and, although a tad overdone, it tells me a lot more about the character himself, if not directly, then indirectly, than the first effort.

Each element does play a role for those with active imaginations:

The “battered Lincoln Continental, definitely at its last legs” lets me imagine just what kind of person would drive around in such a car.

The hair description does the same, at least for me.

After reading this, I had a very clear mental image of the character, his lifestyle, his socio-economic status, his outlook on life, and what kind of person he probably is.

None other than William Goldman himself, in his “Adventures In The Screen Trade”, admitted to using a similar descriptive style in introducing many of his own characters, and if it works for him, I am sure it can work for you as well.

Your first example, although “technically correct” is so stripped down and bare, almost like an avant-garde all-white Hollywood Hills home, that it has no personality and no passion. It reads like all the rest of the minimalist crap that largely passes for “proper”, but dull, screenwriting today.

I might continue reading after an opening like the first one, but I would sigh and go, “Gee, another one of those scripts that is going to make me WORK to try to visualize what kind of character this is…”, however, after the second opening I would have a much better picture in my mind just who this character is, and therefore would be much more interested and inclined to continue reading on.

That is just me, and I am certain you will get all kinds of opinions.

I can tell that, in your gut, you prefer your second effort, but for some reason seem to want to make sure that it is “OK” to do so.

Screw what everyone else tells you you “have to do”, and as Obi Wan Kenobi said to Luke Skywalker, “trust your own instincts” instead.

Philo T

PS: Not to be picky, but if you want people to “judge” your work fairly, please cut out the e.e. cummings emulation and use proper sentence and slug-line capitalization and formatting when you do so.

In the first case, it makes one wonder if you are even AWARE of proper “Industry Standard Script Formatting” (such as Slug Lines being in ALL CAPS, and NOT using a colon :!). Improper formatting usually shows that the writer is an AMATEUR.

In the second case, it unfairly prejudices people who read lots and lots of screenplays against the script since such blatant disregard for properer formatting has, over time, almost Pavlovian-conditioned them to unconsciously hate such scripts, and start nit-picking for errors, since experience has shown that most end up being lousy.

In the third case, even if it is only an “informal question” on a message board, it creates, just like your “battered Lincoln Continental, definitely on its last legs” or your “stringy hair hanging down his forehead like the long legs of a spider”, a lasting “first impression” in the mind of the people reading and responding to your post, and influences them accordingly.

But you already know this, don’t you, otherwise you would not recognize that your second version is more vivid visually than the first.

Please don’t take what I just wrote the wrong way, but a writer is ALWAYS judged by what, and how, they write EVERYTHING, including message board posts! Never forget that! You never know who might be reading…

Wendy Jane Henderson

>>the object of the exercise is to engage the reader <<

Not to aim any darts at you, Shell, but you have nailed the the most common mistake beginning screenwriters make.

A screenwriter should not write to engage a reader. The inclination then is to write narrative prose. For someone to read. But the real audience will never see this screenplay, let alone read it. Industry people will read the script, yes. But they are not looking for something they can read. They want drama, and they are looking for material that can be performed.

In film, one hears over and over again, “Write lean and mean.” That means as little extraneous material as possible. One should always strive to limit to dialogue and action.

That’s why I nag, “You are creating behavior for actors to perform.” It is the action that counts. How the actors behave. Not descriptions of their appearance and behavior.

In film, the idea of being able to photograph everything in a scene is a good guideline. But it often throws beginners a curve because they figure description can be filmed. It distracts from the idea of performance, which is equally important.

Let’s look at these two examples from a director’s perspective. What is the ACTION?

The action is “a character gets out of a cab.” How important is that action? How crucial is it to the story?

Without seeing more of the script, I don’t know. But I do know that the action is what matters. HOW the character gets out of the cab is what matters. Yes, one can add a bit about costumes and props. But detailed descriptions are not necessary. For example:

JOHN steps out of the cab. Dressed in Armani. Carrying a briefcase. That’s one kind of character.

JOHN falls out of the cab. Dressed in a clown suit. Carrying a bouquet of roses. That’s another kind of character.

See how little “description” one really needs?

People who preferred the first response are correct. The second response is mostly “window dressing.” As others in this thread noted, most of it does nothing to forward the story.

Fredric Maffei

Philo, very learned advice, and I applaud you.

I firmly believe that the best of the novel can be incorporated into the screenplay form, its color, description, and even wit. In as few words as possible, of course.

I also wonder, at times, if those who are so down on a touch of the “novelistic” in screenplays secretly wish they could pull off a fine bit of descriptive writing themselves beyond “The spotted dog runs down the hall.” I’ve more than once heard such proponents of the minimal denigrate the “novelistic” in a screenplay with such terms as “novelistic flowery crap.” Though I’ve yet to find much in the way of “flowery” in the pages of Sartre, Kafka, or Dostoevski.

And having contributed so possibly highly inflammable a little tid-bit as that into the works — See Fred run!


“A screenwriter should not write to engage a reader.”

Which is why so many usually never get past the Industry Reader in the first place, and hence, never get made.

Trust me, a Producer, and countless others involved, will have it all re-written to their “standards” anyway.

My experience has shown me that those who insist that screenplays need to be written in a certain specific manner generally tend to be what I like to call “academic screenwriters” who either teach or overly-study “screenwriting theory” rather than “screenwriting that works”.

It’s a whole different world between scripts that do well in screenwriting contests and never go anywhere from there, and interesting scripts, however “wordy” they may be, that somehow get made.

Just my opinion.

Philo T


and today on the zoetrope main board

Roxanne Christiana Andorfer

I have seen a lot of otherwise good scripts on here marred by the excessive use of passive voice in action descriptions. Active voice (e.g., “she talks,” “wind blows”, “they argue”) heightens the sense of immediacy for the person reading the script, whereas passive voice (e.g., “she is talking,” “wind is blowing,” “they are arguing”) diminishes it.

Passive voice also introduces a level of abstraction in a script instead of the concreteness of imagery which creates a “movie in the mind” of the reader.

Active voice, while admittedly a little more difficult for the writer, makes for a much easier read, and is well worth the effort in the long run.

RLB Hartman

Unfortunately, your label is incorrect.

“is walking” — or any other combination of an auxiliary verb plus an -ing form — is a PROGRESSIVE tense, not passive voice.

Scriptwriters (and screenwriters, probably) and self-styled gurus think they know what they’re talking about when they advise against using passive voice, and then give a progressive tense as an example of what not to do.

This old chestnut has gone the Zoetrope rounds a few hundred times since I’ve been here, and just my luck I drop in after being off doing other things, and see it again!

Ask an accomplished English teacher (one born in the last century, when people knew proper grammar), if you don’t believe me.

Jim Kalgeris

When in screenplay form is passive voice the better choice, rather than active voice? Best answer gets a gold star and a 2 hour hall pass.

Norman Szabo

‘whereas passive voice (e.g., “she is talking,” “wind is blowing,” “they are arguing”) diminishes it.’

None of these examples are passive voice. FFS.

Rarely. Very rarely.

‘He finds the tracks made by the sled.’ (I could have written ‘He finds the tracks [that] the sled made’ but that would be horrible. There’s also the straightforward ‘He finds the sled’s tracks’, which would normally do just fine, but in this case, it didn’t sit right in context, plus I don’t much like the cadence or the repeated sibilance.)

As the main verb though? I dare say they’re out there, but I can’t think of any examples where it would be a better choice.


How about when the object is the subject of your shot?

The GOLF BALL is struck by the club and goes flying off the surface of the moon toward Earth.

A very different visual than…
The HEAD OF THE CLUB impacts the BALL and it flies off toward Earth.

By the way, does anybody know why the Canadian crossed the road?

to get to the middle.


Do we need to be specifying the visuals to that level? Also, in the second example, it seems to be the head of the club that’s flying off toward Earth.

And since it would need to be set up anyway, how about —

Johnny drives his golf buggy across the mare tranquillitatis until he reaches —


BLAT! The ball flies off toward the Earth.


My goal in with a spec script is to make my movie play in the reader’s theater of mind, so I go with whatever I think best contributes to that end result.


it depends on what the shot is being used for

maybe we just see the club and the shot

and the character golfing is a 4 year old and then we see teh ball has gone 3 inches

or it’s a Galactic Emperor and the ball is the metaphor for a planet he’s about to plunder


@ RLB Hartman – LIKE! and 2 LOL points.


scripts are not novels, do not write them that way

if you want to know about how to write dialog

find out what the newest communication fad is in hollywood

(clue Neural Linguistic Programming)

and write that way

Psst..Do You Wanna Know The Secret?

you want to know the real secret? invent a new twist and sell it hard and early for all the lesser workshops to hop on board   The Secret aka Deepak Choprah – Oprah – The Secret – Abraham Hicks … Continue reading

~~~~~~~~~~Day 2 of the Writer Chat ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

RLB Hartman

The newest fad changes too often to suit me.

Grammar does, too; but a confirmed grammar guru never lets that get in the way of a stinging rebuttal. LOL

Susan DeSandoli

She may have used the wrong terminology, as I have, but I have to defend what she said. It is annoying to read too much ” is —-ing.”


@ RLB  frankly, so do studio execs. rotate too often

people play the short game and do not look at the bigger cultural pattern that drives the swirl of decade rotational trends and techno advances.

@ Susan it is like the novelist issue of using a word other than


all the time to denote character talking and working the paragraph conventions.

When I was doing the Three Day Novel contest, I joked to the head of Anvil Press that I would do an all dialog entry

His jaw dropped open and said that would be really experimental.

I had just dropped off my entry on the Monday morning at 9 am so that year, mine was the first in the door and normally they never get them that quick.

but I worked across the street and when I handed it in, I joked that since I was first, I should get to be the winner.

That made him laugh.

Anyway, I learned a lloooooott about that iconic Vancouver contest.

I did it 9 times.

Three Day Novel Contest

The  Three Day Novel Contest is a great experience. The Official Survival Guide has many good tips, so I offer these additional ones from my own nine years of entering the competition. Make the contest work for you, with the … Continue reading

Mary Hahn

I’ve been told, for example, “is shining” is passive. I’ve been told it’s preferable to write “the sun shines, birds sing,” etc.

Grammar passive voice is different than screenplay passive voice I think.

I was always confused when reviewers of my scripts would say my writing was passive not active.

Norman Szabo

You’ve been misinformed. ‘Is shining’ is present progressive. It’s not passive. Passive would be [some form of ‘to be’] plus the past participle. Eg The light was shone into his eyes.

In screenplay style, yes, it’s generally preferable/desirable to use the present indicative. Eg the sun shines, birds sing etc.

Passive — or agentless — writing is not the same as grammatical passive voice, but ‘screenplay passive voice’ is a meaningless term.

A lot of people have trouble identifying the passive voice (and to be fair, it can sometimes get pretty tricky). But unfortunately that doesn’t prevent reviewers and others from condemning its usage even when it isn’t there.


I think that what they mean by passive is the very old school

We see (insert description)

it’s when you get to describe the viewer into your text

screenplays are not written to be read

so playing coy with the reader is stupid

you want them to see the movie the audience is experience

and showing that you know how to industry talk

not that you read a guru book and can follow a formula

and, as for the typo obsession

that is because of producers who do not know art

and like all bad managers

look for the easy measureables that mean nothing

John Clark III

Nina is sitting.

That is NOT the Passive Voice form… that is the Present Progressive.

Passive Voice = To-Be-Verb-Form + past participle.

Nina was knocked out by the roofie in her drink, and was sprawled out indecently on the sofa.

Present progressive is an active form

To-Be plus Verb + -ing ending…

Only transitive verbs have passive forms.

Some verbs of course can be transitive or intransitive depending.

Some intransitive verbs take to-be + past participle as adjective, but are not passive.

John goes.
John is gone. (could mean physically gone, mentally gone, dead gone…).


mppffff muhhhhhahahaahhahaa

and also:

Lenny Bruce – “To is a Preposition; Come is a Verb”


Mary, I admire you for your expertise in writing anything, but must complain about this: “Grammar passive voice is different than screenplay passive voice I think.”

The reason you were confused when someone claimed your writing was passive, is that THEY were WRONG.

Don’t believe everything you’re told, no matter who says it, if you know better.

And “to” + a verb is an infinitive.

This silly debate can go on to infinity, and no one will be the wiser because everyone is listening to his own convictions.

(not just you, Nina, but I have to put this somewhere)
Note that I did NOT say “their” because in standard grammar, EVERYONE is still considered singular, and THEIR is plural and should not coexist in the same sentence. ALL is the word that pairs with THEIR.

INformal grammar, however, has embraced this mismatch when spoken…even by die-hard English teachers who are always fighting losing battles.


RLB actually you make the perfect point

this is why the gurus sell books

people chase their tails

and never learn to write and the people reading the script are not reading for grammar


I thought they might be wrong as well but they were a “guru” who was charging $$ for service as a script consultant. When I first starting writing screenplays I would use script doctors occasionally. I’d use coverage services too.

Anyhoo, hope you’re doing well!

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3 Responses to Writer Chat 155: Novel Writing vs Screenwriting

  1. dykewriter says:

    I think that what they mean by passive is the very old school

    We see (insert description)

    it’s when you get to describe the viewer into your text

    screenplays are not written to be read

    so playing coy with the reader is stupid

    you want them to see the movie the audience is experience

    and showing that you know how to industry talk

    not that you read a guru book and can follow a formula

    and, as for the typo obsession

    that is because of producers who do not know art

    and like all bad managers

    look for the easy measureables that mean nothing


  2. Pingback: Writer Chat Profile: RLB Hartman | dyke writer

  3. Pingback: Advise about Professional Writing | Nina's Soap Bubble Box

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