Dan Bush and I are finishing the umpteenth (or so it feels) film script draft for Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll. Have you ever read a book and then seen the movie and said, “It’s just not the same as the book”? Or maybe you’ve said, “This is better than the book.” Let me see if I can offer an explanation why or you may prefer one or the other, based on the way a book and a film are structured.
Writing a novel involves spending a great deal of time and ink on description, character development, plot, and even dialog. The process feels detailed-oriented and perhaps a bit leisurely. Using those tools, a novelist can write a book that is 200 pages, 500 pages, or even 1000 pages long. It’s all good provided the story moves along, the reader is engaged by the characters, and the plot is interesting. However, I do know that readers these days are preferring shorter books. That may be because we all have less free time to spend. More’s the pity.
But a film script is different. A script writer gets between 90-120 pages to tell a story (that translates roughly into a 90 minute-2 hour movie). Film is a visual medium, so it is crucial remember the visual nature of movies when writing a script. Strong, but brief descriptions of action are crucial. Action is used to move the plot along, since the narrative style of novels would put viewers to sleep. Action also is used to tell us something about the character, as do early descriptive elements of the way the character looks, dresses, and stands.
Dialog is another element in film that moves the plot and defines character. However, it must be succinct. Long, rambling soliloquies generally are out. Character development needs to be done quickly and sharply.
So, if you are adapting a book to the screen, you will use the same plot (but not necessarily all the novel’s subplots), you will tighten up some of the dialog and eliminate the other, and you will condense descriptive and action elements.
The other important thing to remember when doing a film adaptation of a novel is not to give the actors all the novel’s little details about the characters. You give them just enough information to communicate the character’s essence but need to leave room for the actor’s (and director's) interpretation.
Finally, there is a format script writers must follow. It looks a little like a play script but has some unique differences. So, here’s a crash course on how to read a film script.
Scene descriptions. They tell the director whether the scene takes place inside or outside, where it takes place, and whether it is day or night. So, INT. FLYING FISH CLUB STAGE - NIGHT
indicates that the scene is an interior shot taking place on the stage at the Flying Fish Club during the night (or at least the dark hours).
Character names. They are written in caps (i.e. NEIL) over dialog and in scene descriptions.
Wrylies (or parentheticals). These are the directions written in parenthesis just below the character’s name and before the character’s dialog. Wrylies give the actors information about how the character might be feeling or doing.
Action. These lines are flush with the left-hand margin and are used to describe the action the viewers will see.
Cutaway: A line that is right-justified and indicates that the scene shifts temporarily to another scene.
Back to Scene. A right-justified line that indicates a return to the original scene description.
Cont’d. A direction for the actor indicating that the character continues to speak when there are interruptions (usually action directions, or dialog that has moved to the top of the next page).
Now let me show the difference between a novel and a script, rather than describe it. First up is a scene from the early pages of Heart Soul & Rock’n’Roll, the novel. The second selection is the same scene from the current spec script (which we're still tweaking). Just click on the link below to bring it up.
HEART SOUL & ROCK’N’ROLL KARAOKE SCENE
Things to think about as you read:
What information did Dan and I omit in the script that was included in the novel?
Why do you think we did it?
What does the script tell you about Lindsay? Patti? Neil?
How did provide that information?
Did we re-write dialog? Did we write new dialog?
Hope you enjoyed this little journey into script v. novel. Remember, there’s a reason the book is not like the film and vice versa!