The Story Structure of Novels vs. Screenplays

Watch any movie based on a novel and chances are good the movie either changes part of the novel or dumps part of the novel. The reason for this is the nature of the structure of novels. Most novels are episodic in nature where the novel lets you follow a hero through multiple adventures. Often times those adventures have no relation to each other. The point of a novel is to immerse you into the emotional state of a character and let you live through the experience through sensory descriptions including touch, taste, smell and hearing along with sight.

Screenplays, ont he other hand, are purely visual in nature. They can’t immerse you in a character’s thoughts or feelings. Instead, screenplays can only show you what’s happening. As a result, the structure of novels is often far looser than the structure of screenplays.

A novel can wander all over the place, introducing scenes and characters who appear one moment and then disappear forever. Screenplays cannot afford to wander or include characters who only exist temporarily unless they’re trivial characters. As a result, screenplays must be far more tightly focused and structured from the start.

Novelists often start writing without any clear idea of their ending. That’s why many novels include so many scenes and characters who play no part in the later part of the story. Read Stephen King’s “The Dark Tower” and then watch the movie. You’ll see that it’s drastically different because the novel introduces an interesting character set in a curious background, but the story never concludes in any way. That’s why the movie had to change the story drastically and it still failed to create a cohesive and satisfying ending.

“The 5th Wave” is a great book, but when translated into a screenplay, it turned into a horrible movie. That’s because the screenplay too closely followed the book and the book divides its attention between the hero and her little brother. In a book, this is fine because you can immerse yourself in both characters, but in a movie, this creates a disjointed effect because just as we get to know the hero, the movie suddenly shifts to show us what’s happening to her little brother, completely ignoring the hero for large portions of the movie. Screenplays can never afford to lose its focus on its hero.

Watch any original movie like “Star Wars” and you’ll see that every scene is either about the hero (Luke) or the villain (Darth Vader). If neither character is involved, then the scene directly influences and affects one or both characters. In movies, the focus must be on the hero at all times.

When writing a novel, you can afford to explore your story as you write. When writing a screenplay, you absolutely cannot afford to explorer your story as you write. You must know your ending, know the basic details of the plot, know how the hero changes, and know your story’s theme so your theme can define your other major characters. Only after defining all this can you even begin writing a screenplay.

A screenplay is a highly structured story where a novel may not be so. Screenplays need a huge, explosive finale of some kind that’s either physical or emotional. Novels often get away with creating endings that would fizzle on the screen. Just watch “The Circle” to see a disappointing ending. Then read the book “The Circle” to see how the novel can conclude without a strong battle at the end between the hero and the villain.

In short, novels and screenplays are two drastically different forms of story telling. The best movies turned into books are highly structured like “The Hunger Games.” The worst movies are often based on poorly structured novels like “The Scorch Trials” ( the sequel to “The Maze Runner”) or “The Dark Tower.”

When writing a screenplay, outline and structure your story far ahead of time. If this seems too restrictive and limiting, then switch to novels where you can write to explore and go off on tangents. Screenwriting demands structure due to its sparse and lean nature. Think of all your favorite movies and chances are they follow highly structured formats that includes a hero who changes, an ally who changes based on the hero’s help, a mentor who helps change the hero and teach the hero how to change, and a villain pursuing a goal. Skip any of these elements in a screenplay and you’ll likely wind up with a poorly structured story like “Gotti”, which currently has a 0% rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

In screenwriting, story structure defines the backbone of your story. Outline your story and outline it again. Only when it’s finely structured should you even start writing your screenplay.

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