The Structure of Novels vs. Screenplays

There’s a reason why many novels don’t translate well into movies. It’s because of the fundamental nature of novels. In a novel, the main goal is to keep the reader turning pages and one technique to do that is to keep introducing something new and different all the time. The problem with this approach is that it creates a disjointed story.

For example, “The Scorch Trials” (the sequel to “The Maze Runner”) novel has the characters rescued and placed in a building. Then suddenly the lights go out and they see the bodies of their rescuers hanging from the ceiling by nooses. In the novel, this is actually an interesting but brief scene because it makes you shudder and heightens the mystery of what’s going on. However, this scene most likely never got filmed in the movie because it makes absolutely no sense.¬†Even in the book, this isn’t explained. The scene seems to exist solely to keep the reader glued to the page.

“The Maze Runner” is all about boys trapped in a maze that they don’t understand. That makes an interesting novel, but by the time you get to the end of the novel (and the movie), you still have no idea why the boys were trapped in the maze so it creates an incomplete story. Incomplete stories can work as novels because readers enjoy the experience but such incomplete stories don’t work in screenplays because movie audiences need to have information set up ahead of time so it makes sense later on.

In “Thelma and Louise,” Thelma picks up a gun and drops it in her purse. That scene seems trivial, but it later pays off when Louise uses that gun to shoot a man trying to rape Thelma.

In “Die Hard,” John McClane learns how to overcome jet lag by scrunching his toes in a carpet. That’s why he’s barefoot when he escapes the terrorists and now he’s handicapped by being barefoot the whole time.

Movies set up information initially and then pay it off later. Novels too often introduce something suddenly with no setup and no payoff. Things exist solely because they’re interesting at the moment.

“A Wrinkle in Time” is an odd children’s science fiction fantasy book where the enjoyment comes from the unusual characters and situations the hero finds herself in. Yet none of these unusual situations are set up ahead of time, which makes their sudden appearance distracting in the movie.

In “Wrinkle in Time,” the hero meets a woman who can turn herself into a flying creature. In the novel this is interesting, but in the movie, this information comes out of nowhere. Even worse, this woman’s ability to change into a flying creature is never used again and the purpose of her changing into a flying creature serves no purpose to the story. As a result, this information in the movie comes out of nowhere (no set up) and is never used again (no payoff). That makes the entire scene of the woman turning into a flying creature completely irrelevant because she never does it again and the first time she does it, it serves no purpose.

When you see movies based on books, the success of the movie stems on either the book being structured like a screenplay or the screenplay deviating wildly from the book.

“The Hunger Games” is a great novel because the story sets up information and pays it off later such as when Rue (a little girl who has shown she can climb and hide out of sight easily) later uses those same skills to help Katniss escape from being trapped in a tree.

“Forrest Gump” is a horrible novel that was turned into a great movie because the screenwriter deviated wildly from the original novel. This same screenwriter also deviated wildly from the original story in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” which was about a man who ages backwards.

Ultimately, novels can get away with introducing characters and situations without setting them up first, but when translated into a movie, this same information makes no sense because it seems to appear out of nowhere and serves no further purpose in the story.

Read novels like “The Dark Tower” or “A Wrinkle in Time” and they’re enjoyable because they keep introducing something new. Then watch the movies based on these books and they’re awful because they keep introducing something new that makes no sense to what happens earlier.

Novels and screenplays are different. Novels can afford to be sloppier. Screenplays cannot, so if you want to write a novel, structure it like a screenplay. You’ll wind up creating a better story as a result. If you just want to write a screenplay, don’t succumb to introducing new information just for the sake of keeping an audience amused. It can work in a novel, but it won’t work in a screenplay.

Novels can be loosely structured. Screenplays are tightly structured. That’s why the best screenplays tell focused stories and the worse screenplays do not.

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