(Originally published by Harper Collins for their Professional Writer Day (Romance Festival)
When I was a troubled teenager with a fringe, I fulfilled one of the unwritten remits of being a troubled teenager by writing a troubled teenage novel. My inexperience showed and it wasn’t wholly successful. Although I was overjoyed to have finished such a substantial and satisfying piece of work – the feedback I got on the book from family and friends kept mentioning how cinematic it all was. Scenes would consist of action, plot development and spectacle – with less investigation into what was happening inside a character’s head, scant regard to texture and tone, and little description of what we (weren’t) seeing. Since then I’ve written other prose stories and found a better balance, but that first foray into long-form fiction and its ‘reviews’ was illuminating. Particularly that “cinematic” was viewed as a concept that pushed against the perceived notions of the novel.
Now, as an adult untroubled by a fringe, I write both prose for publication and television scripts. I created and wrote the BBC1 wartime drama series, Land Girls, and now I am writing the further adventures of the characters in a series of novels. Before this, my prose writing would always be concerned with different stories and characters than my TV work so I never gave too much thought to the different demands of each medium. But now the worlds are crossing over, I have been forced to examine how the same characters would work differently in a screenplay or a novel format.
Obviously a page of a script and a page of a novel look very different – but beyond simple formatting, I wondered could you tell the same story in a script and a novel?
Now, while the tenets of a good work of fiction – such as strong characters, intriguing story, powerful dialogue and solid motivations – applies to both scripts and prose, there are some differences in how a story can be told.
For the most part, scripts for TV and film are sinewy affairs – skeletons on which the finely toned muscles of character and dialogue are stretched. You get into a scene as late as you can and leave a scene as early as you can. All the viewer at home will experience is what is seen and what is said (and ideally – in good scripts – more will be shown than told). There isn’t much room for too much description – so just the salient points of a surrounding may be given, or a place will be summed up by one pithy phrase.
In prose, many of these facets should still be in place – as no one wants to read a flabby novel. But you have the delicious additional tool of being able to go inside a character’s head. In a script you can show that Joyce Fisher is desperate for news about her pilot husband by having her behave irritably with her friends, show jealousy at their relationships and perhaps by having her waiting for the post every day. In a novel, you don’t have to rely on showing all those things to get the feeling across (although you can, of course). Instead, you may want to cherry-pick perhaps one of those ‘tells’ of Joyce’s behaviour and relate the others by delving inside her head.
Similarly in prose, it is perhaps easier to get across feelings of texture and tone than in a script as you have more space to explore mood and show mirroring and contrasts between events. You can go off on intriguing – but relevant – tangents in a novel as the reader has joined you, and made a commitment to these characters and their world.
As well as the creative aspects that differ between the two media, there are several ‘real world’ considerations which differ between prose and scripts.
A script – properly formatted – will usually adhere to the formula of one page equalling one minute of screen time. A novel has no such restrictions – try looking at one page of the novel you are currently reading and try to work out how long it would last on screen. It’s a difficult to predict. (Obviously if you want to adapt a novel for TV or film, this will become something that you’ll have to think about…)
The other restriction – not seen in novel writing – is one of budget. In Land Girls (the TV series), I couldn’t write a line of description such as “Connie Carter sees one hundred American soldiers on the horizon of the field” as it would have broken the budget to realise that on screen. But in a novel, I can have the President himself arrive in a fleet of B52 bombers if I so wish. There is no one to tell you that they can’t afford those one hundred soldiers or that city on the moon.
Crucially it is worth remembering that the script is a template for a world that will be created by set designers, costume departments, actors, director and production staff. A novel is the world presented directly to the audience. So as a novelist, you should relish being your own set designer, costume department, actors, director and production staff and tell stories unhampered by budget constraints, running times and practicalities.
(Land Girls - The Homecoming is published in paperback by Harper Impulse on 19th October 2017 and can be ordered from most online retailers and high street book shops).