Should I be a Novel Writer or a Screenwriter?

This question is intended for the beginning writer, who is unsure if he should start with writing physical books, or with writing scripts for movie directors/producers.

Obviously this question will inspire a lot of debate, which I know is not something we want on this site. So instead, I was wondering if someone could provide me with a comprehensible list of the pros and cons of fictional novel writing versus screenwriting.

  • 5
    why can't you do both? Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 1:03
  • Umm... That's actually a good point. Still, a list of the pros and cons would be useful. You have to start with one or the other, even if you intend to branch into both. Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 1:39
  • Only if by "fiction" you mean "prose." A screenplay which isn't based on reality is, well, ficitonal. Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 2:25
  • Novel. I should have written 'fiction novel.' I will update the OP now. Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 5:45
  • 3
    You should clarify your goals to make the question more answer-able. Commented Sep 17, 2015 at 11:11

6 Answers 6


Financial concerns aside, the differences in the day to day job of writing include:


In a screenplay structure is everything. You have two hours to tell the story. Your forebearers have refined the the structure of those two hours, through trial and error to the extent that we know, to the minute, the ideal timings for all the major plot points. You can set your watch by some Hollywood movies, and I mean that literally.

In a novel, you do not know the pace at which your reader reads so you are relatively free to adopt your own structure (unless you are hoping to get a movie deal later). Structure is useful, but it is not everything. A beginning, middle & end is enough.


If you like describing the dewdrops on the flowers in the morning then screenwriting isn't for you. Descriptions in screenplays should be extremely succinct. A loving description of a sunset is wasted if it's overcast on the shoot day.

In novels, elaborate prose is not always appropriate, but if you must do it, there'll be an audience for it.


In a screenplay, the dialogue must crackle. You have to get your audience inside your characters heads using only the words coming out of their mouths. And they will generally be the minimum amount of words. You have one sentence to tell us JANE is angry at BILL but really she's more angry at herself. Go!

In novels, if you can't make the dialogue powerful, you have other options for getting inside the characters' heads. You can tell us their feelings, relay their inner dialogue, hop ahead or backwards to see their fears or memories without needing to indulge in flashback/forward scenes. Characters are an art and not everyone can pull them off in quite the same way.


You can write a full length screenplay in a week. Whether you should is a different matter. But it can be done if your attention span is short, or you have a story that is bursting to get out. Completing something quickly, even if it's garbage, can be wonderful motivation and reward. Once you're done, if you want to asses its structure or form a plan for redrafting it, you can read it in a little over an hour. It's easy to see the structure, hold it in your head, and fix it.

You can write a novel in a month, and thousands do every November, but it will only be around half the length of a standard novel. Similarly, re-reading, redrafting will all be slower and the intricacies will be more difficult to hold in your head the entire time. It could take a year to write a book and if the plot is complex you'll need tools to help you manage that.


An editor or publisher will want to meddle with your novel to make it read better or sell better. Aside from that, anything you want to happen in the book, can happen.

Studios, producers etc. will meddle with your screenplay, but reality will also get in the way. I've been on set when there has been some malfunction with a set, prop, location or cast member. In such circumstances the writer may get a call to redraft a scene within a couple of hours. That's not a rare occurrence in my experience (TV mainly) and that kind of compromise and collaboration is a continuous process from first hire until the shoot wraps.

Doing both:

Some authors do both, e.g. Michael Marshall (Smith) or Douglas Adams. If you are good at screenwriting then I would suggest you could likely pull off great novels too if you can handle the extra workload and complexity. I suspect the reverse is less true owing to the wider range of novel styles and the more flexible attitudes to structure, dialogue etc.


The biggest difference is that a novel is (typically) a solo production. A screenplay is inevitably a collaboration (towards the final movie). Everything in a novel needs to be on the page. Everything in a screenplay is going to be realized and reinterpreted by actors, director, etc.

As part of this, if you write a novel, who have a novel, it's still a novel, even if it is never published. But a screenplay is only a movie if someone makes it into a movie.

From a technical standpoint, I'd say that for a screenplay, you need to excel at plot and dialog, but for a novel you need to also be great at description. A screenplay is also much shorter, so you need to be able to compress your storytelling for a screenplay, expand it for a novel.


You should be a Novelist.

Novels get optioned as screenplays. Authors can be involved in that; Stephen King was writing for the recent TV series based on his book, Under the Dome.

It isn't easy to get published as a novelist, but almost every novel that sells a reasonable number of copies will be at least read by somebody in Hollywood to see if it would translate to film.

Be a novelist with visualized scenes and concise dialogue.

Screenplays depend very, very heavily on visual scenes, visual action, and concise dialogue; meaning (in writing terms) something less than one line in a novel. Pick your favorite TV show, and keep an ear out for what sounds like a long line in dialogue. Write it out as a line in a novel. It will be pretty dang short, really.

Many novelists (including me) rely on telling the reader what Joe is thinking, or why Maria finally decided to kill Jane, or the history of the ranch and why Michael is so desperate to save it as the last remnant of happier times.

You've seen enough movies to know what is possible, don't write things that you personally would not know how to translate to visual scenes. The most you can get away with is like the beginning of Star Wars with their space scroll, explaining sixty seconds of back story. Which could be a narrator, or an old woman in a rocking chair on the porch beginning a story to a child, or whatever. But you are better off presuming you get zero time for straight exposition.

Write a novel that could be a movie. You won't be allowed to write the screenplay (no produced would allow a writer with zero experience), but you or your agent might negotiate a no authority advisor role of some sort so you can be involved and inform the plot.


There are great differences in:

  • The set of potential buyers. Millions of people buy novels. Very, very few buy screenplays.
  • Gatekeepers between you and the story's audience. You can publish a novel yourself at relatively low investment of time and money, and there are distributors eager to make it available to practically everyone on the planet. Making a film yourself requires a much larger investment. And distributing it? I have no idea.

You should be both.

A screenwriter writes screenplays which are meant to be performed. It includes simple descriptions to detail the location and setting, and simple instructions for the cast to follow - both dialogues and action. There isn't much space here for the writer to express his/her creative flair through words.

A novel is a different beast. It offers an avenue for your to express your creative talent in all its complexities. You could have pages explaining a setting, then leave the dialogues in short snippets. It also comes with it's own challenges - you need to be consistent with the writing to be able to finish it, and be patient for it usually takes a couple of revisions before it be proper.

When beginning a new writing project, I suggest you write the outline and flesh out the details in the screenplay. This could then act as the bare skeletons of the novel that you may refer to at times and help navigate the novel as you write it.


I'll extend the answers that say you should be both by stating that for each story you should work on the screenplay and the novel in parallel.

Doing so will help you expose weaknesses in the writing. There are pitfalls that are unique to prose, and pitfalls that are unique to the screenplay.

For instance, the common rule "show, don't tell" is very easy to violate in a novel. When you write the screenplay for the same section of the tale, the need to avoid lengthy chunks of expository dialog will force you to replace all of the jabber with action and interwoven dialog that advances the plot in the same way.

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