I am the sort of person that is really great at coming up with amazing ideas, plot-lines, worlds, etc. for stories, but I'm not so good at putting them to paper - at least not in a novel. I'm really great at adapting stories through actions and dialogue. Essentially, I write like I'm watching a movie - I'm fast paced and don't like getting caught up in setting descriptions or internal monologues. Because of this, I can write pretty spectacular screenplays, if I do say so myself.

Now I'm trying to adapt though and write novels. I'm having a difficult time figuring out how to write good prose when I'm so used to writing screenplays. I can say that it's not a matter of practice - I practice a lot. Very little progress is ever really made though... Does anyone have any suggestions for me as to where I can look to learn how to overcome this?

5 Answers 5


Obvious answer is to read more novels. At the same time, don't worry about your previous skill set; novels are as much about dialogue as they are prose. Try and have a strong grasp of figurative language while still remaining clear in your description of events.

Otherwise I recommend learning to slow the pacing of the story quite a lot. You have time to be indulgent in v prose that you v don't in a screen play.

For an interesting middle ground, try writing a comic first. Comic writing is almost exactly like screen play writing except for the fact that it allows more structural play.

  • +1.....also I'd like to recommend "The Rum Diary" by Hunter S Thompson to the OP as a simple novel for review. It was HST's first novel, isn't very long, and has a number of conventions and style traits that lend well to a study of the modern novel.
    – elrobis
    Oct 21, 2017 at 14:28

You have an ability to write screenplays that even you are forced to describe as "pretty spectacular." Given this, and your dislike of descriptive writing, I can't for the life of me understand why you want to make the transition to books.

Focus on your screenwriting. A screenplay will typically make you much more money a novel. Current WGA rates start at around $67,000 for a screenplay. Of course, a Hollywood production would make far more. Not many books get that kind of advance. Why bother with them?

  • Interesting answer. I thought exactly this, but had no idea what a screenplay sells for...is 67k a realistic average, or is it more like clusters in the six figure range and clusters in the 4 figure range just averaging out to that?
    – elrobis
    Oct 21, 2017 at 14:33

I'd force myself to spend 20 or so minutes on only describing one scene or only going through a single character's internal monologue. Stop yourself from going ahead and only work on describing/monologue. Good luck!


Practice differently. Go standing. Or go sitting.

Being a visual person is fine, I write my stories as visually imagined scenes, full of dialogue (in conflict, dialogue is a form of action).

I think your practice is (by your own claim) ineffective, so I will offer an alternative exercise; this can change your writing in very little time.

Find a visual setting. A bus station, a museum, a deli in the city. A dog park. Outside (or inside) an apartment building you would NOT want to live in. A neighborhood you WOULD like to live in. A building full of doctor's offices. A hospital waiting room. A college campus. Go to a courthouse and spend a few hours watching a trial that is open to the public (They may disallow laptops or cameras in there). A fast food joint, a cheap restaurant, an upscale restaurant. A convenience store with gas pumps out front.

These are settings. Obviously pick them with a modicum of care, don't walk into a daycare center or a grade school and tell them you are just there to look around, unless you are trying to get a feel for what it is like to be questioned by police and arrested for a day.

Actually go there. Give yourself about 90 minutes. Don't question anybody, just bring an empty notebook (a laptop if you wish). It doesn't make a difference if you can draw or not, circles and squares and X marks on a page would be enough. If you can't bring a laptop to write, try to remember how it used to work with pen on paper.

The point is to BE in this actual real-life scene, and take notes to help you understand what makes sitting in this ER waiting room different than sitting as a spectator for a jury trial.

First, your sketch of the scene. As a cinematographer, draw a frame, what is the dominant visual feature of this scene? Where is the eye draw first? Where is it drawn second, and then third? (for visual elements, cover what you feel contributes to this being a unique place; stop when what is left feels like nothing special: Are the seats and tables in an Olive Garden different than in any other restaurant? I don't think so, thus there is no need to mention them. However, the seats and tables in a fast food joint are as institutional as a prison dining room; cheap plastic bucket seats on swivels, joined to the table with aluminum frames, all bolted to the floor. I might want to describe that.

For each of the things you found visually important, in order of importance, write visual descriptions. You are looking at!

In an airport, perhaps the unnaturally long vinyl on concrete hallways, with the waiting and boarding gates scattered on the runway side, and overpriced restaurants, convenience stores and book and music stores scattered on the opposite, interrupted by the occasional roll-in restrooms without doors, just an L-shaped entrance.

What makes the ER waiting room different than the court room? What stands out in your own mind? Even if the number of people in the room are the same, even though you have a nurse in charge of the ER and a judge in charge at the courtroom, each with their attendants and staff, they are different.

What do you see? What are the important visual patterns? Where are the important color or light contrasts?

What do you hear? Close your eyes and listen: What are the dominant scenic "voices?" How do you describe the human voices and noises (coughing, snoring, labored breathing)? Are there mechanical noises (HVAC, creaking gates or chairs, TV on in the BG). Are people talking quietly in private, even whispering, or are there people (like lawyers, the bailiff, the judge) speaking to be heard? Outdoors: Do you hear animals? Vehicles? Workers loading or unloading anything? Birds? Insects?

What do you smell? Same exercise. Does this place stink? Is it unusual but not unpleasant, like a hair salon? Is it medical, like a dentist's office? Is it industrial oil, grease, and materials (metal, rubber, chemicals), like a factory? Is it a pleasant outdoor smell, or an unpleasant one? Look for contrasts, these can offer conflicts: My wife's flower garden looks beautiful, but on some days you best hold your nose for the stink of the manure she's added. There is something poetic to be said there, about the magical ability of plants to turn shit into the perfume of roses.

What do you physically feel? Is it hot or cool? A comfortable seat or an uncomfortable one? Does the air feel fresh or stale? Is the air moving?

What do you (or the people) emotionally feel? Is this a place of peace, or dread, or fear? In the ER, they wait in dread of bad news, with a thin hope of good news. People will literally hold hands and pray for the life of somebody they love. You may see tears in the ER. A man with a bloody towel wrapped around his right hand; simultaneously bored with waiting and fearing how much damage he has done to it.

You need to impart to the reader what it feels like to be in this setting. Your notes provide some material, you do not have to touch every note: You need enough so that what you describe, along with the reader's OWN imagination filling in a few blanks, lets them feel they are in a specific place. "A courtroom" is not enough. "An E.R. waiting room" is not enough. You need to provide details that move them from a generic setting to a specific setting.

In film this is work normally done by the camera and set designer, a screenplay writer seldom does it, but obviously "a dog park" will be generic in the slug line of a screenplay, but very specific on screen. You have to take the place of that.

That's the exercise. Mark your sketch for important visual elements. Work through your checklist of things to write about, write about each. Now leave it for a day, and come back to what you wrote. Do the words capture that scene? If not, what did you miss? (If you have a friendly reader, ask them, but that is not absolutely necessary).

This is just practice with real life settings, so you can learn to capture them, and see for yourself what is important to describe to convey in writing (for yourself) the feeling of being in a real place. Then when you imagine settings, a castle or a garden on another planet, you have practice in picking out the things you should describe, and for the reader making your imagined place a real place in their imagination.

Your readers are modern people, but in their imagination inhabit the world you are inventing. So you need to keep your descriptions in that world, too: For the denizens of medieval Europe, nobody looks like they got hit by a car, and nothing in their experience smells like a dentist's office or like Chanel No. 5, nothing feels like taking off in a jetliner: Not even taking off in some time-traveled jetliner!

So you need to keep your descriptions consistent with the time and culture of your book, but otherwise, write for how modern people (including you) experience the world.


Learning the differences between the 3 major platforms for a story (Film, Theater, Prose) can help a writer understand what she should concentrate on when writing for a particular form.

A fantastic book which will explain these differences in far more depth than I can here is : The Playwright's Guidebook (Amazon). Even though you are writing a novel, I believe you'll find the explanations this book offers invaluable to your writing. Take a look at this overview diagram from that book and note that film is far more visceral and immediate and often built upon spectacle when compared to a novel (prose).

theater, novel, movie

Consider how that in a movie the viewer can never really know what the viewpoint character is thinking. There are, of course, exceptions to this where a voice-over is done, but film regularly eschews such a practice.

Film : Viewer Learns By Seeing Action

In the best films, nothing has to be explained. No one has to voice-over "Jack felt very bad." Instead we see Jack suffer the pain, fall to the ground and then be carried off by the ambulance.

Film: The Director, Directs The Viewer's Eye

In film, the director can zoom up on a specific element attempting to convince the watcher that this cup sitting on this table has importance to the over all story.

This is also an allusion to what Anton Chekhov so rightly said :

"If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there."

The Stage : Director Attempts to Direct Viewer's Eye The Stage, by its nature can be less forceful. The Stage is wide and the audience can look anywhere. If actors do something on one side of the stage the audience may not notice an entire drama playing out on the other. The Film director has total control (except for audience members who close their eyes purposely). However, the stage director has to focus on certain elements to draw the viewers eye to the important event.

Prose: Internalization - Good and Quite Terrible

Prose (The Novel) allows a writer to focus more on internalizations of characters. Finally this form allows the writer to go deep into what the character is thinking.
This is often the problem and it often occurs because... The novelist is thinking more about what she herself is thinking and feeling in the moment of writing than what her character is going through as the character goes through a scene. Suddenly, the novel becomes this exploration of how the writer feels. It's quite terrible to read books about characters who sit around doing nothing except contemplating their own lives all day.

Many Characters In Novels Are Writers

An example of this is how many characters in novels end up being writers themselves. It's a cliche. So what is the solution?

Why A ScreenWriter May Actually Write A Better Novel Than A Novelist

A Screenwriter, by nature, is going to think far more about the things she might film. This will produce a story that moves. This will produce a story where characters act out their actions on the page. Amateur novelists often don't know what parts to write. They get confused and fall into the pit of internalization.

Yes, this again is the old "Show Don't Tell" cliche. But the cliche is valid.

I don't want to know things like:

John felt sad.

When Prose Transforms To Images and Readers See It All Play Out

I want to see John and what he goes through on the movie-screen of my mind. I want the words to transform from words and into images that I can see playing out before me. That is the best form of prose of all.

Then, when I need some internalization to better understand the turmoil that John is going through I want a bit of that before he is again plunged into the action that is the story playing out.

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