Now I know, that this question could be tagged too broad or opinion based, and that it might even be closed down. But I have been struggling over this for quite some time now and I want to get an answer to it. Please read the entire question before taking any action.

So my question is -

What is difference between screenplay and novel?

I know that both might be completely different fields. I know that screenplay has some standard rules that are to be followed, and same applies for novel writing too. But say I have a story, a story with the main plot, all the characters and the story line. Now consider one starting from scratch, in both the fields.

So what suits better - progressing the story into a screenplay? Or developing it into a novel?

What I am looking for is brief differentiation between both. Any key points and links would be highly appreciated.


7 Answers 7


A screenplay is meant to be performed.

A novel is meant to be read.

(You can have an audio recording of a novel, but that's still someone reading it aloud, not a radio drama.)

A screenplay has stage directions. A novel has chunks of prose descriptions.

The difference is whether you intend for your story to be performed by one or more actors in front of an audience of one or more people to be experienced properly, or whether you intend for it to be read by one person.

  1. Novel is the final product. Screenplay is only a recipe for the final product (I am really only rephrasing Lauren Ipsum's answer here). Novel's author has to deliver everything, with all the descriptions, and the text should be ready for audience's appreciation. Screenplay's author leaves a lot of room for the director and actors to fill in. And a good screenplay, by the way, should be good for general public's reading, despite being "bare" compared to a novel.
  2. Literature and performing arts (namely theater, cinema and TV) have different ways of reaching to their audience. In every aspect, one is more powerful than the other, but it would be wrong to seek an overall winner here. Novel's author can get advantage using descriptions and narration. Also, novel's length tends to be longer than normally can fit into 2 or even 3 hour long performance. Performing arts, on the other hand, excel when they create visual and audio impression directly, where one picture can worth a thousand words. So, in a novel, an author can take liberty with description and narration, while for screenplay that has to be either left to director and actors, or special narrative instruments have to be used.
  3. While literature can create virtually anything, performing arts have practical limitations. Even with huge budgets, there are limits to what can seamlessly go to the screen. George R R Martin, for example, had a strong background in screenwriting, but when he set out to write "A Game of Thrones", he wanted to clearly break off with screenwriting traditions: "I said, 'I’m sick of this, I’m going to write something that’s as big as I want it to be, and it’s going to have a cast of characters that go into the thousands, and I’m going to have huge castles, and battles, and dragons.'" As we all know, his success with keeping away from the screen was only temporary :)
  4. Novel writer sells his work to a publisher, or directly to his readers. Screenplay author sells it to a studio or a theatrical producer. This affects not only his marketing, but his writing too.

Screenplays are rather short story, when you think about it. A typical screenplay is 120 pages double-spaced, and 25% dialogue and 50% action. That is 30 pages of dialogue, but the margins (2.9, 2.3) leave 3.3" space for the speech. So this is a total of about 15 minutes of speech in a two hour movie.

That isn't very much! The visuals of the film cover the rest, the music is awesome at "describing" emotions, so you don't need any of that. But fifteen minutes is not a lot of time to convey a very complex plot. Movies are good at portraying emotion and visual complexity and action, especially with special effects. Their plots are typically very simplistic and virtually predictable in their pacing to the fraction of a page.

Also, the movie business is much, much harder to break into than the book business. You have to be very good at pitching in person, at understanding the psychology of what film people are expecting you to do in each meeting, etc.

Neither a script or book sells itself, but a book can be read in its entirety before it is bought, it is easily tested to see if it is entertaining. Screenplays are not so easily tested and are a bigger gamble. They can't see the film before they buy it, too much depends on who acts it, how much money they will throw at it, etc.

Another way of looking at this is a film is a bet of millions to over a hundred million dollars. Modern book sales can be tested for $10K or so.

Studios rely very heavily on prior success, reputation, and the opinions of their social circle, making "breaking in" much more difficult, because the financial stakes are so much higher.

Yes, newbies do it, I'm just saying the odds of commercial success is likely better with a book, because for new authors it is the finished product the consumer would read, while a script is nowhere near that: For movie executives, it is like buying a house from a partial blueprint and paying 100% of the price before they ever see it.

  • 2
    An additional point, if the novel has some sort of commercial success, then higher the chances of it being adapted to film.
    – K Johnson
    Commented Mar 5, 2018 at 20:42
  • Ah, very well written @Amadeus
    – HardikT
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 2:31

Screenplays are collaborative, whether you like it or not.

Actors will say the lines. Directors will alter the tone. The photographer will create their own vision. And the producers will hire other screenwriters to "fix" your screenplay because they have spent a great deal of money and will hire more experts than they need. The star will have some demands. Characters will be combined or discarded because of shooting schedule. And the year your screenplay goes into production a certain special effect will be trendy and an extra scene is added to showcase it. the studio has decided the film needs a soundtrack album of vintage hits from their back catalog. And the entire story has been transposed to Vancouver for budget reasons.

A screenplay is not a stand-alone document, it is "spec" for more work in the industry. As the writer you will not have much control over the final product.

As a novel author you might be asked to make changes in a rewrite, but a screenplay is not realized until long after it leaves your hands and has been reinterpreted in hundreds of ways by everyone involved.


Stories with only one setting, or a very small number of settings that don't switch very often, are well-suited to screenplays, and more complex ones to novels. But it also comes down to what you as a writer would like to do and can do. For example, much of the joy from reading a novel comes from the way language bounces along in the narrative's descriptions. You'll also find it easier to choose between formats when you know how "long" the story is (which sadly is hard to judge before you begin writing). Roughly speaking, a screenplay has time for more than a film does, but not as much as a novel would.

  • Could you give some idea about the setting that you mentioned in the beginning of your answer?
    – HardikT
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 2:28
  • @HardikT In a novel, you can switch from one location to another as often and quickly as you like; in a play, you can only have a small number of sets and switching between them is hard, or you may even have just one. If you do have more than one, the switch tends to be thematic as much as it's plot-driven.
    – J.G.
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 8:38

Imagine it in terms of the types of stories you would tell your friends.

If it is a sequence of events go screenplay (had a crazy night last night, this happened then this happened then this happened leading to this conclusion - you are bringing someone on a visual journey that you had)

If the story is something more than a visual endeavour, go novel (had a crazy dream last night, felt like this, reminded me of this, smelled this - you are stimulating more than the visual/auditory parts of your brain - this word is used weird, it was like this time in history, what would that be like in the future. You have more brushes to paint your story with then with a screenplay where you are limited to audio and visual cues, in a novel you have all the cues that words can muster)

  • 3
    Which is why novel to movie adaptions can suck. If the novel wasn't written as a sequence of events but as feelings, observations, smells and philosophy, it is hard to translate it to purely audio/visual cues
    – zoplonix
    Commented Mar 6, 2018 at 8:49

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).

novel to screenplay

You can see many more details in my answer here at writing SE : How can a screenplay writer learn to write a novel?

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