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I've been studying writing for several years, and I feel fairly confident in my ability to write a novel. Before I take the plunge and go for it though, I was curious about a slightly different path: screenwriting.

I've never really looked into screenwriting at all, but as I get closer to talking to publishers, I've found myself thinking that screenwriting might be a better option. From my limited research, it seems that screenwriters make quite a bit more money than novel writers (unless you're wildly successful I suppose). The main thing for me though would be the fact that (assuming you are any good) your audience will probably be bigger. I have no evidence for this, but it's my assumption that in general, more people watch movies/TV shows than they read books, in this day.

As a result I'm wondering how hard it would be to transition from novel writing to screenwriting. They are obviously very different, but they both have the same story principles at the core (as far as I know). How hard is it to transition from novel writing to screen writing? A detail of what I would have to learn/do would be appreciated.

Note: I'm open to opinions following the lines of 'you should never screenwrite!' or 'you should never novel write!' or something similar. However, please back these up with reasons (your own opinions are fine), and please put them in a comment. If you put them in an answer, please make sure you answer the question first.

Further Note: This question is not a duplicate of this or this. Both of those questions deal more with the differences between screenwriting and novel writing, and not actually transitioning from one to the other.

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I think transitioning to screenwriting is quite difficult, and it is considerably MORE difficult to break into than novel writing. The competition is greater, the "need to be an insider" angle is very prominent in screenwriting in order to get to pitch, which is its own acting art form to learn. The decision makers rely heavily on personal contacts and recommendations. Also the timing and terminology of screenwriting is extremely specific, literally down to the fraction of a page, especially for newbie authors.

It is also difficult to get used to the collaboration angle; the director decides many things you do not, and should not. The same goes for actors: They have a say, with the director, in portraying character emotions, stressing their words, etc. They may even revise the lines you wrote, the director may cut scenes you wrote, move things around in your plot, change your settings. You have to leave that leeway for them to explore.

I think the easiest way to get into screenwriting is to write a novel and get it published. Big sales or not. Write a good movie candidate (visual, sensory, action) that can be easily adapted to the screen, a novel you could easily see being a movie, and even being better as a movie.

This is more difficult if the novel has a lot of non-visual "mental" things going on, private emotions, introspection, thinking through problems, etc. A common complaint of directors (that write about screenwriting) is authors putting unfilmable or vague instructions in the screenplay: If you can't see it or hear it, it shouldn't be in there.

Write a short novel length story with the hope it will get optioned as a screenplay (and with an agent that knows how to negotiate that).

The movie will basically strip ALL your world-building and setting description (converted to visual images); and ALL your descriptions of people, emotions, reactions, movements and sounds and smells. These will be either visual shots, or 'telling' shorthand instead of 'showing': Often it is the screenplay writer's job to 'tell' in plain language the director and actors what to 'show'. [e.g. "it stinks."].

So make sure your plot and characters are solid. What you describe in the novel is the movie you see in your mind's eye. Let a pro pay you for that story and convert it into a screenplay.

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To transition to screenwriter from a novelist you need to:

  • Master screenplay format, which is very strict and standardized
  • Learn to approach writing as a collaboration, not a solo activity. You may still write your screenplay alone, but it will not be a movie without the additional work of up to thousands of other people (for a big blockbuster).
  • Focus more on dialog and plot, and learn to do without the work done by the richness of your descriptive prose.

With all that said, I would heavily question your opening assumption, which seems to be that screenwriting is an intrinsically easier and more lucrative career than novelist. A movie is MUCH more expensive and labor-intensive to produce than a book. Furthermore, as a novelist, you can complete a book alone, even if no one publishes it. But it takes a whole team of people to create a movie (unless you are filming yourself on your iPhone). Therefore there are a lot more novels published than movies made, which in turn means that there are fewer successful screenwriters than successful novelists.

Yes, you'll make a huge amount of money --if you successfully sell a Hollywood blockbuster screenplay (sometimes, even if they don't actually ever film it). But if your film is a quiet indie short, you might not make any money from it at all. And where a novelist can live and work anywhere, an unknown Hollywood screenwriting hopeful is likely going to need to live in LA and work the face-to-face social networks.

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