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Around a decade ago, I had a dream. An actual middle of the night dream. An entire movie played in my head, all I had to do was write it down. I did a fair bit of research on the topic then I spent the next 10 years working it out in my head but not writing much of anything down.

Last year, I joined a writer's group and began the arduous task of writing a screenplay. I have no idea how to write a screenplay.

One of the other members of the group has actually written screenplays and had them produced. Her advice to me was: don't.

If you write a screenplay, she told me, best case scenario is a production company buys it and makes it into a movie. But when they buy it, the first thing they do is fire the writer. Suddenly, it's not yours anymore. They'll rewrite it and you'll never see a dime (or credit) beyond the initial payment.

But, if you write a book, no one can take that away from you. With luck, it will become a movie, and they will hire someone who knows the form to write the screenplay. You will always have credit and royalties. The story will belong to you forever.

Now I'm more than halfway through a novel and very happy with it. Maybe it will be a published book and then a movie someday.

My question is: How sound is this advice? Is it folly to write an original screenplay? Is adapting the movie in your head into a book the better choice?


Notes: I am aware of questions similar to mine (Should I be a Novel Writer or a Screenwriter? and Screenplay vs Novel) but they're more about career paths and how to choose which medium suits the story best. That's why I focused my question on the publishing issues involved in the choice, something the other questions didn't address (even if a few answers spoke of it).

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    @wetcircuit I looked extensively for dups before posting and did see both of those. The second is about one's career path. The first is closer to being like my question but more about which suits the story better. That's why I focused my question on the publishing issues involved in the choice. – Cyn Feb 21 at 15:09
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    Interesting question, thanks! I've found that the best defense against duplicate nominations that you disagree with is to address in the question -- "I'm aware of (link) but my question is different because...". – Monica Cellio Feb 21 at 15:34
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    Thanks @MonicaCellio I edited my post as you suggested. I have to say, I disagree with the one that got closed as a dup of the other; they're different questions from each other (and from mine). – Cyn Feb 21 at 15:39
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    If you want to create movies, you want to direct, not necessarily write. You might want to write and direct, but the director is the one who determines more about how the final movie comes out than anyone else. Producers also often have a lot of say in how the movie comes out. – Todd Wilcox Feb 21 at 15:39
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Screenplays are also very difficult to sell, for a first-timer. Books are quite a bit easier. Unlike a screenplay, a book is in its final form, and relatively easy to produce, big publishers can do it cheap, in the single-digit thousands, and have the contacts to get it reviewed and advertised.

Screenplays can cost tens of millions to produce, they are a huge investment involving many dozens of creative artists and other story tellers, and they are incomplete. It is difficult to sell screenplays because the investment is so high, and studios can't produce a hundred new films a year, there isn't that much money. They have to be very selective.

Publishers don't. They are selective, but the financial bar is much lower, 90% of the work (writing) is already done, and they really can afford to push out a few hundred new books a year.

Start with the book. If you write "cinematically" (keeping in mind that movie viewers cannot read any text of internal thoughts or description, they can only see and hear), and sell enough copies to prove you have written a good story, then a movie studio might pick it up. Sell the book through an agent. If you can't get an agent, your story is not good enough! It has to be a good book before it can be a movie.

An agent is thinking of all rights to your story from the start, she will make sure you don't fall into any traps and lose your rights, or your influence, or whatever it is you want to keep. She only gets 15% of what YOU get, so she is focused on making sure you get the most money possible out of your work, and she is a professional negotiator that knows the ropes of the entertainment industry, including movie rights and what all the contract clauses mean.

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    "If you can't get an agent, your story is not good enough!" Such an important concept. – Todd Wilcox Feb 21 at 15:41
  • Perhaps a better way of putting it is: "If you can't get an agent, your story is not polished enough." Hire a professional editor (not cheap). If after it is edited you can't get an agent, then it is likely the story is not good enough. – Paul Chernoch Feb 22 at 15:10
  • @PaulChernoch A story is the entirety of what you are selling. lack of polish, lack of imagination, lack of imagery, lack of plausibilty, whatever. It is either good enough to sell, or it isn't, I see no reason to sub-divide or list the myriad reasons an agent might reject a story for not being good enough. – Amadeus Feb 22 at 15:21
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    Very true. Though agents and publishers reject stories for all sorts of reasons. Including that it's just not a good fit or they already have several of that genre/style. Sometimes you don't get an agent (or publisher) because you haven't submitted your work to enough of them. Though, after a while, especially if you're not getting anyone asking to see more of the work, it's a sign. – Cyn Feb 24 at 6:29
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    @Cyn AND it can be your query letter, that opens "I've written a fiction novel." An agent says she has seen that one multiple times! The query letter is her first impression of the author's writing skill, and when she has to reject twenty out of twenty on most days, bad writing in the query letter is enough of a signal to stop the effort there. But agent's websites, and sites like MSWL (Manuscript Wish List), tell you what they want and if they are seeking new clients or not. We shouldn't be spamming agents blindly. – Amadeus Feb 24 at 11:52
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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.

And then there is editing. And test marketing.

A screenplay is not a stand-alone document. screenplays aren't an "end in themselves" the way a novel is (comment: BruceWayne). A screenplay is really "spec" for more work in the industry, writing and fixing screenplays. 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.

You can pay to self-publish and you have a book. It will cost a lot of money to produce your screenplay.

  • The amount of control you personally have over the final product largely depends on the size of the budget given to you. – Dan M. Feb 21 at 17:05
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    The screenwriter is usually not on set, and cannot control the actors or the direction. Films are also given to an editor which can also change the nature of the final film. Authorial-control contracts like the kind E L James had with the 50 Shades sequels are extremely unusual. – wetcircuit Feb 21 at 17:34
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    Also, in a way could you say that screenplays aren't an "end in themselves" the way a novel is? I assume 99% of the time the end goal of a screenplay is to ...well, put it on screen. The screenplay is more of a guide for a director/etc – BruceWayne Feb 23 at 1:10
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Don't forget that nobody (except perhaps students on a film-making or screenplay-writing courses) ever reads screenplays, even those of classic famous movies. Write one by all means if you feel compelled to, but most likely the only person who will ever see it is you - unless someone else makes it into a movie.

As other answers have said, movies are a collaborative art form. Your screen play will just be the "basic idea" for what emerges at the end of the movie making process.

The same is true for writing stage plays, though maybe not quite to the same extent. But don't forget that even Shakespeare gets rewritten in modern productions. Scenes are cut, the order of other scenes is rearranged, somebody thinks it will be more "relevant for a modern audience" if Ophelia is black and Othello is white, or if Hamlet is female …

If you don't want else anyone to mess with your text, stick to writing books!

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    Yep, exactly. Even if my book ends up going absolutely nowhere, I bet I can get a few dozen friends and family members to read it. No one except my spouse would ever read a screenplay. – Cyn Feb 21 at 15:55
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I'm gonna answer to the question in the title:

Ultimately it's up to you. They are different media.

Your friend must be right on some level.

I too have the habit to imagine my stories as movies (and I suppose it's not uncommon at all). Sometimes is painstalkingly difficult to portray with words what could be done with a good placed camera shot; writing is not a visual art after all. A good movie or even a good comic can impress the audience in a more immediate way; after all we relay a lot on our sight in our daily lives and as they say, a picture is worth a thousand words. Don't take me wrong - the written word still has its own merits and advantages, but this goes a little over the scope of the question.

The point about screenwriting is that, as you noted, it gets the story mostly out of your control. Let's say you write a really good screenplay and a company buys it. Let's say that you get activetly involved on the whole process of movie-making (rather than shoved aside). Even then, you won't be the only one responsible for the final product. The screenwriter is not the director, in most cases; and even if you get to the point of directing your own film - unlikely for the first screenplay - there is a whole deal of people involved in the production and a whole lot of compromises to be made, from casting choices to business-related reasons, from the photography to the acting performance.

So it's true that becoming a skilled writer lets you keep the whole story into your own hands. No one else is involved in your book but you (apart from editors, of course; but I'd argue that a good editor can make your story better without altering your vision). If you get famous, if your book sells, it might one day become a movie; play your cards right and you could be one of the authors actively involved in the production. Of course, the same problems as above will apply, but maybe you'll be able to bargain a better deal if you have the higher ground of a strong sale record.

Then again, you should think about what your goal is.

What's more important? Telling a story, or making a movie? If it's the latter, try to get involved in movie making - it's the fastest route and it makes more sense. No point in taking an huge detour if that's what's your heart aches for. Your first screenplay won't get 100% right as you wanted it, and so for your second and third, but that's the same for everyone. And you'd be making movies.

But if you want to tell your story, as close as possible as you imagined it, and the visual representation would just be a nice collateral thing to have, you should write it down. Keep in mind that both ways will require sacrifices and compromises of some sort; it's up to you to choose.

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    You know, for years I was convinced that this work could never be anything but a movie. I considered novel, graphic novel, play, etc, but nothing else fit. And part of why I didn't write it down was because I was frozen by not knowing screenwriting format (which is stupid because I could always translate it later or pay someone else to, but it stopped me all the same). Once I accepted that it needed to be a novel, and got a few chapters in, I can't imagine it not being a novel (though I still want it to be a movie too). – Cyn Feb 21 at 15:15
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    P.S. "Media" is already plural. :-) – Cyn Feb 21 at 15:41
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    @Cyn. I feel you there. Also, thanks for the tip. – Liquid Feb 21 at 16:16
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Technology has potentially impacted this answer within the last 10 years. It's possible now to film a feature-quality film on a smartphone, which dramatically lowers the costs of making an indie film. Even so, making a movie is inevitably an expensive, time-consuming process involving multiple collaborators, and a host of uncontrollable variables.

You were given good general advice. That's not to say it couldn't have worked out to start with a screenplay. But your friend was correct that you have a LOT more command of the final product with a novel. The missing information here is what kind of writing do you most enjoy doing? And/or what are you good at writing? Screenwriting and novel writing are very different. If you enjoy writing novels, and are good at it, then your friend did you a huge favor. If your true love is writing for the screen, however, then it might not make as much sense to go the long way around. For instance, I've come to realize that, while writing books makes "more sense," in a general way, my own existing strengths (plot, dialogue, characters) and weaknesses (descriptive passages) match up better with screenplays.

It's inevitably a long, tough, journeyman's journey to become a successful writer, no matter which path you choose, so you may want to orient yourself towards your final goal, no matter what that is. But there's nothing that says you can't work on your novel and your screenplay simultaneously. Just remember they are different forms, and the same concept might be very different depending on the medium in which it's realized. The best adaptations have the flavor of the original, not the specifics.

  • I enjoy writing prose. This isn't the first novel I've started, but it's the first I know I will finish. I'm loving it. For all my resistance to doing it this way, now I can't imagine it not being a novel (first). – Cyn Feb 21 at 16:11
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    @Cyn - Don't forget that a novel also has a lot more room in it --for internal thoughts, for subplots, for context --and a host of other things that movies don't necessarily have time for. // BTW I'd love to hear more about your actual project. I have a special love for work that comes out of dreams. // Also, FWIW, screenplay format is easy to learn and use. You could master it in an hour. Which does suggest that maybe that was never really the issue at all... :o – Chris Sunami Feb 21 at 16:17
  • Yes, the extra room is great. At first I was writing with an observational narrator and no inner thoughts and little description (because it was going into illustrations), but I've changed that and am now writing a real novel. I tried mastering the screenwriting format and got the basics okay, but it felt like writing with my left hand when I'm right handed. As for my novel...I've spoken of it here and there but I've also left a lot of answers. I'd be happy to tell you more in chat sometime. – Cyn Feb 21 at 17:19
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    @Cyn That's a good sign that you're writing in the right medium for you at this time. :) My email is my profile if you'd prefer not to post stuff too publicly. // I actually also have a dream-based narrative I've been trying to put out into the world for a long time --I haven't found the right medium for it yet though... – Chris Sunami Feb 21 at 18:26
  • Email sent. :-) – Cyn Feb 21 at 18:31
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I agree with all the other answers so far, but let me take a different perspective on the whole thing. If you wish, read this answer as a frame challenge.

You say "there's a movie in your head". What do you mean? Is it really a movie - does it fit into ~2 hours, do you see each frame and how it's shot, do you see the special effects and how they're done, do you have specific actors in mind?

Or is it just that you see every scene in vivid colour, full surround, like you're standing there?

If the first option is your case, I can see why writing a book rather than a screenplay would feel like you're not doing what you "want" to do, but "translating" your vision to a different medium, as it where. Maybe, if this burns in your bones, you'd want to accept the risks and disadvantages, and do the screenplay anyway. Get to know people in the industry, and follow your dream. (You might want to look at options like indie productions and animated films, as a way to mitigate the complexities of trying to move forwards with a screenplay.)

But if it's just that you see your story with the eyes and ears of your mind, it's not really a movie. It's just how you see the story. (And yes, the way we think of stories, and the way we dream, are both influenced by movies, as a matter of fact. For a while, when TV was black-and-white, people used to dream in black-and-white.) Since what you have in your mind is a story, go ahead and tell it. Tell it however you feel you can best tell it, however you would most enjoy telling it, however would let you tell it in a way that does most justice to the images in your mind. It could be a novel, it could be a graphic novel, it could be an epic poem - whatever medium is "yours", use that.

  • It really was option #1. I saw the scenes clearly, I imagined the actors, I considered special effects (but made myself put that aside since I don't know enough about that aspect), I even know who I want to do the soundtrack. I also outlined it to fit into the 1.5-2 hour movie time (it's for kids). I've never had such a strong vision before. Let alone a dream I remembered in that detail for 10 years. – Cyn Feb 21 at 15:29
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    I was so hesitant to let go of the dream of it being a movie that I decided to make it an illustrated book (not a graphic novel) with 1-2 full page pictures in every (short) chapter plus a few other drawings here and there. Think goodreads.com/book/show/9673436-the-invention-of-hugo-cabret My first few chapters are almost all dialogue with descriptions of what I want the illustrations to look like. I even have the artist at the ready. Now I'm just doing a regular novel, but may still have some illustrations, we'll see. It was a complex transition. – Cyn Feb 21 at 15:32
  • @Cyn in that case, maybe the logical arguments of why not to do a screenplay matter less. Are there people who would collaborate with you on making it an indie movie? Then the screenplay wouldn't go out of your hands and into those of a big company. Look at projects like en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Gamers_(film) – Galastel Feb 21 at 15:36
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    I have a family member who is trying to break into indie filmmaking. If I go that route, he's my first choice. I have to say, I'm really happy with it being a novel now. It's a lot more likely to get seen that way and it can always become a movie later. – Cyn Feb 21 at 15:41
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In another forum I've actually recommended to writers that they write the novel and the screenplay in parallel, even if you only intend to publish the novel. Writing the screen adaptation for a novel can expose weaknesses in the novel.

For instance, writers are constantly told "show, don't tell", because in the novel format it is depressingly easy (and common) to violate this admonition, and the failure to follow it generally results in weak prose. If you have told something to the readers instead of having shown it to them, when you write the screen play you will find it very difficult to depict the events in dialog and action. In such a case, you have to choose some other dialog and action that will advance the story (ie., raise the conflicts or develop the characters) in the way that you had intended in the same section of the novel. You can then turn that into prose and put it in place of the weak section of the novel.

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    This sounds like a great idea for teaching writing. For a short story perhaps. I'll say that a large part of the reason I took 10 years from idea/outline/research to putting words on the page was because I was paralyzed from the screenplay formatting. Even now that I feel more confident about this project, the idea of translating to a script it as I write is rather overwhelming. I do read my book outloud though, which helps a lot. And I bet if I took your writing class, I'd feel that scripting was easy. :-) (Of course I do imagine the movie while I write) – Cyn Feb 23 at 15:56
  • I don't teach a writing class. The other forum I referred to was a writer's group on minds.com (where I post under a different handle). – EvilSnack Feb 23 at 16:46
  • I figured you probably didn't teach, but it's still a great idea for teaching a writing class. – Cyn Feb 23 at 16:51
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Star Wars

The novelization of the first (released) film was actually released before the movie. Others have already discussed the theory behind why this worked. But the point that I wanted to make was that this is a proven path. Star Wars was one of the most popular movies of all time. And what's first on that particular list? Gone with the Wind -- another novel turned movie.

Were Star Wars and Gone with the Wind flukes? Another example would be Stephen King who has forty-two movies made from his work. Almost entirely book then movie. Part of this is of course that King paints intense visuals with words.

If you are already more comfortable writing in prose than the screenplay format, then that just strengthens this argument. Write the novelization of the movie in your head, as George Lucas had Alan Dean Foster do. Then use that to get whatever help you need writing the screenplay. The story can still be a movie. Just write the book of the movie.

TL;DR: Write the book first because that is a proven way of getting a movie made.

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