The Difference Between Scripts and Novels — By Serita Stevens

Many people believe that a writer is a writer and that if you can do novels then you can write scripts, too.  Some people can, but most cannot.  Both need great stories, engaging characters and page-turning scenes, but the style, form and rules vary. The writer must understand the differences and know what you can and cannot do for books versus scripts.


Myth #1– Screenplays are easier to write than novels.  False.  If you are doing it right, it takes as long to develop the characters, the research and the plot and subplots with all the twists and turns required.

Myth #2 Writers of the books are paid handsomely for their rights.  Often False. (Several writers have refused to sell the rights to their books because they wanted those large amounts and the independent producers  – who you are mainly dealing with – seldom can afford this.) Many options these days, if not for free, are for the legal correctness of $1.  Even if you are given a few thousand dollars as an option, it is only against a purchase price, which may or may not be what you expect and might hamper what you receive later.

Myth #3 Hollywood is waiting for your book – False – This can be true but only if you can get the manuscript to the right people and it’s not easy to do.  They mainly want books that have been major sellers with great word of mouth and from authors that have a large social platform.  Studios these days are looking for major blockbusters and/or sequels.  Even having a top actor sign on will not guarantee a sale.

Myth #4 – Your work will be respected and you will able to make changes in the script.  You will get final approval of the story.  Usually  FALSE unless you already have a major following and have a great contract beforehand.  Even then…once you sell the rights, you are often pushed into the background.


Even if you do write the first (or 5th draft) of the script yourself and even if it is in the correct form, studios will want A-list writers who have sold millions for them already.  So the producer optioning your book has to hire a scriptwriter who might change your story (more than you want or like) or alter what you have written. Then they have to prepare loglines and sell it.  An option alone is not a guarantee of a sale.  Items are often optioned and then dropped several times before a final deal is made – if ever.    (I’ve experienced this many, many times.)

Obtaining the funds needed to produce the movie can be difficult especially if the story is historical or has expensive scenes as car chases, flight or sea action, battle scenes, crowd scenes, science fiction or other special effects.  Few book writers take into consideration what will sell overseas versus what sells domestically but it is the foreign market that often weighs heavy on the sale of a script.  This process can take not months but sometimes years.  Writers (myself included) get impatient even for those of us who are aware of the timeframes.


Things in Common

`              Both scripts and book need well-rounded characters with journeys and arcs that we want to follow. Good characterization is crucial for good structure.  The reader must care about the character and want to see/ read the rest of the story so an emotional connection is needed for the story to be successful.   Well-rounded means not all good and not all bad.  A character biography is needed for each – even the villain.

Characters should be introduced with action.   Physical description is not always necessary.

Stakes must be high.

Genre structure must be what the audience expects.  Understand the audience you are writing for.  If combining genres understand each and know which genre is primary not only for the writing but for the marketing.

Beginning must be exciting and establish the problem, hint at the stakes

Research must be authentic

Grammar and spelling must the correct at all times

Titles are crucial and must give a hint of the genre and entice the reader/viewer

Proper formatting for what you are doing is crucial for books, but especially scripts!

Be careful of overused words like shrug, looks, etc.  Write active, not passive.

Don’t talk down to your readers.

A rewrite is more than just a polish of a word here or there.  Don’t believe everything you write is gold!!  Be willing to change.

Understand how to write a synopsis /treatment.   Outlining helps for both.  Really, it does.

The first few pages are crucial – many readers, producers, editors these days do not read past page 10 and often can tell on the first page if you are a professional writer.



Things Different

Scripts                                                                                             Novels

99-110 pages As long as needed per publisher guidelines
Subtext is crucial Words can be more direct, but subtext important
One main point of view for audience to follow Can have several point of views. Even multi POV and antagonist.
Flashbacks and voice over discouraged Flashbacks can work if placed properly and limited
It’s a team sport -notes come from all. Know how to take and understand them. Notes are mainly from your agent or editor
Dialogue should be no more than five lines Dialogue can be longer but – within reason
White space is crucial White space if nice but not as necessary
Less is more – no wasted words – very succinct.  Use proper specifics but leave the stage dressing to designers How do you show things?  Can describe rooms, clothing, etc at length (to a point)  Can educate the reader but limited. More description ok including thoughts and feelings.
Simplify characters – combine them; hop over obstacles. Condense time for more suspense As many characters as needed. Time extensions ok but be clear with time shift.
Budget is important – think about scenes as locations, number of characters, car chases, use of animals, special effects. Historicals hard to sell. Can have as many special effects or sci fi as you want.  Time lapse is fine as long as well explained.
Special formatting programs like Movie Magic or Final Draft preferred. Understand script formatting Can be done on any computer program – double spaced and indented with page numbers.
Attitude of character is more important than physical appearance. Physical appearance helps but attitude and action are important here, as well.
Preferred if you are physically available for meetings but Skype can work at times. Network as much as you can – Hollywood is a relationship industry.  Join various groups – as Women In Film, Stage32, WGA, Women Helping Women, Hollywood Networking, Breaking Into Hollywood, Roadmap You can isolate and write where ever you are.  Attending conferences and belonging to genre groups helps to meet editors, etc.
Agents don’t necessarily sell your work unless you are already a big money maker for them.  There are several sites where you can list your scripts and pitch directly to execs.  Managers more helpful to guide you. Agents do sell your work and most publishing houses will not look at material without them.  Self publishing difficult and still not regarded as professional.  Managers are not always needed.
No fancy covers or presentations Plain format preferred but you can spice up cover
No need for parentheticals usually. Actors should understand the lines through the narrative Okay to direct the character’s emotions.  Reader should experience emotions
Know the 3 (or 6) Act structure Act structure is looser in books
Have a one-two sentence log line A short pitch helps but is not as required
Read industry trades and know what is selling now. It probably won’t be popular by the time you finish your script Understand what is selling. Read Publisher’s Weekly (available on line.) Genres go in cycles




The author of The Ultimate Writers Workbook For Books and Scripts – Motivational Press  which is available at, Amazon, Barnes and Noble and well as regular book stores, I’ve written books, scripts, adaptations in almost every genre – usually whatever my agent gets me.  I’ve taught writing at a variety of universities, colleges and conferences.   As a forensic nurse, I often help writers with their poison, medical, forensic, and investigative questions for their scenes.

My IMDB  is Serita D Stevens.   For questions, I can be reached at


One thought on “The Difference Between Scripts and Novels — By Serita Stevens

  1. Wow, great information! Thanks for the reality check.

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