Writing from TV to the Page

Over the years working as a TV writer/producer, a tidal wave of stories was building up inside me that had nothing to do with my work.  So, I turned to eBook and print formats.

Was I arrogant to think that the shift from screen to page would be easy?  I assumed that a story was a story whether it appeared on TV or the printed page.  Didn’t my experience and awards show I knew how to tell a story?

Maybe I wasn’t arrogant, just naïve.  I didn’t realize what I didn’t know.  There is a huge difference between telling a story on the page vs. a TV or movie screen.  I had to adjust.

Now that my first murder mystery is published, I can share what I’ve learned so far:

The structure is different.  Stories on the screen tend to focus on a small window in time.  Actions and reactions are fueled by an event or a place.  Think of the action-packed movie that is still a good adventure, “Die Hard”HH – all the action happens in a couple of hours.  The same is true with the new crop of “Star Trek” movies and most of your favorite TV shows.  Like anything else, there is an exception to this general rule and an excellent example is “Downton Abbey.”  The action shifts from the upstairs family characters to the downstairs servants to the war location and so on creating mini stories held together by the characters and the Big House.  But the exception proves the rule, the time in each case is basically the same.

The story presented on the page (electronic or paper) can take the reader through weeks, months, even years.  Lengthy flashbacks or detailed backstory can appear at any time with a three-star break or a change in font.

This major difference makes the writer look at the story differently.  When TIME is a controlling factor, I think it’s easier to make decisions about the story:  Does this event move the story along?  Does this extensive dialogue slow down the action?  Does this bit of backstory clarify the story or character relationships or does it bog down the flow?  All these questions are important even if you’re not doing a thriller.

When writing for the page, the writer has much more freedom… to expand the story or destroy it!

It might be easier to write for the page since you can include anything you want without the restraints of time, for example.  It’s also easier to create a morass that might drown you.  Sometimes, boundaries are helpful.  With almost complete freedom, it’s up to the writer to impose good strategies and make tough decisions.

But that’s not all I’ve learned so far.  I’ll share some other nuggets in another post next week..

Let me know if you’ve had an experience writing for both the screen and page.  I’d love to compare notes!



Writing from TV to the Page — 14 Comments

  1. I haven’t done a screen-to-page career shift, but I’ve certainly bogged a story down before! Even in a novel where you have time to explore character and backstory more, you still have to ask yourself if this scene or bit of dialogue moves the story along. And if it doesn’t, it gets cut. Doubly so for flashbacks and other backstory.

    Kudos to you for tackling something new and learning along the way. Looking forward to reading more!

    • Thanks for your comments, Jennifer. You are so right about edit, edit, edit. It’s a little easier writing for screen because time, for example, can force you to make those edits. I find for print, I can justify leaving in just about everything so my editor has to work extra hard!

  2. Interesting. I’ll look forward to the rest of this series.

    And Jennifer’s right about that backstory stuff. My editor cut 30,000 words of it on Forever Road and had me replace with with words that mattered. *head desk*

  3. 30,000 words!! Ouch! What a tough way to learn a lesson. Did you come up with any tricks to deal with backstory?

  4. Ooo…very interesting! I’ve never written for the screen, but Given how much I love writing dialogue, I think it would be fun to try! Looking forward to hearing more about your experience and checking out your murder mystery.

    • Loving dialogue is so important… plus giving the director just enough to inspire without taking away the job… plus visualizing the visual look plus… You know, whatever medium we write for, there are so many things to take into consideration. Take one of your own scenes and try translating to screen. It should be an interesting exercise!

  5. The screenwriting thing can affect us the other way, too. My hero and villain are doing similar things with radically different aims and attitudes, and I visualized the parallelism as a shot of hero working late into the night, cut to villain slaving away, cut to show each failing and starting over, to show that. It would be a few seconds on screen but I’m not sure I can do it in a couple paragraphs.

    • There’s no question that there advantages to letting the camera show what you’re trying to relate. Good Comment, keep working!

  6. I have heard that it is quite an adjustment going from screen-writing to writing a full length novel. I am a fairly new writer and have not attempted writing a screenplay. But I can imagine the transition you’ve had to make Susan. I really look forward to this series. Thank you. :)

  7. Great blog post. I think it works both ways. I’ve always wanted to write a screenplay and have had a number of people tell me that one of my books would make a great movie. Naturally, I thought about turning it into a screenplay myself and naively thought it meant simply removing the narrative so that there was nothing but dialogue. How hard could that be, right? So I tried it. Whipped out the screenplay program du jour, and removed all extraneous narrative. Wow. Didn’t take too long to realize how very hard it was, and how very wrong I was!

    • Oh, if it was only that simple, right? Which of your titles did you try?
      When I watch a movie or TV show with a really good script, I send vibes of appreciation to the writer… especially since that person is not always valued on the set during production.

      • I tried FATAL TRUTH (out of print at the moment), because it was tighter, higher action and had a higher concept than the others in that series. I always think “one day…” but realized there is sooo much for me to learn and the next book is always due, so back on the back burner it goes!

        • So many words, so many ideas, so little time! Don’t forget about it. Someday you might have the time and inclination to try something with it… and some producer might be interested.

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