Monday, August 29, 2016
TIPS ON WRITING NOVELS VERSUS SCREENPLAYS with William Burke
TIPS ON WRITING NOVELS VERSUS SCREENPLAYS
Over the years I’ve had the opportunity to write documentaries, dramatic teleplays and screenplays, but recently I transitioned to writing novels. A lot of people consider screenplays the pinnacle of the modern writer’s art, but personally I’ll take novel writing over screenwriting any day.
Ironically my book VOODOO CHILD, BOOK ONE: ZOMBIE UPRISING began life as a potential television series. Unfortunately the television world didn’t share my enthusiasm for that project. But seeing its potential, I adapted it into a novel. During the shift from script to novel the concept changed radically and I think the changes were improvements, and I am proud of the results. That transition combined with past experience enhanced my perspective on the differences between screenplays and novels.
I thought it would be fun to give a quick rundown of three unique differences between novels and screenplays- description, character development and budget. This is just a short and sweet overview, not an in depth study.
On a technical level a novel runs about 60,000-95,000 words whereas a screenplay is only about 25,000 words. Does that mean a screenplay is shorter and easier to write? No! It just means that every word in a screenplay must possess enormous force and power. Think of a novel as a baseball game- a long dramatic confrontation fraught with exciting moments, surprises and mounting suspense watched by a massive crowd of cheering fans. In contrast screenplays are a short, brutal triathlon of unrelenting story, character and action viewed by stern, merciless judges. So, on that cheerful note…
A novel is designed for mass consumption, providing readers with an entertaining and thought provoking experience (although I’m rarely accused of the later). To enhance that experience you create detailed descriptions of paintings, furniture and any other details that define the world of your book. This works because readers want some of that Raymond Chandler-esque verbal poetry, or Stephen King’s keen everyman identification.
On the other hand a screenplay will only be read by a few select people who’s sole job is to vet the material, judging if it’s worth pursuing- and that’s if you’re lucky. Sometimes only one low-level employee will read your hard work. That person will in turn write “coverage” – a short descriptive form that will decide its fate. You not only have to write a compelling story but also ensure that this cadre of professionals quickly the potential. By quickly I mean the end of page one. This requires a different tactic from the novel. You must provide a few critical details in terse, razor sharp descriptions. You only have one shot at that script reader, producer or agent, and they aren’t interested in your flowery prose – just get to the point.
Doug Brode is an excellent screenwriter and a real ace at this. In his screenplay Beyond Babylon he creates a futuristic world in a few short sentences.
A future utopia, styled after 1920’s ART DECO ARCHITECTURE. Healthy WOMEN wear flapper dresses, while fit MEN sport suspenders and fedoras. Even the hi-tech CARS have a faint resemblance to the Ford’s of our distant past. Above, HUGE GLASS TOWERS adorned with GLEAMING STATUES OF ANGELS; their eyes are ELECTRONIC CAMERAS - always watching. Fritz Lang’s Metropolis meets The Bible.
Doug doesn’t dick around, he hits the ground hard and keeps moving. His machine gun prose ensures that a professional script reader won’t start hitting his mental fast forward button, because once they do that you’ve lost them.
The old adage Show don’t tell certainly applies to books but it’s absolutely critical to screenplays. In a novel you can step inside your characters heads and explore their thoughts and experiences past and present. In a screenplay you’re limited to what the character sees, hears or says, so defining them and their story becomes a test of your ingenuity.
Let’s say your lead character is a retiring cop returning home from his last day on the force. In a novel you could explore his inner thoughts as he transitions into civilian life. But in a screenplay you don’t have that luxury. So how do you express his state of mind? Well, if he returns home and carefully places his collection of medals, plaques and other honors on the mantle that says a lot about him. In contrast, if he takes those items and shoves them into a closet to be forgotten that takes the character in a very different direction. There can even be dialogue relating to another aspect of the plot while he performs these simple yet emotionally revealing actions. Most importantly you’ve gotten us inside the character’s head visually, without laboring the point. Hey, I didn’t say it was a brilliant example. I’m just making a point.
Another note- you’re often required to submit a synopsis (the dreaded one-pager) and character breakdown with your screenplay. The character breakdown should be short; a few sentences at the most. The subtle nuances of your character must be organic to the screenplay and cannot require supplemental reading.
This one is easy. If you submit a first time screenplay that’s packed with fifty million dollars worth of CGI effects it won’t sell. The financial risks at that budget level are just too high to gamble on a first time screenwriter. Hollywood has a bunch of folks that already write those, and do them fairly well. An exception would be The Martian, but that project began its life as a self-published novel that eventually gained a huge following.
But here’s the good part for all you novelists – unlike a screenwriter you don’t have a budget to worry about. Once that sank into my thick skull the scope of Voodoo Child expanded and became a pretty wild ride. I didn't feel the need to add giant robots and other mindless spectacle but I did have some genuine fun.
These differences may seem simple, but they are a major part of what a script reader is looking for versus what a fiction publisher, or your beloved readers find appealing.
There are rare times when a novel and screenplay are almost identical. The Bogart classic The Maltese Falcon is almost a transcription of Dashiell Hammett’s novel (excluding the gay subtext). Likewise The Friends of Eddie Coyle (the BEST movie you’ve never seen) is an almost reverent adaptation of George V. Higgins book. This works because Higgins and Hammett are concise writers. In the novel Friends of Eddie Coyle Higgin’s entire physical description of main character Frankie Knuckles (later played by Robert Mitchum) is “He was stocky.” But over the next three hundred pages, or in the case of the film, one hundred minutes, that stocky guy became one of the most fascinating and tragic characters imaginable.
I think my preference for novel writing stems from one simple concept; we do this to tell stories- not to write stories. Sharing our ideas with readers is the real payoff. Even if your eBook only reaches a few hundred sets of eyes isn’t that more satisfying than a cursory glance from some overworked script reader? At least that’s my opinion. Above all, write what you love because there’s a pretty good chance someone else will love it to- and that’s kind of awesome.
I hope you enjoyed this little comparison and please check out my book VOODOO CHILD, BOOK ONE: ZOMBIE UPRISING, available on Amazon.
Genre: Horror/paranormal with Action/adventure
Publisher: William Burke
Date of Publication: June 17th 2016
Number of pages: 333
Word Count: 96,000
Cover Artist: Deranged Doctor
The forces of darkness are out to destroy mankind… Too bad they never reckoned on facing Maggie Child!
Army chopper pilot Maggie Child has a reputation for being fearless, professional and, above all, rational. But when she's shot down over Iraq her well-ordered life spirals into a paranormal nightmare. Alone, wounded and surrounded by hostile forces, Maggie is rescued from certain death by a demon straight out of Dante's Inferno. Then, barely alive, she's abducted by a private military corporation conducting insidious medical experiments. Her escape from their covert hellhole lands her on a Caribbean island where an evil voodoo spirit and a psychotic female dictator are conspiring to unleash an apocalyptic zombie plague. Then she uncovers the most terrifying secret of all—her own destiny. It seems a Voodoo oracle has ordained her the only warrior capable of saving humanity from a supernatural Armageddon … whether she wants the job or not!
But saving the world isn't a one-woman job, so she teams up with a trio of unlikely heroes—a conspiracy obsessed marijuana smuggler, a Voodoo priestess with an appetite for reality television, and a burnt out ex-mercenary. Together, they'll take on an army of the walking dead, with the fate of humanity resting in their eccentric hands.
Voodoo Child, Book One: Zombie Uprising is the first novel in a new horror series packed with supernatural thrills, rousing adventure, dark humor, Voodoo lore and plenty of zombie stomping action. But a word of warning; don't shoot these zombies in the head … because that just makes them mad!
It's the legions of hell versus Maggie Child … and hell doesn't have a prayer!
Book Trailer: https://youtu.be/yPfVbgm-1XY
Isle De Fantomas was a nation born in blood and forged in suffering. Its citizens were the descendents of slaves who, after generations in bondage, had broken their chains. These slaves, who had never known mercy, showed none to their masters. On the first night of the rebellion their scythes and cane machetes slaughtered half the slave-owning colonists; the remaining half were less fortunate.
For a brief moment the long-suffering people of Fantomas were free; but from that newfound freedom sprang even more brutal masters. For two centuries Fantomas endured an endless cycle of homegrown tyrants lusting for power. The latest of these despots, General Manuel Ortiz, followed the violent traditions of his predecessors, filling the island's cemeteries with innocent victims.
Though countless lives were lost, the human spirit endured, fueled by the people's unwavering faith in Voodoo. The citizens of Fantomas clung to their beliefs, knowing that someday the Voodoo spirits would crush their oppressors and set their children free.
Despite two centuries of bloodshed, the jungles of Fantomas remained lush and primordial; unchanged since the dawn of time. But tonight the sleeping parrots were awakened by brush rustling beneath their roosts, and they sang out a warning; men had invaded their domain.
Six armed soldiers crept through the jungle. Swarms of fruit bats circled overhead, following their path, gorging on the insects they disturbed. A bat swooped down to snatch a dragonfly hovering in front of the last man. As he slapped frantically at the invader, the startled soldier's foot landed on a dry branch; the cracking wood echoed through the jungle like a gunshot.
Their leader, Lieutenant Miguel Ortiz, spun around and glared at the man. "Quiet, you idiot!"
The soldier stood frozen under the lieutenant's stare until Ortiz turned and continued moving forward. The men followed him cautiously, fearing their commander more than any enemy.
Lieutenant Ortiz hated the jungle. To him it was a steaming, mosquito-laden nightmare of tangled brush and poisonous snakes. But despite the discomforts, Miguel loved his job as commander of the island's Special Operations Team, an elite military unit the locals referred to in hushed tones as Escuadrón de la Muerte—The Death Squad.
Fantomas' supreme dictator, General Manuel Ortiz, had handpicked each man, entrusting them with eliminating anyone who opposed his regime. Miguel was chosen as commander in part because the general was his uncle, but it was a job he was truly born to hold. After a childhood measured in escalating acts of sadism, Miguel seemed destined for the hangman's noose. But all that changed a year ago when his uncle assumed power after a bloody military coups d'état. With Manuel recognizing his nephew's rare talent for brutality, Miguel instantly rose from being just another violent felon to a vital arm of national security.
Since then he'd hunted and killed dozens of potentially dangerous opponents to his uncle's regime. The fact that most were unarmed peasants or intellectuals only added to Miguel's job satisfaction.
His trained ear was attuned to the endless din of insects when he distinctly heard coughing in the distance. He gestured for his men to halt. Slipping on a pair of night vision goggles he studied the trail ahead but saw no one. He heard it again, like a man sneezing, quickly followed by another. Following the sound he looked up into the trees. A troop of Mona Monkeys stared down at him, their tufts of white facial hair giving them the appearance of angry old men. The sneezing sound was their warning call to other monkeys. Miguel fought the impulse to shoot them for fun. Instead he knelt down, allowing his men a moment to drink from their canteens.
His second in command, Corporal Sosa, crept forward. In hushed tones he said, "Sir, the men are nervous. We're killing a Voodoo priestess tonight and they're afraid of the spiritual consequences."
Miguel resisted the urge to strangle Sosa. "Trust me, if there's such a thing as spiritual consequences we're already going to Hell, so stop worrying." He glanced back at his men, sensing their tension. He hoped when the time came their natural bloodlust would overcome any fear, but he knew a little added incentive wouldn't hurt. "Remind them we are on a personal mission for General Ortiz, and he will probably give us each a generous bonus."
Corporal Sosa's innate greed won over any concerns. "They will be happy to hear that," he said and scuttled back to the men.
The men's fear of the priestess disgusted Miguel. To him Voodoo was the kind of superstitious horseshit that personified the old Fantomas; an impoverished land full of ignorant peasants and stinking manure. Miguel proudly embraced the modern world of social progress. To him progress meant snorting cocaine off the dashboard of his pearl white Escalade while listening to deafening rap music. Miguel was looking forward to tonight's mission. The target's name was Sarafina, and her lofty title of Voodoo Priestess made this a rare pleasure. Miguel had spent the last year working night and day to crush the people's will. But women like this Sarafina gave the locals hope, and that only made his job harder.
Miguel pulled a GPS unit from his pocket. It indicated that they were less than a hundred yards from their target. He stood, signaling his men to move forward.
As they drew closer to the target, Miguel heard drums and rhythmic chanting drifting through the trees.
"Do you hear that?" Corporal Sosa hissed.
"Of course, I'm not deaf," Miguel shot back.
"She was supposed to be alone but what if there are there are more people? What if they're armed?" Sosa whispered, nervous at the prospect of facing someone who could actually fight back.
"Armed with what, drumsticks? If there are more people we'll just kill them too." Miguel turned away, wondering if America's Navy Seals had to deal with this kind of whimpering. Then again, Navy Seals didn't recruit their men from Death Row.
Miguel crept forward till he could make out a clearing ahead. The drumming was now clear and distinct.
He reached out and slowly pulled aside the branches blocking his view. The moment he did the drums and voices fell silent, leaving only the endlessly buzzing insects; it was unnerving. Probably just more monkeys, he thought.
He looked ahead and his concerns melted away. The priestess stood alone in the center of her compound, surrounded by gnarled posts decorated with animal skulls and weird talismans. Burning torches cast a flickering light on the ghoulish tableau. These Voodoo trappings were eerie enough, but they couldn’t hold a candle to the chapel building itself.
It was a barn-sized structure crafted from wood and mud brick standing in the shadow of a sixty-foot Banyan tree. Over decades, or perhaps even centuries, the ancient tree had grown into the building, entwining it in hundreds of exposed roots and vines until they merged into one organic structure. The firelight cast moving shadows across the chapel, and its network of roots seemed to undulate like some monstrous jellyfish.
Sarafina was stirring a cooking pot suspended over an outdoor fire. The aroma drifted through the air, but it was hard to tell if she was preparing some occult potion or just the typical swill the peasants called food. She sang to herself softly in a French patois.
Miguel took a moment to admire Sarafina. She was tall, her lean body wrapped in the colorful fabric favored by priestesses. She moved with the grace of a dancer, her dark skin glowing in the firelight. Miguel found her attractive, in that peasant sort of way.
She stood and walked gracefully to her chapel, still singing. As soon as she was inside, Miguel reached into his rucksack and pulled out a satellite phone. He whispered, "General, we're in position with the target in sight. Awaiting your orders." He pressed the phone to his ear awaiting a response.
His uncle's voice came through. "Hold your position and await my instructions."
"Understood sir." After checking the ground for scorpions, Miguel sat down to wait.
About the Author:
After two years of ghostwriting, William Burke has released his first novel VOODOO CHILD, Book One: Zombie Uprising. It's the first installment of a new horror series chronicling the exploits of Maggie Child and her Voodoo priestess partner Sarafina as they battle to save the island of Fantomas from the wrath of evil Voodoo spirits.
The author was raised on a diet of late night creature features, comic books, Mad magazines and horror stories. As a result every volume will be packed with eccentric characters, dark humor, chills, zombies, ghosts, monsters, military hardware and plenty of stuff blowing up.
Prior to writing Voodoo Child he was the creator and director of the Destination America television series Hauntings and Horrors. He has also written scripts for two Cinemax television series, Forbidden Science and Lingerie, which he also produced. He has also written magazine pieces for Fangoria and the Phantom of the Movies Videoscope among others.
William began his film and television career as a perfectly respectable video engineer at the venerable United Nations. Budget cuts shifted him to becoming a production manager and assistant director on an array of New York based indie films. With that experience under his belt he relocated to Los Angeles where he eventually produced sixteen feature films and two television series for the Playboy Entertainment Group. After years of producing T&A extravaganzas, kickboxing epics and gangster rap videos, he created a self financed television pilot entitled American Mystery Tour. Canada's CTV picked up the series under the title Creepy Canada, which was then re-titled Hauntings and Horrors in the USA. Since then he has successfully produced three series for HBO/Cinemax as well as documentaries and other … stuff.
After hundreds of hours of film and television production he is basking in the freedom of the written word, where small budgets and giant egos are only memories. He lives in Toronto.
If you enjoyed the first adventure please visit www.williamburkeauthor.com where you'll find lots of interesting information about Voodoo and military hardware, along with excerpts from Sarafina's personal diary AND, as a gift to readers, the author will be serializing a prequel novella