Throughout my life as a writer I’ve alternated my focus between prose and screenwriting. Both share some similar precepts (structure, plotting, character arcs, etc.), but also have differences that delineate them as different beasts. Just because you have experience in one doesn’t mean you’ll be able to execute the other.
I had this conversation with somebody on Twitter recently: books are a cerebral journey, while screenwriting is a visual journey. In a book, we can sit inside a character’s head and explore what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling, and things (such as circumstances, events, and memories) that shape their decision-making. In a film, you can’t sit inside somebody’s head (unless you use some sort of Herman’s Head-type gimmick). You can’t just have a character standing there, thinking. Somehow, these things have to be communicated visually.
In a book, a character might mourn the death of a loved one by sitting in a chair and thinking about them. This can go on for pages. In a film, somebody sitting in a chair would be boring. We’d have to see other visual indicators. They might pick up a photo of the loved one and look at it, stroke the face of the person in it, etc. This is communicating to us what’s going on inside the character’s head.
For as much as I’ve alternated between the two mediums, I still am guilty of sometimes relying on one form to execute some facet of storytelling in the other. But that’s writing: you don’t nail it in the first draft. That’s why revision exists. The first draft is dumping the clay onto a palette and giving it general form. Revision sculpts it.
Years ago, I wrote a novella, The Shadow in the Wind. I revised the hell out of it. Then I adapted it for a screenplay. In being forced to look at the storytelling aspect from a different perspective, it developed the story in ways I hadn’t considered. Once I finished the screenplay, I went back and revised the novella. I ping-ponged between the two for over a year, as each would bring more out in the other. I even worked on them simultaneously for one draft (of each).
While I’ve been focused more-so on prose the last ten years – and I’m still working on my new novel (I’ve almost written in the new beginning, which means it’s close to me sending it out) – I’ve dabbled increasingly (back) in screenwriting. There are stories I’d love to tell in that medium.
I don’t know why one story leans more toward one form than another. The only distinction I have that is to date, most of my screenplays have been genre-based. They sit clearly in certain action genres – as horror, or sci-fi, or crime. With my novels, they’ve been literary conceptually (although I don’t believe my writing is literary). They’re about characters trying to come to peace with who they are and find a way to move forward in the world despite trying circumstances. (I have no idea why my brain is working this way.)
But, as far as screenwriting goes, I do have certain projects just on the horizon …