10 Reasons why movies aren’t novels

Next month, Michael Hauge and Steve Kaplan will be in Australia for two weekends of story classes. This month we run a special guest contribution by Michael Hauge plus we give Melbournians the chance to win a free ticket to the event (worth $445).

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The principles I outline below hold true for at least nine out of ten movies coming out of Hollywood. And while you will undoubtedly think of exceptions, film adaptations that depart from these guidelines usually fail at the box office (The Lovely Bones), are made outside the Hollywood system (Precious), or are made by well-established writers, directors and/or stars who are given a good deal of freedom to push the boundaries of film structure (Julie and Julia). (And by the way, these rules are essential to consider before adapting a TRUE story to film as well.)

1. Commerciality is the major concern of film financiers.

Though publishers are obviously in business to turn a profit as well, there are hundreds of publishing houses turning out thousands of titles a year, while only about 150 movies a year are produced by the major studios, with an average production and distribution budget in excess of $100 million a picture. Such a huge cost creates a demand for movies that will reach the widest possible audience.

2. Movies must conform to a budget.

the picture of dorian gray

When the Mongol hordes come sweeping over the mountains in your novel, all you’ve added is excitement. When the same thing happens in your screenplay, you’ve added $13,000,000 to the budget of the film.

3. Genre is critical.

While novels can portray characters in just about any time or place, there is a strong prejudice in Hollywood that favors action movies, thrillers and comedies over musicals, period pieces, Westerns and dramas.

4. Movies have a prescribed length.

While novels can range from the almost-a-novelette size of Animal Farm to the epic sprawl of War and Peace, most movies last between ninety minutes and two hours, and their corresponding screenplays between 105 and 119 pages.

5. Movies portray a condensed period of time.

Most Hollywood movies take place over a period of hours, days or weeks – rarely months or years. The epic saga may work fine in fiction, where a reader can return to a book as often as necessary, but when an audience is there for a single sitting, they don’t want to watch characters grow old together.

6. The hero of a screenplay must pursue a single, visible goal with a clearly implied endpoint.

Mrs. Shelley

When an audience sits in a movie theater, they want to root for the main character of the film to accomplish some compelling desire. Whether it’s stopping the killer, escaping the volcano, winning the big game or capturing the heart of the hero’s true love, we must SEE this pursuit, and we must be able to imagine what success will look like on the screen.

The reason most Hollywood movies are easy to describe in a single sentence is because the plots are defined by the hero’s specific desire: “Fargo is about a pregnant policewoman from a small town in Minnesota who wants to catch a group of killers.” As we watch this film, we may not know if the hero will succeed, but we can imagine what success will look like.

Novels can involve a series of characters (Hawaii), can focus primarily on inner motivation and character arc (Ordinary People), or can present heroes who meander though a whole series of events, desires and conflicts (The Shipping News, The Kite Runner, etc.). But in a screenplay, the reader must know what specific finish line the hero is hoping to cross.

7. The conflicts a movie hero faces must also be visible.

While the hero of a screenplay may also grapple with inner conflicts and flaws, the primary obstacles she faces must come from other characters or forces of nature that prevent her from achieving what she wants.

8. Screenplays may only reveal what the audience will hear and see on the screen.

Manuscripts can include illustrations, footnotes, maps, fancy fonts and chapter headings. They can offer asides from the author, reveal the characters’ thoughts and feelings, and give the reader any historical or background information the author considers helpful or interesting. None of these things can be included in a script, unless it is revealed through action or dialogue.

9. Movies follow a strict structure.

Novels sometimes sprawl, meander and jump back and forth in time, but screenplays must conform to a rigid formula for plotting the story.

Among the many structural principles and devices a screenplay must employ are these basic rules: the hero must be introduced by page ten, where he will encounter some new opportunity; the hero must begin pursuing the specific desire that defines the story concept at the 25% mark; some major setback must be experienced at the three-quarter point, and the climax must clearly resolve the hero’s desire in the last ten minutes of the film.

10. When it comes to writing style, a screenwriter’s goal must be to create a movie in the reader’s mind…

…that is as fast, easy and enjoyable to read as possible.  So the qualities of style in the best literary fiction – an extensive vocabulary, rich, textured description, and the unique use of the language – should be AVOIDED when writing a script.

11. . Finally, when you write a screenplay, your work is not your own.

The publishing world still seems to offer some respect to the writer’s original vision. But if you’re a screenwriter, sooner or later your creation will be changed, sometimes mercilessly, as other artists attempt to transform it into film.

I know this last item isn’t about a difference in the writing itself. I just want you to be prepared for what awaits you if you decide to take the plunge into adaptation.

– Michael Hauge

-Michael Hauge

MICHAEL HAUGE is a story consultant, author and lecturer who works with screenwriters, novelists, filmmakers and executives. He has coached writers, producers, stars and directors on projects for Will Smith, Julia Roberts, Robert Downey, Jr., and Morgan Freeman, as well as for every major studio and network. He is currently on retainer with Will Smith’s company, Overbrook Productions, where he was involved in the development of I am Legend, Hancock and The Karate Kid. For more info on Michael, visit www.ScreenplayMastery.com.
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3 thoughts on “10 Reasons why movies aren’t novels”

  1. There’s always going to be some compromises for novels to be adapted into films. However, I don’t think writers should be restricted to following the traditional story structure. As long as the film’s plot and characters are interesting, it can be enjoyed by the audience. Some films that breaks some of Michael’s points would be Tarantino Films, ensemble films and films that follow a character’s major events in life (eg, Forrest Gump, Benjamin Button).

    Albeit, following conventional story structure is more likely to be taken up by producers.

    • Thank you for your comment, Bernard.

      I dont’ believe anyone restricts anyone else. The audience just decides whether it works or not, that’s all.

      “As long as the film’s plot and characters are interesting” seems to work for novels but not for movies. They follow a structure that is more stringent.

      When novels have interesting stories, it is EXACTLY the plot and its structure that need to be adapted for the screen.

      I believe Tarantino’s successful films are used by quite a few teachers to demonstrate their traditional 3-act structure.

      Have you analyzed Inglourious Basterds? I’m tempted to look at it as it feels very classic in its structure.

      • I haven’t analyzed Inglorious Basterds, but thinking about it quickly, even though the film is told in broken sequences, there is an overall arc in the film and goal of the characters. So it is pretty much a 3 act structure… or multi acts.


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