If you've ever wondered about that yourself--losing sleep over the answer, wishing you had a Magic Genie to call upon--you're in luck. The answer is simple. A screenplay is easier to write than a novel by far. If you want proof, check out a novel written by a successful screenwriter. It will suck. Then check out a screenplay written by a successful novelist. It will soar.
Those are generalizations to which there are always exceptions, of course. But, being generalizations means they're generally true. While good screenwriters rarely make good novelists, good novelists often make good screenwriters.
The reason is that novels are among the most complex things on earth to write well. No contest. A novel has a million moving parts for which an author must be accountable. He has to keep track of a myriad of elements while sustaining the storyline for hundreds of pages and a hundred thousand words or more and wrapping everything up at the end.
A screenplay, on the other hand, is a plot being advanced by characters driven by dialogue. Sure, motivation, conflict, and settings all come into play, but the main driver of a script (either screen or stage) is dialogue.
That's one of the primary reasons screenwriters are only one part of the cog that creates a finished film. And, it's one of the main reasons that a single writer for a feature film is a rarity (next to an impossibility, if the film is any good). Different writers with different talents add their own unique elements to a script. They work together as the glue that binds.
With a novel, on the other hand, the very essence of writing is solitary in nature. Introduce joint authors into novel writing, and you usually end up with a disaster.
With all this said, it's easier to break into writing as a screenwriter than as a novelist. Easier but, perhaps, less creatively rewarding. Perhaps. That, of course, would depend upon the writer and just how much he expects in the way of personal aggrandizement from the pursuit of his craft.
Sorry to all you screenwriters out there, but I've seen this reality play out hundreds of times over the years. And, please, don't tell me novelists have collaborators, too, in the form of publishing-house editors because they don't. The job of an editor is similar to one of the jobs of a director. Both clean up messy writing and poorly documented or unsustainable material to keep the story moving. But that's where the similarity ends.
In the final analysis, the novelist's work lives or dies based upon a solitary writer's creation. Conversely, a screenwriter's work survives or perishes, depending upon the collaborative efforts of an entire team of individuals who are experts in the unique but limited fields of their expertise.
Do you still doubt me? Check out the credits at the end of a feature film compared to the acknowledgments at the beginning of a novel. Get the point?
Some things are just what they are, no matter how much we tend to think—or want to think—otherwise. Trees are tall; grass is green; your neighbor's barking dog is a pain in the ass.
So, of the two, which do I prefer—novel writing or screenwriting? Well, I've been doing both for decades now. And, while I get more personal satisfaction from seeing a published novel in print, I also enjoy working on and watching the finished product derived from a script morph into a film. That's likely because I enjoy writing dialogue and creating the interaction between two or more characters face to face.
By the way, if you happen to know a screenwriter who's working on writing a novel, please do not show him this column. Once he's done cursing me and calling me an ignominious boob, he'll go right on believing I'm wrong, he's right, and the novel on which he's working is one of the easiest things he's ever written.
And, you know what? He's probably right. About that last part, I mean.
Unfortunately, that will most likely show in the end.
Smoke if you've got 'em.
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D. J. Herda is author of the new eBook series of writing advice, About Writing Right, available at Amazon and at fine booksellers everywhere.