The Big Difference: From Screenwriter to Novelist

by Doug Richardson

I was sipping cocktails with a couple of motion picture agents from a big Hollywood three-letter firm that, at the time, represented me as a screenwriter. Somewhere during the conversation I mentioned that I’d begun writing a novel. Looks were exchanged between the pair. The more curious of the reps went on to innocently ask, “So what’s the big difference?”

“The difference between what?” I asked in return.

“Between writing a screenplay and a book?”

It was the first time I’d been asked the question. As I pondered the answer the runty one answered, “By my calculation? Somewhere around a million bucks.”

The spindly agent, who’d garnered some literary experience in the New York office, explained that the average first-time author earned somewhere in the range of fifteen to twenty-five thousand dollars for a work of fiction. He followed with a reminder of how much in screenplay-rewrite coin I’d be leaving on the table if I chose to pursue writing fiction.

I eventually fired both agents and finished the book, which in itself was an act of faith. Not just because of the financial implications. You see, I hadn’t written any straight prose since the sixth grade. And that’s no exaggeration. Sure, I wasn’t new to back-aching hours hunched over a keyboard. I’d been making my bones as a screenwriter for about ten years. Already had one picture produced and two more in the pipeline. So that part of me was feeling secure. And if I was going to step up to directing movies, this would be the time. Instead, I felt a strange suction. Something was drawing me back to the blank page. I blasted out the first twenty pages of a novel and handed the stack to my wife to await the crushing news. This wasn’t the first time I’d tried the book thing.

A few years earlier I’d vomited out five thousand words of Lord-knows-what, asked my lovely and literate better half to give the pages a once-over, only to have her read and kindly say something like, “You’re a screenwriter. A really good screenwriter. Maybe you should stick to what you know.”

I have either a poor memory or the pain from her kind critique wasn’t enough to prevent me from once again foolishly venturing forth into a form of writing that didn’t require “FADE IN” at the starter’s gun. This time, after my wife pored over my effort, she smiled at me and said, “Keep going. I want to see where this goes.”

Fast-forward a couple of years to not long after I’d fired that aforementioned agency. I was on the phone with a big time New York book agent who wanted to represent me. “You know what?” he said. “I normally don’t read novels written by screenwriters. I almost didn’t read yours.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because books by screenwriters almost always stink,” he said.

I was genuinely surprised. After having gotten over the initial jitters, I’d found the basics of the writing process pretty much the same. The primary goal was to lure my reader into the story, keep his attention, and try like the devil to make him want to turn the page.

Sure. There are practical differences between writing books and screenplays. For one, screenplays are full of rules. Such as your script should be limited to around 115 pages of action and dialogue only. Brevity and briskness is key. Writing a novel though, allowed me space to let the words and thoughts breathe. Description didn’t have to be something you hoped the production designer or art department would get right. That and you can get inside your characters’ heads, explore the internal arguments within ourselves that make us human.

Oh yeah. That’s another screenplay don’t. Unless your character is John McClane crawling through an air-conditioning duct, don’t have your character talk to himself or herself, unless it’s as the story’s narrator. Movie stars would rather eat glue.

But as a novelist, I get to play armchair shrink. I describe the voice between the characters’ ears, rifle through their emotions, perform psychoanalysis, and even prescribe my make-believe remedies. That’s a hell of lot of latitude compared to screenplays where, unfortunately, psychology is pretty much verboten. You have to PRAY the director interprets the intentions of your words correctly (or if you’re lucky enough to be in rehearsals or on the set, the intentions of your actual opinion) and roll the dice that the star is more concerned about playing the character to the bone than worrying over whether his Twitter account just got hacked.

I’ve just published a novel called THE SAFETY EXPERT. It’s my third book and, I’m thrilled to say, I’ve just starting my fourth. As I set aside film and television projects to squeeze back into my novelist’s headspace, I find myself stumbling over the same obstacle that’s faced me with every transition into book mode. And that’s getting over my own screenwriter’s DNA. It’s burned into me that good screenwriting demands efficiency. A blast of images. A smattering of clever dialogue. Grab the reader by the lapels and move it, move it, move it. Not bad advice for any writer. But when it comes to writing novels, too much top spin doesn’t necessarily make for compelling craft. After I’ve finished the first draft of a novel and begin my revisions, my initial annoyance is how spare the first fifty pages are, lacking in everything but— no surprise here—action and dialogue.

Maybe that’s the biggest difference between writing for both mediums. The obstacles. Both figurative and literal. The biggest barriers of all are all about getting out of my own way and not letting the perception of others impede my progress to my ultimate goal. Write. Publish. Entertain. Repeat.

“Gotta say, I’m was pretty surprised,” said my first publisher. “If I had known…”

“Known what?” I asked him innocently enough. I was seated in his twentieth-floor office overlooking Manhattan’s Sixth Avenue. I was still giddy that my first book was going to be on shelves in bookstores across the nation. He’d just shown me eight different mock-ups of the book jacket.

“That you’re a screenwriter,” he said. “I don’t usually read screenwriters, let alone publish them.”

“Why?” I asked, though I think I knew the answer.

“Because books by screenwriters generally stink.”

“Yeah. I’ve heard that.”

Wow. The prejudices. It made me wonder. If I’d been informed of my obvious handicaps before attempting the transition from screenwriter to novelist, would I have even tried? I really can’t say. Something to be said for ignorance.



Doug Richardson was born in Arcadia, California. The son of a career politician, Doug grew up outside Sacramento and inside the state Capitol. He used to talk his way into then- Governor Ronald Reagan’s office, just to get a handful of jellybeans.

Doug left Northern California for Los Angeles to attend the University of Southern California’s School of Cinema. For as long as he could remember, Doug had wanted to be a movie director. But in pursuing his goal he discovered how movies are really made: in the writing.

After finishing college, Doug signed a two-year contract with Warner Brothers. In 1989 he garnered national attention when his spec screenplay was the first in Hollywood to sell for a million dollars. Doug’s first feature film, the sequel to DIE HARD, DIE HARDER, was produced in 1990. He has since written and produced feature films including the box office smash BAD BOYS and, most recently, HOSTAGE. To date, Doug’s features have grossed over 800 million dollars worldwide.

In 1997, Doug’s debut novel, DARK HORSE, was published by Avon/Morrow in hardcover, followed two years later by his follow up, TRUE BELIEVERS.

Doug continues to write and develop for feature films and television.

He lives in Southern California with his wife, two children and four mutts.

4 replies
  1. avatar
    John Geraci says:

    The biggest difference is that novels are always past tense(while you must make the reader feel like it’s happening right now). And scripts are always now. Ya know, Hero runs for his life. Not–Hero is running for his life. And all the other damn rules.
    As an obviously less-successful screenwriter(one contest winner, another script optioned), I just made the jump to fiction — I make my debut early January in hard covers when my first detective novel comes out — and found all of the salient points you made(about talking to yourself, memory, etc.) right on the money. And it was nice to write a sentence that had more than ten words.

    Thanks for the insights. I’m off to B&N to look for The Safety Expert.

  2. avatar
    Steve Smarts says:

    Well one can tell Doug has flair for fiction. “Sipping cocktails with a couple of motion picture agents” – w-what??


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *