In this exclusive guest post, Collins talks about the challenges of writing for the screen vs. novels (and graphic novels), and how lessons of independent filmmaking help him make the transition.
I’m a storyteller.
That’s how I think of myself, and describe myself. Everything else is a compartment: mystery writer; screenwriter; comics writer; non-fiction writer; songwriter; and so on … almost always with “writer” part of the description, but “storyteller” at the heart of the beast.
Those various compartments grow out of two things: enthusiasm and necessity. Enthusiasm is what drives me — I get an idea for a story, and I want to pursue it. Necessity is the need to keep the writing projects flowing, because this is my profession and I need to make a living. You know, to keep the lights on in the joint.
That means I need to be flexible and versatile. Starting out, I thought of myself as a mystery writer, and writing mystery novels was the goal. But I was always a big fan of movies and comics, so when I’ve been given the chance to work in those fields, I’ve grabbed it.
On the other hand, a lot of writers can’t make the transition into another form. The list of novelists who are miserable screenwriters is a long one; and the list of screenwriters who become successful novelists is a short one.
The ability to write both novels and screenplays well requires developing an appreciation and an understanding of each form. The novelist who wanders blithely into screenwriting will inevitably write scenes that would work fine in a novel but are inappropriate for a film. A novelist will typically write a dialogue scene that is either too long, too short, or not necessary. Novelists have no budgetary restrictions in fashioning a novel, a freedom that is death on a screenplay, where every dollar — like every second — counts.
Having directed independent films, I know things most novelists don’t — like the need to minimize the number of actors and locations. These kind of basic technical concerns are a must in screenwriting.
But the most important factor is understanding that novels are interior and films are exterior. A novel is told from inside a character or characters, and a film is told from the outside of the characters, reporting their actions and reactions.
Novelists also tend to be bad at writing comics (and comic writers, to be fair, sometimes struggle at writing novels). A comic-book (or graphic-novel) script falls between novels and screenplays — the writer has to provide the action, essentially describing a panel to the artist, as well as providing dialogue or captions. The comics writer has to learn to think visually — the way screenwriters do — and to strive to tell the story in pictures, avoiding redundancy. If the artwork says it, the characters (and any captions) don’t have to. In fact, they shouldn’t.
Writing the novelization (boy, I hate that word) of a screenplay is a tricky process largely because a good screenplay has very little to do with the format of a novel. Scenes can be very short in a screenplay, and the point of view can jump all over the place, sometimes following this character for a short while, then this one, and then somebody else.
To write a really good novel based on a screenplay, the novelizer (another awful word) has to be given the freedom by the motion picture studio to extend and even invent scenes, fleshing out characterization and action, including dialogue. Movie dialogue tends to be tighter and more elliptical than novel dialogue. It’s helpful if the writer is allowed to reorganize the material, so that (for example) three or four small scenes involving a character can be combined into one scene. Writing movie novels is hard, and nobody respects you for it. That’s because they’ve never tried to do it.
Has writing comics and movies had an impact on my prose fiction? I believe so. The visual thinking carries over, and an ability to compress — to know what can be left out of scene — is important.
Most of all, moving back and forth between these mediums keeps me fresh and enthusiastic. And helps keep the lights on in the joint.