Guest Post: Screenwriter Derek Haas on the 3 Things You Can Do in a Novel But Not Onscreen

Derek HaasDerek Haas is a writer of movies (3:10 to Yuma, Wanted), creator of TV series (Chicago Fire), and acclaimed novelist (the just-released The Right Hand). In this exclusive guest post, Haas explores the ways in which storytelling varies by form:

I was once asked:  what are three things you can do in a book that you can’t do in a movie or TV series?  An interesting question… a. because why three?  Why not 5 or 7 or 1?  And b. because there actually are three main things you can do in a novel you can’t do in a movie or TV series. How did my interviewer know the exact number to ask?  Anyway, here are my answers.

First, you don’t have to worry about a budget. At all. If you want to write that the main character drives a motorcycle through the biggest earthquake ever to strike Los Angeles, have at it. If you want to have characters jumping from Russia to Prague to London to Washington DC to LA, no one is going to stop you. If you want five-hundred assassins attacking the Olympic Opening Ceremonies … all you have to do is put it down on paper. Of course, you can’t do that in a movie script or you’ll give the President of Production at the studio a heart attack. Unless you have Brad Pitt and Johnny Depp in the movie together, then you can do anything.

Second, you get to move inside the heads of your characters.

Technically, you can have thoughts in screenplays through the use of voice-over, literally hearing the actor’s voice over the scene, but you don’t see it that often and it’s usually a gimmick (think Sex and the City.) However, in books, you can interweave your character’s every thought throughout the narrative, bouncing easily between his dialogue, what’s in his head, and his point of view as it affects the prose. For instance, you can have a line like, “Brad hated walking into this place, the decor, the clientele, the smell.  It all reeked of desperation.  He turned to the owner.  ’I love what you’ve done with the place.’” When writing a screenplay, you’d have to tell the actor how to play it, and you would lay out the sarcasm for the director. But in a book, you can infuse the prose with that stylistic point-of-view.  Let his actions also convey the character’s thoughts.

Lastly, in a book, you can spend a lot more time on details than you would in a movie. For instance, we once adapted a 700-page Robert Ludlum espionage thriller down into a two-hour movie. Ludlum would literally spend twenty pages on how a spy enters a room. How he gets his gun out, checks the door, has an exit strategy before he goes in, what kind of weapon he’s holding and how many bullets it can carry and on and on and on. That sounds boring, but in the hands of a master like Ludlum, those details can have their own pace and be compelling, but you’d never get away with devoting that much screen time to what amounts to a small bit of action in a script. You can afford to round out the picture in a novel… you can’t waste film on ancillary detail in a screenplay.

Well there you have it, the three things you can do in a book that you can’t do in a movie or TV series.  I’m so glad the interviewer didn’t ask for five.

— Derek Haas

Learn more about Derek Haas.