Why did I decide to write a novel? Like many worthwhile endeavors, it started with failure. I had worked for many years as a writer and director, primarily making marketing videos and commercials for global tech companies. I was known as a storyteller, with a specialty in humor. Between jobs, I would write screenplays. My dream was to eventually write and direct my own indie film. That dream was never realized. Why? Because, even for a small, character-driven film, it takes close to $1 million dollars to produce it. I got close, but never quite managed to raise the money.
So, there I was with an unfulfilled dream. What was I to do? I had writing skills, and I had a novelistic sensibility. By that, I mean that I was interested in characters and portraying the human condition. I had zero interest in special effects, superheroes, criminal masterminds, goofy comedy, or any of the subjects that comprise the plots of the vast majority of films made in Hollywood. Why not attempt a novel? I wouldn’t need a million dollars. All I would need was the will to do it.
With the arrogance of a beginner, I thought the transition to novel writing would be easy. I took a screenplay idea I had already developed and extended it into a 65,000-word novel. How successful was I? One of the first critiques I got from a beta reader was: “This isn’t a novel. It’s a screenplay.” That was a little harsh. But it was essentially true. My novel was full of dialogue, punctuated by brief, cursory descriptions. I was simply following the well-established precepts for screenwriting. The characters’ thoughts and feelings were left for the audience to determine from the dialogue and from the decisions the characters made as they faced life-changing situations.
As a screenwriter, one describes only what is necessary to understand the action. I might say, for instance: Linda takes her cocktail into the living room and sits across from George. The apartment is furnished like an Ikea catalogue. Now, you might write those lines in a novel; but in a screenplay, that’s ALL you would write. The rest is left up to the actor, the director and the production designer. And that is the key distinction between screenwriting and novel writing. A screenplay is a skeleton. The director, the actors, and the crew put the flesh on it. And, in the end, the audience sees it and hears it. The only thing left to the audience’s imagination is smell and touch. (That might come in the future.)
As a novelist, you need to provide the thoughts and feelings, the visual description of people and places, and any sensation like smell, taste, or feel that is important to your story. In the example I gave above, the description in a novel might extend into something like this:
Linda walked into the living room and sat in the armchair across from George, although she could have taken a seat next to him on the couch. Glancing around the room, Linda noticed that there was nothing personal in the way George had furnished his apartment. It looked as if it were ordered recently from an Ikea catalogue. Linda set her cocktail glass on the side table, angling herself slightly away from George’s piercing gaze.
As a novelist, it is up to you, and you alone, to bring your characters and your world to life. You are a one-person-band.
I may be oversimplifying, but I believe that this “one-person-band” concept is the essence of novel writing. And there are special joys it brings to readers—nuances and insights that are left unexplored in a film.
Of course, there are no strict formulas either for screenwriting or novel writing. I still write novels full of dialogue. My descriptions tend to be relatively short and to-the-point. I play to my strengths. But I continue to work hard on my weaknesses. I suppose that’s pretty good advice for any worthwhile endeavor.
Chas Halpern's debut novel, The Physics of Relationships, comes out with Guernica Editions on November 1st.
Featured art (Chas Halpern at Desk) by the artist Pouké.
Chas Halpern has made a living writing and directing marketing videos for global tech companies (including Google, Microsoft, Oracle, Cisco, and Intel). He’s known as a storyteller, with a specialty in humor. His novel, Humans Anonymous, is soon to be published (Touchpoint Press, 2023). Chas is also a screenwriter. Awards include top honors at the international Script-to-Screen Festival. He wrote a PBS documentary, which was shown throughout the U.S. and internationally. And he has written for a Disney Channel series. His screenplay, “Positive” (a dramatic comedy) has been optioned and is still in development.