Should You Write a Novel or a Screenplay?

Over a decade ago, as a graduate student at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-TV, I was living a double life. By day, I attended my screenwriting classes, took notes, and asked thoughtful questions; by night, I worked on a literary novel. Actually, I was so wrapped up in this novel that I was hoping to sequester myself during Christmas break and get a chunk of the book written then.

I confessed my doppelgänger work ethic to a screenwriting professor, the youngest of the lot, who smoked prodigiously and wore a skeptical look. Did it make sense to be interested in screenwriting and novel writing at the same time? Was my interest in the rhythms of sentences and paragraphs detrimental to the visual sensibility I needed to develop as a filmmaker? Had I chosen the wrong path?

The professor shook his head. "Some stories lend themselves better to novels, others to screenplays," he said.

At the time, this remark wasn't entirely satisfactory. In the intervening decade, I've had the opportunity to grapple with this issue.

Take, for instance, a recent conference call I had with a team of producers who were attached to a feature script I'd written. I'd given them a new draft based on their feedback, and we were discussing it. Or so I thought.

"Could you make it more political-thrillery?" the producer asked.

His question jarred me.

"It's not a political thriller," I said. "It is a drama with some elements of a political thriller."

A pause.

"Have you read the latest script?" I asked.

"No," the producer said. Another pause, which I imagined was sheepish. "But my producing partner read it."

How could he presume to give notes on a draft he hadn't even read?

"That's stunning," I said.

It takes roughly as long to read a script as to see a film--two hours. I had spent nearly four weeks to do this rewrite based on their notes. Last year, the script had gotten U.S. and international recognition, and this producing team had latched on to its coattails then. But in the intervening months, they hadn't been able to move the project forward, and had admitted as much. This phone call was making me wonder if I had the right team on board. Earlier on the same call, a different producer framed the script as a "coming-of-age story."

"The story takes place over five days," I'd said. "It's hard to come of age in such a short time."

And in the beginning of the phone call, the producers had shared that in a meeting in Cannes, someone had wondered if the script would be insulting to the Palestinian community.

I blinked. "You mean Pakistani? There aren't any Palestinians in the story."

But most of all, I found the admission of not reading the script to be so embarrassing that I decided to end our working relationship.

The conversation described above is far removed from the experience I've had with the publisher of my recent literary novel. So when last month, at a reading for this novel at Bookworks in Albuquerque, a woman in the audience asked: "How is writing a novel different than writing a script?" I was prepared with an answer.

"That's a good question," I said.

I went on to explain that a major difference is in the actual creation of the work. "A script is a masterwork of compression," I told the audience member. "It's about the bones of the story and the characters and the dialogue, and finding visuals to render these in the most dynamic way; whereas in a novel, a writer has leisure to expand on the setting or mood, and delve into the thoughts of her characters in any number of ways. I enjoy this leisure, but I'd like to think that because of the discipline I've acquired as a screenwriter, I won't get carried away with it."

It never occurred to me to write the novel I recently published as a feature script. The story has multiple characters and story lines that would be difficult to compress into the roughly ninety minute span of a feature film. If it were to be adapted for the screen, it would have to be as a television series.

Whereas I'd initially wanted to write my recent script (the project in which I parted ways with my producing team) as a novel, not because of the subject matter, but because I wanted to direct it as well, and since the story is based on a real event that is politically sensitive, the logistics of getting permissions to shoot it in India might be nightmarish.

I'd resisted writing about this subject matter for a few years. The story is personal, international, and politically sensitive -- a terrifying beast. But in 2010-11, at the Milagro at Los Luceros Writers Workshop masterminded by Robert Redford, I began to give little pieces of it to Joan Tewkesbury, screenwriter of Nashville. As our workshop leader, Tewkesbury urged us to do something completely original that scared the hell out of us. I realized my international story was the perfect candidate.

A bulk of the story is a road trip to a mosque in the stunning state of Rajasthan--with characters in disguise, army jeeps, sand dunes, and royal guesthouses. With all these visual elements, the material really was better suited to being a screenplay than a novel. It was a huge undertaking, but Tewkesbury wouldn't take no for an answer. She told me to not work on anything else, and to write the script right away.

And so I wrote it, and I was grateful. Ms. Tewkesbury's early belief in the project helped me keep faith that I wouldn't let the wrong set of producers morph the story into what it wasn't--a political thriller.

Novels and screenplays are written differently, but I've learned over the last decade that an important difference between them lies in their fate. A novel is a finished entity, which ideally gets published after an editor has helped a writer to shape it. It is the writer's singular vision and those involved in the process usually respect that fact. A script is only a blueprint, vulnerable to years of trampling on by producers and, in some cases, a director.
"Another major difference between writing a novel and a screenplay is that a script goes through a rigorous, sometimes brutal development process," I told my audience at Bookworks. "The producers want it as tight as it can be."

"So they can recoup their money," a man in the audience said. Everyone laughed. They all seemed to know the cliché of the egomaniacal, money-minded producer. The producers I've worked with over the years haven't fallen easily into that cliché, at least not in the beginning. Over numerous scripts, they've been friendly, supportive, fun people, but somehow we've always veered dangerously close to the cliché when I'm least expecting it, when I'm starting to feel that this time things will be different.

Producers can accomplish miraculous things. They persuade investors to put money into one of the world's riskiest ventures--a feature film. It was said about the late Ismail Merchant--of Merchant Ivory fame--a producer who took me under his wing for a time, that he could "squeeze money out of a stone." I know that as a writer and director, I can't do that. Which is why I will always have the privilege and (occasionally) the frustration of working with producers who can.

If a prospective writer is thinking about whether to write a story as a script or a novel, I would encourage her to pay attention to the creative considerations of each form, but I would also ask her to consider this:

Once a novel is published, the creative fight is over. In my case, I had a terrific relationship with my editor, and the most fighting I did was when I looked over the proofs, and I thought the font size was too small.

In the case of a script, however, every time I've finished one, I've found that the battle has just begun.

Priyanka Kumar is a filmmaker and the author of the novel, Take Wing and Fly Here.