Why I Stopped Writing Screenplays and Wrote a Novel ‹ CrimeReads

Screenwriters are taught, “Don’t write what you can’t see.”

And that’s why, after a career of screenwriting and filmmaking, I wrote a crime novel.

A screenplay is a blueprint, drawn with action and dialogue, something that exists in slippery space, to inspire a director to film, to suggest actors to play characters, for a production designer to consider sets, costumes and hairstyles that were probably not even on the page. You can’t write about what’s in someone’s head because, well, you can’t see it. You learn to write only what people say and what they do. Don’t direct the movie by suggesting how someone is sipping tea while loading bullets into a gun, between each word. You can use simple parentheses – (load the gun) – but the rest is up to the director and actor to decide.

99 miles from Los Angeles. is a tough crime story with a bisexual, double-crossed love triangle featuring a disgruntled music teacher, an unhappy married woman and a Mexican bartender who band together to steal a buried fortune. If I was writing a screenplay, I would have to use dialogue to betray my characters’ inner lustful thoughts, their clandestine motivations, what their unspoken desire should be!

Even when you yourself are the director of your own screenplay, which I have been many times, you have to “fire the writer”. Because there comes a time when you are in control of a film where you have to forget the text, or even rewrite it if it stands in your way. The scenario, in fact, is destined to be reviewed over and over again, from casting to final editing. There’s even a system for this, with hierarchical colored pages, signifying the number of times a page has changed, from white (so rare, because that means: unrevised), to blue, then pink, yellow, green , goldenrod, chamois, salmon and finally cherry.

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The truth is that there is no “finally”. Doesn’t the actress think her character would say that? Bring the second blue revision. The director cuts a scene to move the story along faster? It’s time for the second pink revision and so on. A scriptwriter is a helpless position, and a script that has never been filmed is literally nothing. There’s a long-standing joke in Hollywood: No one sleeps all the way to the top of a film set fucking the writer.

I’ve spent my professional life writing screenplays, and now you know why I’ve always dreamed of writing a book. Google, “How long does a good script last?” A direct answer appears: 90 to 120 pages. And I’ve had agents tell me that 117 is the magic number. Inciting incident on page 10. Turning points on pages 30 and 60. “How long is a good novel?” A hundred replies appear with multiple caveats, like “it depends on the genre” and, my favorite, that when writing a book, “rules are meant to be broken.”

A book lives on a shelf, in a bookstore, placed next to books by other writers, and the only collaboration is that between the writer and the reader. No colored pages, no director’s cuts, no rules. You are authorized to create everything. You have to. The only actors, set designers and directors are in the reader’s mind. The writer writes and the reader contemplates. It’s an intimate connection and the best part is that each reader sees something different, from their own imagination and experience.

If a screenplay is nothing until it becomes something else, a novel is simply, or, to paraphrase Gertrude Stein: A book is a book is a book.

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Writing, as we all know, is still rewriting. Revise, Edit, Refine – My experience of getting advice to perfect my novel, was so much more kind, thoughtful and focused, focusing on how to make my work stronger and based on helping achieve my goal of storytelling my own story. Early readers and editors worked with me to help me get closer to my vision, not to make what I wrote better suited for (insert fundable actor here) to play my character.

Let’s face it: for many of us, the ultimate dream is to turn our book into a movie. But I have to admit, my fantasy is that they hire a horrible, selfish director who throws the thing terribly wrong; the Hollywood screenwriter they use for the adaptation is bullied into changing the ending to make it happier; and fans of the novel come out of the theater saying, “I read the book and it was a lot better.”

Vanish. The end.


Irene B. Bowles