Author and Former Hollywood Movie Producer On Writing Novels VS Writing Screenplays

We got the inside scoop from former hollywood producer, specializing in developing screenplays, and current bestselling novelist, Burt Weissbourd.

Book Culture On Writing Publishing Thriller & Mystery

Have you ever wondered how the things we watch on the silver screen came to be? How about the words on the page of the books that we read? Does the process differ? If you have, you’re in for a treat, because we’ve got the inside scoop from former Hollywood producer, specializing in developing screenplays, and current bestselling novelist, Burt Weissbourd.

Burt writes character-driven thrillers, with an illustrious background in producing and working with screenwriters for film. Below, he shares his knowledge on both crafts, and how they differ or interact on the literary plane. Whether you’re a budding writer, a film buff, or you’re just curious, Burt shares some top tips, built on a wealth of experience.



What are some of the major differences between the rules of writing screenplays and the rules around writing novels?

A screenplay should describe a movie about 2 hours long (120 – 150 pages). There are exceptions, like The Irishman, but they are rare. There should never be interior emotional reflections in a screenplay. You don’t describe details about what a person is thinking or try to explain complex feelings. It does not tell the director and cinematographer how to set up the shot. A screenwriter might make suggestions such as this is a close up on someone or this is a family at Thanksgiving dinner, but finally, the actual realization of the scene is worked out by the director with his or her cameraman. A screenplay is constructed by a finite number of concise units. The number of units are a function of the length of the movie and the descriptions within a unit should be brief.

A novel can be as long or as short as the writer decides, and relies on interior reflections, and allows long-detailed descriptions. There is time for long digressions, tangential secondary plots, multiple characters that may or may not contribute to the ending. In a novel, the writer can offer opinions about character strengths and weaknesses, volunteer past events that may have shaped these strengths and weaknesses and speculate about future events that could change the direction of these characters.


The cast of ‘Ghost Story’ from left to right: Fred Astaire, Patricia Neal, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Craig Wasson, John Houseman via Weissbourd


How is character development different in a book from a screenplay? 

In a screenplay you can’t write about what a character is thinking. You can’t digress to explain something that happened long ago. You can’t speculate about what might have happened if only the character had chosen A instead of B. In short, you’re limited by what the camera can show you—an action, crying, running, an expression, a gesture and so on.

In a novel, the interior life, the private thoughts, the memories, even the prior night dreams are all fair game. You can explore feelings, fantasies, imagined outcomes, psychological obstacles, even largely unconscious thoughts.  Further, there are no time constraints in a novel. If you choose to explore internal psychological issues you can pursue that intensely at whatever pace you choose.

That isn’t to say that you don’t have complicated characters in a screenplay. In a screenplay, however, communicating that complexity comes from the director influencing a performance, the actor executing those levels of complexities,  the camera capturing important moments in calculated ways, even the composer introducing emotional musical themes and interludes, but it doesn’t come from the screenwriter describing interior complicated feelings that you can’t see.


Burt Weissbourd at a signing at Eagle Harbor Bookstore via Weissbourd


How does the construction of time differ in both?

With rare exceptions, a screenplay is about 120 – 150 pages. In other words the screenwriter is writing a movie that will last about two hours, occasionally a half hour more or less, but always finite. During that time, he or she can move through time at will, but always with a finite total time limit. You can write a screenplay that covers three generations of a family, but the writer has approximately two hours to tell that story. In a novel, you can write a thousand pages or more if that’s what it takes to properly tell the details over three generations.

In a screenplay, you can do flashbacks or go into the future, but you can’t simultaneously do a sequence in the present where the characters are thinking about the past or the future. In a novel, there are no constraints about going into a character’s mind to go into and out of the present.

A movie can move through time very slowly or very quickly, but once the writer has created a rhythm, it can change, yes, but it needs to stay consistent so the audience will stay with the story. A good movie creates a language that the audience accepts, buys into easily. Abrupt changes that haven’t been accepted by the viewer will confuse and oftentimes disorient the audience. A reader of a novel has far more time, and considerably more patience, to understand and finally accept the language of the writer.


Image via Weissbourd


How is the editorial process different?

There are generally far more chefs in the editorial process of a screenplay than a novel. They include the producer, the director (when he or she’s onboard), the stars, the star’s trusted friends, the studio executive(s), the executive producers, and so on. When you write a novel, you may have an editor, and the publisher may make comments, but finally, the number of people who make suggestions are far fewer, and the nature of those suggestions are far more limited. For example, a star may object to certain things that he doesn’t want to do in a movie because of personal or image reasons. A studio executive may want to change the race of a character because they have a deal or want to make a deal with a particular star. If the director comes on board late, he or she may very well want to change the direction or the ending or the tone of the movie. And so on.





Image via Weissbourd


Burt Weissbourd is a novelist, screenwriter and producer of feature films. He was born in 1949 and graduated cum laude from Yale University, with honors in psychology. While a student, he volunteered at the Museum of Modern Art in Paris and taught English to college students in Thailand. After graduation, he wrote, directed, and produced educational films for Gilbert Altschul Productions. He began a finance program at the Northwestern University Graduate School of Business, but left to start his own film production company in Los Angeles. He managed that company from 1977 until 1986, producing films including Ghost Story and Raggedy Man. In 1987, he founded an investment business, which he still runs.

Burt’s latest release, Danger in Plain Sight, is a thrilling read that will keep you hooked from the very first page. From Callie’s French restaurant in the heart of Seattle, to its underbelly rife with terrorism, death, romance, and guns, the novel is action-packed and paced to perfection. Beyond the action and the drama, the character development is solid, you’ll be rooting for Callie, Cash, and their love/hate relationship. Whether you’re looking to spice up quarantine life with a bit of action, or get lost in the pages of an engaging thriller, Danger in Plain Sight is the one for you.

Burt Weissbourd’s previous works include: Corey Logan Trilogy (Inside Passage, Teaser, and Minos), and In Velvet. Danger in Plain Sight is his fifth and latest novel, and the beginning of Callie James’ story

If you fancy your chances of getting your hands on a signed copy of Danger in Plain Sight, as well as a Visa gift card, wine, and much more, make sure to enter the giveaway here.

Feature image via Weissbourd