Bestselling Australian novelist Tony Cavanaugh reveals the differences between writing for the screen and writing a novel, exclusively for The Booktopia Blog

by |January 29, 2013

We’re excited to present a wonderful piece by bestselling author Tony Cavanaugh about the the differences between writing for the screen and  writing a novel.

Before he wrote the bestselling Promise and his highly anticipated follow-up Dead Girl Sing, Tony was a writer and producer in film and television, writing numerous dramas since the 1980s. He has over thirty years experience in the industry, in all fields, from the genesis of an idea to production. He has written and edited award winning shows, The Sullivans, Once Were Warriors, Fire, Medivac, The Day of Roses and Through My Eyes.

He was also invited to judge the Logie Awards, Australian Film Institute Awards and the International Emmy Awards, held in New York.

Funny, colourful, and cheeky, Tony’s initial experience with a Television Executive from the Nickolodeon channel and his ribald request is beautifully captured by a truly gifted writer. Enjoy.



the differences between writing for the screen and

writing a novel…

‘Tony, I want you to make me come.’

It was in the early 1990’s and I was sitting in a restaurant in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, having lunch, with an executive from the Nickelodeon TV network. I was in the process of writing a mini-series called Clowning Around which had been pre-bought by the BBC, ABC in Australia, TF1 in France and Nickelodeon in the US. I was having a script meeting. I was in the middle of eating a Caesar salad when the executive told me about my writing..

“I looked down at my Caesar salad and felt somewhat unable to eat the rest.”

‘You know, you write these scenes and I get engaged, like really engaged and I’m hooked but then you undercut the emotion and cut away to the next scene,’ he said. He leant across the table towards me. ‘It’s like sex without the ejaculation. Make the end of those scenes emotional and make me come.’

I looked down at my Caesar salad and felt somewhat unable to eat the rest.

‘I’ll do what I can,’ I said.

A week before I had met with the head of children’s television from the BBC. She had told me that I was too overt in my writing and had to be way more subtle.

Writing for film and TV is writing for many. You have to write for the many executives in the various organisations which have funded the script. They put up a lot of money. You have to write for the actors and the director and the producers, the costume designer, the production designer and the director of photography. You have to write for the person who checks continuity and the guy who buys the props. Above everything else you have to write to a budget. Words are expensive missiles. Words can cost big money. A random change from ‘they are sitting in a lounge room’ to a ‘they are sitting on the deck of a ferry as it crossed the harbour’ means the difference between tens of thousands of dollars. Little differences, like between ‘it’s night and we are outside’ to ‘it’s night and we are inside’ are also huge in terms of expense. Filming outdoors at night is costly in terms of time – setting up the lights to shoot the scene. When one writes a script one doesn’t necessarily write to avoid these costs – in other words, most writers stick to the integrity of their theme, narrative and character – but, always in the back of the mind of a scriptwriter is: will this get cut because it’s so expensive?

“Columbia had sent notes back on a script that John Travolta was attached to – the notes were thicker than the script.”

All writers work differently; there’s no set pattern to the process. Some, like myself, procrastinate for a long time and clean the kitchen and do the laundry, again and again, some get drunk, some get high, some stay clean, some even go jogging to start the day. It’s a mystical process but in film and television there is a lot of order, despite the idiosyncrasies of how the writer works.

Before the script there are meetings. Between the writer and the script editor and the producer (sometimes a number of producers), maybe with a director and even an actor. During the course of a meeting many aspects of the script will be discussed and argued over. For a writer this is often a process of carefully navigating the politics of the dynamic, appearing to be extremely confident, clever and witty; it’s diplomacy and above all nothing matters more than exerting confidence in your skill to – when the time comes – actually write.

After the series of meetings where, ultimately everyone is “on the same page” and the writer is good to go, you start writing. But you don’t start writing the script. Hang on. There’s another step first. You have to write the outline, also called a treatment. It’s the script, before it’s written, whittled down to a prose document, like a short story, of about 10 to 40 pages long. Remember a script isn’t really prose; it’s made up of dialogue and stage directions. The outline allows all the interested parties (who’ve held those meetings with you) to sign off on the process and green-light the script… or not; perhaps the outline throws out a few unexpected moves in the narrative or character development, or perhaps there are a few too many scenes on a ferry at night. Notes are given. The process of writing a script is laden with notes. (I was once working in an office in LA and Columbia had sent notes back on a script that John Travolta was attached to – the notes were thicker than the script. Over 120 pages of notes. It could be said that the more expensive the movie the longer and more intense the notes on the script… but, sadly that’s not the case; even the cheapies can attract copious notes on how to make it better.)

“Always, in the back of the mind of a scriptwriter, is: will this get cut because it’s so expensive?”

Once the notes have been digested and the writer has responded to them (don’t ever ignore notes because, if you do, the author of those notes will come back to reiterate their point at a later stage, often in a most unpleasant way, like: “we can’t go forward investing in this film because you didn’t listen to what we said in our notes”) everyone re-groups to agree that the direction now charted for the script, based on the writer’s absorption of everyone’s notes, is good. Now the writing begins.

This then is the first major difference between writing for the screen and writing a novel where it’s you and the publisher and editor… and, profoundly, where the writer’s word is final.

As a scriptwriter I very much relied on the outline, the point by point, paragraph by paragraph layout of the screenplay. To use a dumb analogy it was the architectural plan for the building. This was how I thought I needed to write a novel; start with the detailed outline and build from there. A tremendous failure. I’d start writing what I thought was the outline – the prose stuff – and soon it would become a chapter; more prose stuff. I was being derailed. I was meant to be building a set of narrative points in this short outline but as I wrote I was getting into the character, the descriptions, the inner monologue. I was writing the novel. And I was enjoying the process. And I was really enjoying developing the narrative as I wrote, as opposed to working from a set of already-agreed-upon plans. This was, for me, trapeze writing, being on a high wire. I didn’t have a clue where I was going but, as I kept traversing this unexpected territory, I was increasingly happy with the results. I had some idea of where I was going. I knew my hero would triumph at the end. But I had no clue how I’d get there. I just knew I had to follow the internal logic of the characters and their intentions.

"Imagine... that Lee Child decided to create Jack Reacher for the screen and instead of writing a novel, did a script."

“Imagine that Lee Child decided to create Jack Reacher for the screen and instead of writing a novel, did a script.”

When you write a screenplay you often avoid giving a character a physical description; imagine, for instance that Lee Child decided to create, nearly twenty years ago, Jack Reacher for the screen and instead of writing a novel, did a script. Because casting is so critical and because you don’t want to close the door on any potential actors (who are big at the box office) you just don’t restrict yourself with a detailed character description that locks the production into finding a guy who’s way over six feet tall when you’ve got Tom Cruise to consider for the part. With that in mind – not Reacher and Cruise, but the instinctive reluctance to describe how your character looks – I happily wrote my first novel without laying in any physical description whatsoever. When my publisher read it, one of the first comments that came back to me was: ‘Can you tell us what they look like? Starting with your main character.’

All of this goes to the single biggest difference between writing a script and writing a novel: one is intended to be read, the other is not. A script is designed to inform a number of investors and technicians and then, at the end of the shoot, they are literally returned to the production office and thrown into an industrial bin. Of course many are now put online but to be read, like a novel or a short story or an article in a journal, is not its primary purpose. And that, as your fingers dance across the keyboard, knowing that the structure and meaning of the words are to be printed, bound, published then read, is the freakiest, most profound difference in the process.


Thanks to Tony for contributing this great new piece to our series of Booktopia Exclusives. Don’t forget to check out his upcoming novel Dead Girl Sing, and the noise coming from it suggests it’s one not to be missed.

Pre-order Dead Girl Sing today from Booktopia, Australia’s Local Bookstore.



by Tony Cavanaugh

Praise for Promise:

I read Promise over a few nights while propped up in bed. Midnight wasn’t the smartest time to read such a book. Promise is truly creepy. All of our worst fears are played out before us. The Australian setting just makes it worse. It could be happening in your suburb, town or city. I don’t know what most disturbed me, the insights into the minds of the police hunting the killer or the chapters in which the killer talks directly to the reader. Each is chilling for different reasons. Accomplished, addictive and evocative, Promise is everything you want from a crime/thriller novel and more.
Four out of five stars.

John Purcell, Booktopia.


Click here to buy Promise from Booktopia,
Australia’s Local Bookstore

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About the Contributor

Andrew Cattanach is a regular contributor to The Booktopia Blog. He has been shortlisted for The Age Short Story Prize and was named a finalist for the 2015 Young Bookseller of the Year Award. He enjoys reading, writing and sleeping, though finds it difficult to do them all at once.

Follow Andrew: Twitter


  • September 19, 2014 at 1:09 am

    Reblogged this on crimeScene WA and commented:
    A great article on Booktopia from one of our guests – Tony Cavanaugh.

  • September 19, 2014 at 10:55 am

    Reblogged this on Reading, Writing and Riesling and commented:
    Tony Cavanaugh is a brilliant writer of crime fiction, he has the scariest villains I have come across. Tony Cavanaugh will be hosting a workshop at CrimesceneWA, read his helpful post and think about attending the event.

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