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Short Story, Novel, Play or Script?

Deciding on the best format for your brilliant idea.

Everything you ever write begins life as a small idea of a place, a character, a theme or a situation that lodges in your mind and refuses to budge. You know it’s got legs because expanding this story comes easily. You add details and colours and imagery. You walk your dog acting our key scenes of dialogue that will bring this story to life. You create other characters that will challenge, disappoint, enrage or delight your protagonist. You give each of them a home and job and kit them out with clothes, books, Achilles’ heels, pets, friends and foibles that will reveal who they are.

But should this idea be a short story or a novel? Would it work best as a radio play or should it be on a stage? Big screen or small screen?

As your characters take on a life of their own and plot points unfurl, it can become clear that your complex story needs a format that can do it justice, something that allows for a proper exploration of the myriad points and themes you want to examine. For this, you need a novel or a TV series: a long format medium.

If you’re thinking mostly about one particular character or one event or a day in the life of someone, then often a short story is the best medium, allowing you to examine this one thing in great detail.

If you’re torn between script and novel, then think about the visuals. What is the point of writing this story as a screenplay? Are there interesting locations, buildings and backdrops to your story? Does one of the things that make your story sing its setting? (Think White Lotus, Succession, The Triangle of Sadness.) Are characters doing rather than saying and thinking? Is it all about movement, running away and chases? Is there physical comedy that would get a bigger laugh if seen rather than read? Farces – where people come quickly in and out of a scene, seemingly haphazardly, work brilliantly on screen. Projects of course can be both (so many books are adapted each year) but as a starting point, ask yourself what best lends itself to your work.

Consider next, the amount of internal dialogue present in your story. Novels are full of a character’s thoughts. Does your story rely on the reader knowing the internal workings of a character’s mind? Is the whole point that their actions completely contradict their feelings? Yes, you can do a voice-over in a script but too much voice-over kills a screenplay and it tells you that your story needs to be read, not seen.

If your story relies on amazing backgrounds and settings, a play is probably not ideal. But a play might be the best format for a wordy two-hander: a couple or a mother and daughter who need to dig deep and get something off their chest. It’s also the perfect place for grand speeches and monologues that would sink on the page. Think about watching a character share their secrets live on stage and the impact that that can have compared to reading the same scene.

If your story is dialogue driven consider writing a great radio play where almost everything is focused on conversation. You can add a whole assortment of interesting background noises to set your scene but really, your story is told through perfectly written dialogue.

The thing to do is experiment. If you can’t decide between a script, play or a novel, write the first ten pages of each. Does your dialogue work better in front of a live audience? Does your story need the intense heat of a Mediterranean summer? Does it only make sense if there’s interaction from an audience? Do we need to know what a protagonist is really feeling?

© Deana Luchia


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