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The Differences and Similarities Between Writing a Novel and Writing for Television

Television writer Hollie Overton shares three skills from screenwriting that have helped her write two novels, as well as three skills she had to learn while writing fiction.

For as long as I can remember I’ve been a storyteller. As a child, I scribbled ideas in journals, jotted story arcs on napkins and dreamt up book ideas when I should have been learning quadratic equations. In my teenage years, I filled more journals with bad poetry and even worse short stories. After an extended detour as an actress and countless hurdles along the way, I found my calling as TV writer. For five years, I wrote on various TV shows before I embarked on writing my first novel, Baby Doll, a contemporary crime thriller. It’s a daunting task to write a book, but one in which I was slightly more prepared for. Thankfully, some of the skills I learned in the writer’s room and what I discovered writing my own TV scripts were applicable to novel writing. Others, I had to learn along the way. Here are three screenwriting techniques that came in handy when I wrote my first novel, Baby Doll, and my upcoming second book, The Walls, as well as three tools I had to learn anew.

This guest post is by Hollie Overton. Overton is the author of THE WALLS (August 8, 2017; Hachette/Red Hook) and BABY DOLL (July 12, 2016; Hachette/Red Hook), an international bestseller that has been published in eleven countries. She is also a TV writer and producer who has written for Shadowhunters, Cold Case, and The Client List. An identical twin, Hollie grew up in Kingsville, Texas but now resides in LA with her husband. You can visit her at www.

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  • Characters

If you look at any critically acclaimed show from the last fifteen years—Breaking Bad, Mad Men, Nurse Jackie—you’ll see what sets them apart: character. Walter White, Don Draper, and Jackie were all incredibly complicated. I’ve always focused on writing powerful characters in the TV world and I applied that same standard to my books. Each character needs a strong goal, complicated relationships, and a compelling arc. Crafting characters that are real and relatable, despite the extreme circumstances I put them in, is at the heart and soul of writing TV, and the same goes for writing books. Without unique and complex characters, a reader simply won’t invest in a book and that was my guiding force—creating characters that stayed with them long after they turned the last page.

  • Pacing

In an hour-long TV drama, you have 50-60 pages to tell a story, and you better make them count because audiences have short attention spans. If you want to hold their interest, you must keep the story moving. When I’m in the writer’s room breaking a story, we’re always working towards an act out, or the scene before a show goes to commercial. The goal is to create a moment so exciting that the audience cannot wait for the return to the show from the commercial break. If you re-watch episodes of Breaking Bad, you’ll see how expertly they crafted each act out. Streaming services like Netflix and Amazon are making a fortune creating binge TV that’s impossible to stop watching. When I began writing Baby Doll, I kept that in the back of my mind. At the end of each chapter, I’d ask myself, “Does this push the story forward?” or “Am I invested in what’s happening with the characters?” If I thought the reader might get bored or confused or want to put the book down, I’d rework that chapter. I love hearing from readers that they couldn’t put my book down and that’s what a strong act out or chapter end does.

  • Dialogue

Crafting realistic and believable dialogue is one of the most important skills a TV writer can possess. An audience is savvy and instantly understands when a character sounds too old or too young or simply not right. Dialogue must also push a story forward and tell us who the character is by demonstrating how they speak. Are they young and talk really fast with lots of slang? Do they have an accent or a specific speech pattern that makes them unique? All of these details are important to consider when writing dialogue for TV. Novel writing requires the same care and precision. In fact, the bar can be even higher, because you don’t have a skilled actor delivering the lines. That’s why when I write, both TV and books, I read every line out loud to make sure it doesn’t sound false.

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  • Beware of the Backstory

As a TV writer, I learned early on that backstory is the ultimate no-no. But when I began writing books, I was surprised by how much time I had to spend not getting bogged down by it. Just because you have more time to tell a story in a novel doesn’t mean that you should. The last thing you want to do is inundate the reader in what happened to a character before the book even began. In my case, lots of rewriting was required before I found a way to incorporate my characters’ past experiences into the narrative.

  • Painting a Picture

TV writing is a visual medium, but the writer isn’t the lone visionary. You have the director, cinematographer, and an entire production team working together to bring it to life. In a novel, it’s all in your hands. It isn’t enough to simply write, A storm is brewing. You must tell the reader what the storm looks like, how it sounds, and how it makes your character feel as it’s raging outside their window. Writing description in a novel required retraining my brain and constantly reminding myself that a novel is my canvas, and I have a lot of leeway to create the world I want readers to see.

  • Endurance

The biggest struggle I faced when writing my first two books was that the finish line seemed so far away. A TV script is 50-60 pages. It’s possible to write one in a few weeks. But writing 300-400 pages is a much bigger endeavor. While I was writing Baby Doll, I was unemployed, planning my wedding, and trying to find a job in TV. There were times when I thought, I’ll never finish this and even if I do, what’s the point? Fortunately, I had family support, an encouraging writing mentor, and the resolve that I was telling a story I wanted to see through to the end. Novel writing is not an instant process. It’s a bit like running a marathon. You have to keep your eye on the prize and know that one day you’ll finally reach the end of the book.

What I learned writing for both mediums: storytelling is universal. Learning how to write TV, novels, or both requires a steep learning curve, but once you’ve mastered one, there’s no reason not to try your hand at the other. Who knows where it could lead you?

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