M. J. Arlidge: The Difference Between Screenwriting and Thriller Writing

M. J. Arlidge: The Difference Between Screenwriting and Thriller Writing

So has my TV background influenced the way I write my novels? This is a question I’m often asked and my answer is an emphatic yes. My editor at Penguin once described my first novel – Eeny Meeny – as a screenplay in prose form and he was dead right. I don’t do long chapters, preferring to hard cut between short, punchy scenes that drive the story forward. This is pure TV and perfectly suited to the thriller form which – to coin a cliché – has to move forward or die. I suspect this is why I’ve ended up writing in this American genre, rather than plumping for whodunnits or police procedurals, which have always traditionally been the preserve of the Brits. Thriller writing is the logical extension of my natural instincts, honed no doubt by my time at Eastenders, where the cliffhanger rules supreme. Cue the drums…

So I’m a latecomer to writing novels and needless to say it’s been a steep learning curve. When you’re writing for TV, it’s very much a communal affair and whilst the participation of directors, actors, execs, editors can be frustrating on occasion, there is no question that the writing process is a team affair and that you are always supported. This is not really the case with novels where, notwithstanding the crucial contributions of your editor and agent, you are largely left to your own devices.

It’s been a fascinating journey for me. Every art form has its strengths and weaknesses and with each passing book I’ve learned a little more of the craft. And a little too perhaps about what distinguishes screenwriting from prose. One of the key differences, I think, is that when you’re writing screenplays, you have to think in pictures. I have a note pasted above my desk that reads “Words are the enemy.” It’s there to remind me that excessive dialogue kills a good screenplay. The real beauty of good cinema and TV is that it’s possible to communicate so much without using a single word – through a look, through the unspoken subtext, through a piece of action or sudden reveal.

Books don’t have this in quite the same way – books are made up of words after all – yet they possess other virtues, chiefly the extent to which a novelist is able to guide – should that be manipulate? – the reader. TV and film has a reality that is hard to avoid – you are “seeing” the story played out in front of you, so you know for example what your heroine and hero look like. Novels, by contrast, are created in the reader’s imagination, prompted by the words on the page. Nothing is real except what the reader pictures or imagines and this allows the novelist to tease and hint in a way that’s impossible with screen drama. At book launches and author signings, I often ask those attending what colour hair my lead character DI Helen Grace has. Invariably a third say blonde, a third say black and the rest say brunette – and each person is utterly convinced that they are right. What does this tell us about novels? Simply that the author is able to leave much more unsaid than in TV, allowing the reader to create alongside them.

This points us to another crucial difference between the novel and TV/film, namely that the latter is often a communal experience. Most people go to the cinema with a partner or friend and despite the advent of tablets, we still like to watch shows like the X Factor and Strictly en famille. Books by contrast are always a solo experience, a private communion between reader and author and all the more intense for it. This is the enduring power of books and the reason why we all still love turning the pages.